Minnesota Football Stadium
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

A Return Trip to Minnesota Gives the Huskers a Chance to Exorcise Some Demons

July 21, 2021

Nebraska is only weeks away from opening fall camp for the new year, and as the clock ticks closer to the 2021 season, we’re giving brief looks at each opponent on the schedule for the Huskers. Already covered: IllinoisBuffaloOklahoma, Michigan State, Northwestern, and Michigan. Minnesota is up next.

The Boring Info

Time: The Oct. 16 kickoff in Minneapolis doesn’t have a time or TV designation yet. The schedule for week seven is relatively light, though, particularly in the Big Ten. Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan all have the week off, and the only other potentially interesting matchup is Michigan State-Indiana. Nebraska could find a nice spot for this game.

Line: No line from Vegas yet. FPI gives the Huskers a 39.6% chance to win. The SP+ line is almost literally a toss-up, with the Huskers given a 0.4-point edge in Bill Connelly’s system. In the preseason rankings, the Huskers are No. 30 and Minnesota No. 31.

Record: The Gophers went 3-4 last season. They opened the year with a 49-24 loss to Michigan and a 45-44 overtime loss to Maryland, then beat Illinois on the road 41-14 before a 35-7 loss to Iowa. A 34-31 win over Purdue preceded a two-week layoff due to COVID problems within the program. Minnesota ended the year with a 24-17 win over the Huskers and a 20-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin. 

Series history: The Gophers own the all-time series lead 34-25-2. They’ve beaten Nebraska in five of the last eight meetings, though the series is tied at five games a piece since the Huskers joined the Big Ten. 

What This One Means

Despite Nebraska’s insistence it belongs in a tier of program above Minnesota, this is one of the Big Ten’s budding hate-fests. The two fanbases don’t care for the other, or the other’s coach. The games of late have been contentious, and spawned some of the great (objectively) Scott Frost moments of the last four years. The backgrounds of Frost and PJ Fleck are more alike than not. 

And because these Huskers haven’t reached Wisconsin’s orbit yet, the tier with Minnesota and Iowa in the West is where they’re currently trying to break out of (if they’re even in it yet). Nebraska’s next step is beating this kind of team. 

And, to be fair, there’s plenty of bulletin board material for this return trip to TCF Bank Stadium. 

Nebraska chaffed at Minnesota’s cold-weather prep in 2019, when Fleck had the practice field blasted by fans, the team doused with frigid water before they took the field, and the hands of his quarterbacks and receivers submerged in ice buckets in-between drills. 

When the hitting started on a frigid Saturday night, though, only one team was ready for it. “We got pushed around on both sides of the ball,” said Frost after a 34-7 loss. Minnesota did what it wanted. Quarterback Tanner Morgan only threw 13 passes and the Gophers ran up 450 yards of offense. Third down was a breeze. No one turned the ball over. Rodney Smith ran for 139 yards on 18 carries. Shannon Brooks ran for 99 on 13. Mo Ibrahim ran for 84 and three scores on 15. 

Minnesota killed Nebraska with a play Nebraska said it knew was coming. Frost said they prepared for “three or four” run concepts the Gophers would use over and over. Minnesota’s plan was simple: stretch zone, wait for Nebraska to misfit, hit the hole. Over and over.

“Defensively at times we made plays but their backs would run through holes at full speed and ours sometimes did and sometimes didn’t,” Frost said. “Their receivers went and blocked second-level guys, ours sometimes did and sometimes didn’t. Their guys stayed on blocks, ours sometimes did and sometimes didn’t. At the end of the day, if you can rely on a run game, you’re going to put your team in good spots and everything else in your offense works.”

A year later, in Lincoln, Nebraska let Minnesota again dictate the terms of engagement, instead of leaning on a Gopher weakness—a truly ghastly run defense. 

Nebraska should feel like that game was there for the taking and they let it get away on their own. But the 2019 meeting, that one should still burn. That one was about more than just letting a game “get away,” it was dangerously akin to the 2017 Minnesota trip. Nebraska can’t afford another boat-racing in Minny. 

And yet this upcoming year’s iteration of the Gophers will try to do exactly what it did before. 

Four of the Gophers’ seven games were decided by a score or less. Two of the four losses came in overtime. It likely doesn’t take much convincing for that locker room to believe the 3-4 record wasn’t indicative of the talent. And they return Morgan at quarterback, Ibrahim at running back, stud linemen Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalele, and Chris Autman-Bell, another big-play threat at wideout.

So much of the defense is back, but that was the achilles heel last season. The Gophers ranked 123rd in defensive success rate and 124th in rushing yards per carry allowed (adjusted for sacks). The pass defense was a little better, but perhaps some of that had to do with teams (Nebraska excluded) choosing to limit the exposure more in that phase of the game.  

There are offensive questions, mainly centered around Morgan’s play, but the determining factor for the Gophers in 2021 is the defense. Which means Minnesota will likely try to lean on its workhorse tailback, Ibrahim, and shorten the game. Keep Morgan, who has proven himself a deadly quarterback, in plus situations and limit your defense’s responsibilities. 

If it works, it makes for a long day for your opponent, the kind where you huddle on the sideline, hood up, head down.

The Guy to Know

Boye Mafe was the breakout man in 2020. The defensive end had 27 tackles in six games to go with 5.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, two pass break-ups, and two forced fumbles. He’s athletic off the edge, standing 6-foot-4, 265 pounds, with a huge vertical and burst, but to this point his success has largely been thanks to his God-given ability. Some refinement could vault him from honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2020 to something a little more eye-catching in 2021. Lots of strong edge rushers in the Big Ten. . . some things never change.

The Number to Know

Outside of Mafe, though, there wasn’t much of much. The Gophers ranked 122nd nationally in defensive havoc rate (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defended) and as a result put opposing offenses in passing downs at one of the lowest rates in football. They were pretty good on passing downs (29.1% success rate allowed, 33rd nationally), but that’s playing with fire. Only Maryland and Michigan produced fewer turnovers in the conference last season. Minnesota needs to make things easier on itself, and finding someone or someones who can complement Mafe would go a way towards helping that. 

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