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Another One, By the Book

The Book itself doesn’t exist. Not as an actual object anyway, but if it did the pages would be starting to look a little dog-eared at this point. This book has been used often.

Minnesota used it to beat Nebraska for the first time in more than 50 years on Saturday.

The book I’m talking about is the one with the game plan for beating Nebraska. Major league pitchers have one on each batter they face and vice versa. Poker players write one on their fellow players with each check, raise, bluff and fold. Football coaches develop one on opposing football coaches, and Minnesota clearly consulted it this week.

The Book on Nebraska and Bo Pelini at this point doesn’t even seem to be very complicated. Sure, there’s some technical stuff in there, but the gist is this: Make the Huskers uncomfortable.

There are many ways to do this over the course of a football game, but the Gophers used perhaps the most effective and popular method of late – multiple formations, a good deal of motion, make Nebraska execute. Pit your certainty against the Huskers’ uncertainty because, for whatever reason, it’s still remarkably easy to create the latter and it still works astoundingly well.

“Bottom line is, right now, our guys struggle with some of the moving parts, the shifting,” coach Bo Pelini said. “Our need, a little bit, with this group to be simple at times hurts us. If someone’s just going to stay stagnant on you, it’s a little bit easier to pressure and do some things.

“When people are going to shift and move and your guys have to be able to adjust and do all those things, our guys struggle with that right now. Out of all the things, that’s probably what’s hurting us the most defensively right now. Our guys, they’re not at that point, they can’t figure that quite out.”

Limiting it to right now and attributing it to the Huskers’ youth probably isn’t totally accurate, however. Nebraska fans have seen their team struggle with this before.

“I think, as a coach, it doesn’t take a genius to see that they studied the Wisconsin championship game tape a ton,” secondary coach Terry Joseph said.

Minnesota didn’t quite go to the lengths the Badgers did during last year’s 70-31 drubbing in Indianapolis. Pelini said the Gophers used a “little bit more” motion than they had previously, but a little bit was plenty.

Minnesota, a good not great rushing team, created just enough confusion to average 5 yards per rush. That’s the most the Gophers have averaged in their last seven Big Ten games dating back to last year. Iowa held Minnesota to 1.11 yards per carry earlier this season.

And when you’re running the ball as well as Minnesota did, play action, another play based on deception, works even better. The Gophers completed just eight passes but those passes went for 9.4 yards a pop.

That’s not a new or exotic game plan. Run the ball well, setup play action passes, hit them for big gains, and don’t turn it over. It’s something of a Big Ten tradition, but Nebraska made it look new again on Saturday.

And it definitely looked new to them.

To be clear, Nebraska hasn’t lost every game of the past five-plus seasons this way. Sometimes the Huskers have just gotten beat. Sometimes they’ve beaten themselves.

But the Huskers’ successes over that span seem to back up The Book just as well. When has Nebraska played well in games that weren’t non-conference mismatches?

Pelini is 2-0 against Michigan State, where offensive complexity is an afterthought. Iowa and Penn State, two other teams yet to beat Nebraska, play things pretty straight as well. Georgia had a lot of things last year – great running backs, an NFL-ready quarterback, dynamic receivers – but they were pretty straight-forward in their offensive execution and, for three quarters at least, that was perhaps the Huskers’ best defensive performance of 2012.

When Nebraska is allowed to put the chess pieces where it wants them, it’s pretty tough to beat. But football isn’t chess. All of the pieces move and were seeing, pretty plainly, that teams that play that sort of game give Nebraska problems.

“They threw some things out that were a little bit different but it wasn’t mind-boggling,” Pelini said.

It wasn’t mind-boggling to the coaches, that is. On the field, the game told a different story.

Add it to The Book.