Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Weather-Permitting, Saturday Could Be All About the Wideouts

October 09, 2019

A 5-0 Minnesota team awaits Nebraska on Saturday. One offense that was supposed to be really good will meet one offense that, through five games, has been really good on the strength of Tanner Morgan’s arm. 

“It’s probably going to take more than 13 points this week,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters said, in reference to the Husker point total last weekend against Northwestern.

The Gophers are at nearly 36 per and rank 19th in the country in points per play. 

There’s snow and near-freezing temps in the forecast for Saturday, which may ultimately stunt what could very well become a shootout, but Nebraska isn’t taking the Minnesota approach in terms of prep. The Gophers are submerging quarterback heads in buckets of ice water before throwing, per the Star Tribune, to prep for the cold. Nebraska says it will spend extra time in the ice tubs. It’s hard to prepare for snow when your practice field is a cool 50 degrees. Plus, Nebraska’s already won a game on a white playing surface before.

There’s a package in place in case Nebraska has to abandon the passing game, though it’d be a shame if that becomes reality. This could low-key become a fascinating dual of receiver rooms. 

In one corner, you have a Minnesota trio of wideouts as good as any in football. In a lot of instances, you’re only as good as your third wideout. Minnesota’s — sophomore Chris Autman-Bell — has 220 yards and three touchdowns. He’s averaging 20 yards a catch. 

If you classify freshman Wan’Dale Robinson as Nebraska’s No. 2 receiver (fair), Nebraska’s No. 3 has 74 yards on seven catches in six games.

The first and second options for Morgan, a sophomore with a 70% completion clip, 13 touchdowns and only three picks, are deep-ball-extrodinaire Rashad Bateman (537 yards, 23.4 a catch) and all-conference senior Tyler Johnson (350 yards and five scores).

“For Minnesota, No. 6 [Johnson] and 13 [Bateman] are real good receivers,” inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “Six is an all-around possession type, can adjust to the ball and make those hard, tough catches. No. 13 is their vertical threat, very fast, when he gets the ball it’s the YAC yards that matter with him. No. 7 [Autman-Bell] can make some possession catches, he likes to slide. Most of the time when he catches the ball — seen the last two games — he always does that little slide thing when he catches the ball.”

Johnson is 6-foot-2, 205 pounds. Bateman is 6-foot-2 as well. Autman-Bell is 6-foot-1, 215. Maybe this game will call for sophomore Cam Taylor-Britt in coverage more. Or redshirt freshman Braxton Clark, a 6-foot-4 corner who got some early work against Northwestern and showed some flashes of a physical, unabashed hitter. Lamar Jackson will need to have one of his best games in coverage, because Nebraska’s best cover guy, junior Dicaprio Bootle, is going to be at a disadvantage in the size department. 

Bootle’s listed at 5-foot-10.

“Good thing is I move really well with speed and laterally, too,” he said. “Some big guys love when you touch them because they want you to touch them and they want to be able to use their body. Other big guys, they don’t love when you touch them, so it’s not even so much about them just being a big guy. It’s about the way you play being a big guy. I just try to feed off that.”

Eye discipline will be big here. 

“Those are great guys,” Bootle said. “That’s a really strong receiving group. You’ve got to be really serious and really dialed in this week because if you’re not on point, they’ll make you pay for it.”

They will. Minnesota’s explosive play rate on passes this season is 26.8%. The national average is at 16.4%.

In the other corner, Nebraska is . . . on the other end of the spectrum.

Nebraska’s explosive play percentage on passes is at 19.3%. Which is pretty good, but who is Nebraska’s third receiver at the moment? If you don’t consider Robinson Nebraska’s second option at wideout (fair), then who is that guy? 

JD Spielman leads all pass-catchers this season with 21 catches for 410 yards. The scores aren’t there, as Adrian Martinez has only thrown seven, but Spielman is at a more-than-healthy 19.5 yards per reception.

Robinson has 25 catches for 326 yards. So he’s reliable, but he’s not breaking off huge chunks of yardage at a time. And the hits that accompany that style of play are starting to add up for the 5-foot-10 first-year man.

The next two are running back Maurice Washington (questions as to how involved/effective he’ll be after a no-show performance against Northwestern) and tight end Jack Stoll.

No matter how much Nebraska talks about getting tight ends more involved in the passing game, it hasn’t seemed to fully materialize on the field yet, whether because of quarterback chemistry or situation. The remaining receivers with targets:

  • Kanawai Noa: seven catches, 74 yards, 22 targets
  • Mike Williams: three catches, 51 yards, six targets
  • Jaevon McQuitty: two catches, 14 yards, three targets
  • Darien Chase: one catch, nine yards, one target

And Spielman is dealing with an injury that forced him to leave the Northwestern game. 

“This week a lot of receivers got reps,” Walters said. “Darien Chase got reps, Jaron Woodyard got a bunch of reps with the ones, Mike’s still getting reps. Kade Warner, it seems like he’s healthy, so he’s getting reps. All hands on deck. We’ve got to play guys that are healthy and those guys have had good practices, so we’ll go with whoever’s healthy.”

Nebraska has been waiting on Warner all season. The sophomore walk-on made his debut against Ohio State two weeks ago after recovering from a fractured foot, but he has yet to make an impact. He played that entire 17-play drive at the end and didn’t see a throw. Still, anytime anyone talks about Warner, they have positive things to say. 

“He knows the offense, he’s reliable, he’s dependable,” Walters said. “Over the summer, the quarterbacks really fell in love with just how he runs routes. He’s consistent. They know he’s going to be where he’s supposed to be. It just gives the quarterback a security blanket out there.”

The chemistry thing is big there, because Martinez doesn’t seem to have a ton of that with guys not named Wan’Dale or JD. One of the guys he does have chemistry with — Noa, the grad transfer from Cal — he seems to be losing trust in. Which is odd. The coaches love him.

“I can’t say enough about [Noa],” Frost said. “He’s a great player and a great person. He’s tough and practices his butt off. I’m really surprised that the game hasn’t given him more opportunities to make plays, but the way he’s practicing, sooner or later he’s going to break out. We’ll keep doing what we can to get him in there.” 

Nebraska says it has confidence in Noah Vedral running the full, unabridged show if he’s the guy who has to line up at quarterback. Vedral, a third-year sophomore, said Monday morning he prides himself on being a quick decision-maker with the football. 

“It’s not going to look pretty every time, but you've got to take a picture of it when the ball is snapped, and you’ve got to live with it,” he said. “If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Don’t make a bad play worse.”

Reading the room, it sounds like only snow would impact Nebraska’s desire to throw the football. That means wideouts will need to be on their game. Yes, Nebraska’s having protection issues, but passing lulls fall at the feet of the wideouts as well. Walters said a week ago there’s been too much dancing at the line of scrimmage and not enough getting into their routes. 

That can’t happen. 

Minnesota’s receivers will already be 15 yards downfield. 

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