The Huskers hit the road for just the second time this season (and only the third game since Sept. 21) to face Minnesota. The Gophers, thanks to a surprising upset of Northwestern on the road last week, are one game away from bowl eligibility.
Can Minnesota get there against the Huskers? Is there a danger of an upset in what looks to be Nebraska’s most-winnable game left on the schedule?
Let’s take a closer look at the 5-2 Gophers.
Coming into the season, I didn’t expect much out of the Gophers. Not because I didn’t think they were a decent program that was getting better, but because it looked like conference wins were going to be hard to come by. It still looks that way. Minnesota will be underdogs the rest of the way and are getting 10 points at home this week. That said, the Gophers have already matched my preseason win total (five) and are probably ahead of the game again under Jerry Kill.
Based on Pythagorean Wins, Minnesota has been about .4 wins above the expected total in each of the Gophers’ two seasons under Kill. This year, in FBS games only, that’s right where Minnesota at again. Based on scoring offense and defense, Minnesota could be expected to have 3.6 FBS wins at this point. They have four, another four-tenths above water, which isn’t huge in the grand scheme of things but the consistency of that number seems to indicate that Kill maximizes his talent pretty well.
Of course, Kill won’t technically be coaching this week as he continues to receive treatment for epilepsy but he will reportedly be in the coaches’ box and it’s still his program. It’s not easy to overcome 50 years of losing football in Minneapolis and nobody’s saying Kill has done that yet, but he appears to be making progress.
The narrative this week has us setup for a slugfest in chilly late-October weather. Nebraska is still better at running the football than anything else, while Minnesota’s best trait is also its ability to grind it out on the ground. Both teams are also better at stopping the run than the pass, so we’ve got all the makings of a “battle of will.” Is that a true representation of this game?
Somewhat. Let’s have a look at the match-up based on yards per play.
Look at the Gophers on paper and they’re surprisingly impressive on both sides of the run game, 23rd nationally in yards per game (FBS only, as always) and 31st national in yards per game allowed. That’s usually a sign of a team that will be pretty competitive, but only one of those numbers is a totally fair representation of actual ability.
Defensively, Minnesota is giving up 4.02 yards per carry against opponents that have averaged 4.06 this season. That’s not exactly a slate full of great rushing teams, but the Gophers are at least (slightly) better than you’d expect. Minnesota’s rush defense is probably pretty legit.
But the rushing offense might be slightly inflated. Minnesota’s 4.75 yards per carry is good. Nearly 10-percent better than the national average in fact, but the Gophers have gotten there against a group of opponents allowing 5.03 yards per carry. They’ve underachieved, actually. Adjusted for that schedule, Minnesota’s yards per carry drops to around 4.5, which is much closer to average. That puts the quarterback situation in an interesting light. Freshman Mitch Leidner is the better runner but he was sick to start the week and, while he hasn’t been ruled out, I’d be surprised if sophomore Philip Nelson, a marginally better passer, didn’t shoulder most of the load on Saturday.
Apply the same schedule adjustments to Nebraska’s run game and you’ll find that the Huskers are probably even better than the stats suggest. Nebraska is averaging 5.35 yards per carry against opponents that have allowed 4.59. And that’s with less than half the rushing production from the quarterback position (33.16 yards/g this year, 72.64 last year) this season. Nebraska has earned its reputation as a running team, but that’s not totally surprising.
What is, at least to me, is the run defense. Nebraska is allowing just 3.92 yards per carry this season, which seems to be easily explained away by the schedule. It’s not a great group of rushing teams. The schools on the Huskers’ schedule are averaging just 4.23 yards per carry this season, but that still means Nebraska is more than seven percent ahead of expectations. Under my FBS-only rule, the Huskers do get a bump by removing South Dakota State’s 5.97 yards per carry from the ledger but even with that back in there, which bumps the average to 4.28 YPC, there are signs that the Huskers’ run defense might actually be decent. Not great or even very good, but decent.
As for the passing games, I don’t expect it to be a huge factor in this game so we’ll forego a totally in-depth breakdown to keep this thing under 2,000 words and just leave it at this: Nebraska likely has the athleticism edge on both pass defense and offense. For two teams who don’t throw it a lot, that’s a significant advantage.
HOW YOU’LL KNOW NEBRASKA’S IN GOOD SHAPE
Who’s starting at quarterback? Who knows, which is an interesting wrinkle to this game. In the previous two Big Ten match ups between these two schools, Nebraska’s outscored Minnesota 58-0 in the first half and generally looked dominant from the get-go. In 2012, it was Taylor Martinez starting the game by completing six consecutive passes that let you know the Huskers were ready to exert their will early. In 2011, it was Kenny Bell’s 82-yard reverse for a touchdown that said “this one’s over” not long after it started. Can the Huskers deliver a similarly early knockout punch while likely rotating quarterbacks? They certainly don’t have to this Saturday to win, but if it looks like Nebraska is, again, playing “downhill” early on Husker fans can feel reasonably comfortable.
WHEN TO WORRY
Minnesota leads the Big Ten in kicks/punts blocked (4), kickoff returns of 40-, 50-, and 60-plus yards, and opponent red zone conversion percentage (75%). Defensive back Marcus Jones has returned both a kickoff and punt for a touchdown this season. In short, the Gophers are good at doing the little things necessary to help their mostly average offense and defense win games. If they can get a couple of those “swing plays” on Saturday — and Nebraska’s been pretty good at playing games straight-up this season — it’s officially game on.
Nebraska hasn’t lost at Minnesota since 1954 (10 straight wins) and has won those games by an average of 28 points per game.
As I learned at a bar in Birmingham, Ala. a few weeks ago — it’s a long story — Minnesota is the only Divisions I (FBS) school to win three straight national titles. The Gophers won NCAA-recognized national championships in 1934, 1935 and 1936. Minnesota claims seven national titles, all won before 1960.
Bricks. They’re an important part of this current Minnesota uniform, introduced by Nike in January of 2012. In 1899, Minnesota built Greater Northrop Field and Alfred Pillsbury — yes, that Pillsbury — built a brick wall around the stadium, which, according to the University, made it unique among stadiums of the time. When Northrop Field was replaced by Memorial Stadium in 1924, the new stadium also had a beautiful brick motif so the Nike designers elected to make that a key part of the Gophers’ new uniforms. The numbers on the gold and white jerseys both have a faint brick pattern. The matte maroon helmets were also meant to resemble brick while the unique number font, in another nod to the past, was built around numbers from the jerseys worn by the 1940 national championship squad.
All in all, it makes for a very handsome look, home or away. The Gophers have three different jersey and pants to choose from — maroon, gold, white — though the gold pants, sadly, haven’t made an appearance yet this season. Maybe they will this Saturday, but I’m rooting for the maroon-gold-maroon look. It’s one of the Big Ten’s best.