Will-he-or-won’t-he games are always tough to figure. The he, in this case, being quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. It goes without saying that Nebraska’s offensive attack will be significantly altered by his availability or lack thereof, but I’m not sure that’s the key to Nebraska ending its skid and beating Minnesota.
No, beating the Gophers is much the same task it has been in recent years: Nebraska has to play solid football. More solid than the Gophers because Minnesota is once again solid above anything else.
THE LINE: Vegas was in a holding pattern with Armstrong’s status up in the air, but the line eventually opened at Nebraska -8 and is now closer to -7. The Prediction Tracker average isn’t far off that at -6.8, but is shading a little more towards Minnesota.
THE RANKINGS: As expected, Nebraska took a tumble in most of the rankings and there’s not a lot to separate the Huskers and Gophers at this point. FEI only has the two teams separated by one spot, S&P+ by nine. Of the places putting a win probability on this game, the projections range from a 57.8-percent chance of a Nebraska win (FEI) to a 68.2 percent chance (FPI).
Here are six stats we’ll be watching closely on Saturday and the first three should feel pretty familiar for a game against Minnesota:
1. NU Line Limps Back to Something Close to Full Strength
Mike Riley did the best job of summing up the Huskers’ current run-game struggles on Monday when he said Nebraska needed to find “two identity runs that we can repeat better.” That’s the state of things at the moment. The Huskers would be happy to have two running plays they think would work, and I think Riley is talking about two runs he knows the offensive line can block consistently because that hasn’t happened of late.
The chart at right shows you Nebraska’s opportunity rate. It’s a Football Outsiders metric that we’ve talked about before, but it’s sort of a fuzzy concept. Essentially, it’s a measure of the percentage of runs that gain at least 5 yards and that’s the benchmark chosen because it’s what FO has determined constitutes the offensive line “doing its job.” Dispute the details if you want, but it’s doing a great job right now of illustrating the Huskers’ offensive struggles as the health of the offensive line has decreased and the strength of opponent has increased. Don’t take too much from that slight uptick at Ohio State. There were so few plays that didn’t qualify as garbage time, that it seems like an accident.
The good news for Nebraska is that the offensive line looks as healthy as it has been in recent weeks. Jerald Foster may play this week and Tanner Farmer is reportedly looking good. The Huskers will need it to play that way because Minnesota currently has the Big Ten’s third-best run defense based on yards per play. Nebraska needs to get the traditional run game working again. The Huskers’ season-long opportunity rate is 39.5 percent (72nd) according to Football Study Hall. If Armstrong is able to go, maybe Nebraska gets away with something in the 38 range. If it’s Ryker Fyfe taking snaps, you can probably bump that up to 40 and the Gophers come in allowing just 34.4 percent (23rd).
Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s Opportunity Rate (Number to hit: 38-40 percent)
2. Play Gopher Ball
Field-position discussions are rarely exciting because field-position numbers are hard to address. How do you “get” good field position? Well, it’s a combination of everything — offense, defense, special teams — and it’s worth mentioning here because Minnesota probably isn’t 7-2 without it. The Gophers’ average drive has started 64.8 yards from goal, which ranks second nationally.
Minnesota is a tough team to figure. On the one hand, it sort of dominated Penn State on the road, particularly on defense, but lost 29-26. Back home a week later, Minnesota played better than Iowa but lost an ugly game 14-7. Either of those could’ve been wins for the Gophers, but they also have strange one-score wins over Oregon State, Colorado State and Rutgers (all at home).
This isn’t the most explosive Gophers’ offense, so it definitely needs the field-position edge. In three of Minnesota’s last four games, it has had an average starting field position of its 39-yard line or better. That’s remarkably high and there are two other games this season when the Gophers were starting at the 38-yard line or better. Only three teams have made Minnesota’s offense go more than 70 yards on the average drive: Colorado State (a near home upset), Penn State (loss) and Iowa (loss).
Nebraska has been a good field position team this season. If it can maintain its defensive average (72.9 yards from goal) on Saturday, it’s pushing Minnesota into some uncomfortable territory.
Stat to Watch: Minnesota’s starting field position (Number to hit: 71)
3. Win the Early Downs
Minnesota running back Rodney Smith ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing and has been the Gophers’ workhorse of late, topping 100 yards in each of the last four games. As individually brilliant as he has been, however, Minnesota’s run game isn’t particularly explosive. Efficiency is the bigger key, which might present a better match up for Nebraska.
The Huskers defense has been prone to giving up the big gain on the ground this season, but it has still been pretty good at keeping teams off schedule with a 38.8-percent success rate against the run (38th). If Nebraska can hold Smith to about 4 yards per carry, it will be content to let the Gophers keep giving it to him and trying to come up with key stops when needed.
That has sort of been the model for the Blackshirts in 2016. Prior to last week’s debacle, Nebraska was ranked in the top 25 in third-down defense. Minnesota is merely average there (40.7 percent, 56th), so its a match up Nebraska could feel good about. But it has to get there, and that likely means holding Minnesota under 41 percent success on rushing plays.
Stat to Watch: Minnesota’s rushing success rate (Number to hit: 41%)
3 More to Monitor
TURNOVERS: Both teams have been fortunate when it comes to turnovers this season, but Nebraska has been a little bit luckier. The Gophers’ expected turnover margin this season is just under +6 according to Football Study Hall but it’s actually sitting at +12. Nebraska has totally flipped its expectation of -4 into a +4. Keep a close eye on that. The numbers are saying both teams are due to regress a bit, but that can’t happen in the same game, so which one wins? Have to give a slight edge to the Gophers because at least its expected turnover margin is positive.
DEEP PASSES: This isn’t the Minnesota pass defense of a year ago, but it’s still holding up pretty well. In 2015 the Gophers gave up an average of 10.28 yards per catch, this year its up to 11.38. Nebraska should be poised to challenge that. Last season in Minneapolis, the Huskers averaged 14.5 yards per catch, the Gophers second-highest total of the season behind Ohio State. We’ll see if offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has the same magic this year. The Huskers might particularly need some deep balls if it’s Fyfe behind center.
LEIDNER’S RUSHING YARDS: Over the past three seasons, Lediner’s rushing attempts don’t really vary much between wins and losses. What does is his rushing yards. The senior is capable enough to hurt you with his legs if a defense loses track of him, but he’s also put up some really ugly ground games, too (6 yards against Penn State, 1 yard against Iowa). Nebraska held him to -1 yard on eight carries last year (sacks included). Something similar on Saturday would leave the Huskers in a pretty good spot.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.