“They’re very sound,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Troy Walters said when asked to assess Minnesota’s defense this week. “It seems like every week I repeat that they’re stout up front.”
Welcome to life in the Big Ten. Scott Frost caught everyone’s attention last December when he said he hoped his new conference “would have to adjust to us.” Based on the Huskers’ yardage totals on offense, you could argue there has been the promised adjustment period for opposing defenses.
Based on the win total and score lines of a couple of key games, you could argue there’s been one for Nebraska, too. The Huskers’ two biggest losses came to teams I would describe as “classically Big Ten.” Yes, we’re trafficking in stereotypes here a bit, but the Big Ten blueprint –– under center, hand-off run game, play-action passing attack paired with a tough as nails defense –– still works at places like Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.
The Wolverines are the best version of it right now, maybe in the country let alone the Big Ten, and smashed Nebraska 56-10. Wisconsin still has the blueprint on offense, though its defense is lagging from the high standard set in recent seasons. That resulted in a lot of yards for the Huskers, but still a 17-point loss.
Consider 2018 Minnesota the junior version of those teams. The Gophers aren’t anywhere near as talented as Michigan, nor as efficient or explosive on offense as Wisconsin. But they are doing their best to be classically Big Ten, which should make for a pretty intriguing Saturday in Lincoln.
Minnesota is so by-the-Big-Ten-book that you sort of have to marvel at it. On offense the Gophers run the ball 73.9 percent of the time when they’re on schedule or ahead of the chains (standard downs). That ranks 11th nationally. When they’re behind the chains (passing downs), they run it just 28.6 percent. That ranks 92nd nationally.
Not a ton of mystery there, and it should make the challenge facing Nebraska’s defense at least easy to identify –– keep Minnesota off schedule. The Huskers were strong in this area over the first two games holding Colorado and Troy to success rates in the 30s. Since then, however, Nebraska had dropped to 78th in defensive success rate, allowing teams to stay on schedule 41.7 percent of the time.
Defensively the Gophers might be even more Big Ten-y. Minnesota isn’t stonewalling teams the way the best defenses in the conference do year in and year out, but it is capable of doing the thing classic Big Ten defenses do: make opposing offenses go station-to-station. The Gophers lean on a solid and veteran group of linebackers to do this (check another Big Ten box). Teams need more than two downs to get a first down against Minnesota more than just about any team in the country. Just 56.6 percent of the Gophers first downs allowed have come on first or second down, fifth nationally.
Is it sexy? Not really. Is it smart? Yes, and particularly so for a young team in Year 2 of a program overhaul under P.J. Fleck. Those are the kind of traits that should be replicable year to year. Or at least more replicable than some others.
Would Gopher fans rather be 5-1 with an explosive offense and high-havoc defense with a bunch of sacks and takeaways? (Two traits that can be somewhat volatile.) Probably. Being 5-1 is better than being 3-3 in every way.
But 2018 Minnesota, much like 2018 Nebraska, has had to learn to appreciate the blue-collar work of laying a foundation. Minnesota was slightly more efficient than Ohio State and Iowa the past two weeks. Didn’t result in a win either time but doing that consistently will win out over time.
The Gophers are ahead of Nebraska right now in that regard and they should be with a full season of Fleck under their belts. The Huskers are a little more dynamic, have a few better weapons on offense, but are a little bit worse at not self-imploding.
That had Walters’ attention this week, too.
“They don’t beat themselves,” he said. “They don’t have a lot of penalties. They’re going to make us beat them.”
Of course that has been the Huskers’ biggest challenge thus far in 2018. They haven’t passed that test yet.
In even matchups (Colorado, Troy, Purdue, Northwestern) Nebraska has been close. Against Big-Ten-blueprint teams, it hasn’t been.
So what do you get when Minnesota comes to town offering a mixture of both of those traits?
You get the perfect test at precisely the right time.