The Nebraska football team’s next stop has arrived. Minnesota, a consistent thorn in the Huskers’ side, comes to Lincoln for an 11 a.m. kickoff on Saturday. The Gophers are 4-1 against Nebraska in their last five meetings including 7-point losses in the last two games.
Minnesota’s hot start to the season earned the Gophers a top-25 ranking but three consecutive losses knocked them out of the conversation. They got back in the win column with a 31-0 victory over Rutgers last week.
“They are the next stop sign,” Nebraska edge Garrett Nelson said on Tuesday. “We know our job and what we need to do. It’s going to be sick to go beat them. Like I said, just control the things we can control.”
Minnesota is physical and senior-heavy. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim anchors the running game with 955 yards and 13 touchdowns. He scored two touchdowns with 108 yards on 20 carries against Nebraska last year. Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan is back in the lineup after missing the Penn State game on September 22 in concussion protocol. Morgan was 14-of-21 against Rutgers last week and 20-of-24 with two touchdowns and two interceptions against Nebraska last season.
The Gophers are different than Illinois in terms of offensive scheme but similar in personnel and execution. They use their physicality to push forward and keep the down-and-distances manageable. That’s something Nebraska’s defense wants to target.
“Getting those guys behind the sticks and having no gains or negative gain in the first and second downs and messing up their scheme and tempo on offense,” Nelson said. “That’s our job up front to stop a really good running back. Get him behind the sticks and get him to throw the ball.”
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Morgan is a game-managing quarterback who makes the manageable play. Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck said on Monday that they hesitate going vertical because those plays have ended in interceptions in their losses.
“We’ve put ourselves in really bad positions over what the data shows and the proof shows when we have gone down the field vertically,” Fleck said during his weekly press conference. “That’s when we’ve actually thrown our most interceptions right now.”
That’s partially why Minnesota relies on running the ball to stay in front of the sticks. Nebraska defensive coordinator Bill Busch called Ibrahim a “monster of a back” during the week. Busch mentioned Minnesota does less with moving offensive linemen around than last season but has still shown those capabilities. Minnesota has started the same five offensive linemen in every game this season.
“When you go through the tape there’s just not third-and-longs and they do a good job of managing that,” Busch said. “You have to earn the right to try and get them to throw the ball.”
One of Minnesota’s most dominant traits is its absence. The Gophers limit opponents to 56.5 plays per game, the third fewest in the nation. They rank 12th in stop rate, holding opponents scoreless on 74% of 73 defensive drives this season. Opponents average 1.44 points per drive against the Gophers.
Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howard anchor the Minnesota secondary. Nubin has three interceptions and 35 tackles this year while Howard adds two interceptions and 32 tackles. Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi complimented Nubin’s game the last few weeks. He pointed out Nebraska’s ability to spring explosive plays and how limiting those is a top priority.
“Good tacklers. Decent corners,” Nebraska receiver Alante Brown said of Minnesota. “It is a good match up for us and a good opportunity for us to show once again, the receiver group, to have a good matchup with a good defensive group.”
Of course, Minnesota also has strength in the middle. Mariano Sori-Marin leads the defense by a wide margin with 59 tackles. He’s received the reassurance from five arrivals from the transfer portal, including defensive linemen Kyler Baugh and Darnell Jefferies. Baugh played at Houston Baptist while Jefferies played four seasons at Clemson.
“They’ve got a lot of experience,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple said. “They’re big, they’re strong, they’re physical and play that same way. I don’t know how long PJ (Fleck)’s been there, four or five years, but they’ve played that same way. Structurally, they do a really good job and are really sound.”
Matthew Trickett is 8-of-9 kicking field goals this season. He missed within 30 yards against Purdue but has converted from as far as 46 this season.
Mark Crawford punts for Minnesota and is ranked 12th in the conference with a 41.1-yard average. Nine of his 22 punts were fair caught, seven went inside the 20 and just three went for touchbacks. He’s booted four beyond 50 yards with a long of 53 this season.
Minnesota’s return game has been modest beside’s Quinten Redding’s 92-yard return against Illinois three weeks ago.