What to watch out for in Nebraska’s football showdown with Minnesota | Sports
Make no mistake, this is the critical time for Nebraska football.
The Huskers are sitting on a precipice heading into Saturday’s game against Minnesota. The outcome of the game is instructive in deciding whether or not the Huskers will play their first bowl game in head coach Scott Frost’s tenure.
Additionally, the game against the Golden Gophers has proven to be important in Nebraska’s last few seasons of football under Frost.
This weekend’s battle shouldn’t be any different. Nebraska and Minnesota both have records of nearly 0.500, although the Huskers have played two more games than the Golden Gophers.
Saturday’s competition might be a little more urgent for Frost’s team, with Nebraska having just five games left in the regular season, but both teams would undoubtedly appreciate a crucial intra-conference victory.
Here’s what to watch out for as the Huskers look to improve their record to 3-4:
Minnesota mired in uncertainty
Head coach PJ Fleck’s fifth season in charge has been rather unpleasant, to say the least.
Minnesota began their season in a duel with Ohio State on September 2, holding a 14-10 halftime lead and taking a 21-17 lead early in the third quarter. The Minnesota defense, however, couldn’t keep up with the Buckeyes, with Ohio State pulling off several big plays en route to a 45-31 victory.
In that match, senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim, the Big Ten Running Back of the Year 2020, suffered a season-ending injury. Aside from a 30-0 shutout against Colorado on Sept. 18, the Golden Gophers have failed to impress since Ibrahim’s downfall. The Golden Gophers worked hard to beat Miami (Ohio) and Purdue, and lost to Bowling Green at home as a 31-point favorites.
Against Purdue, sophomore running back Trey Potts, who had been the Minnesota defenseman after Ibrahim’s injury, walked away with an undisclosed injury. Fleck announced on Monday that he too would miss the rest of the season due to illness.
Junior offensive lineman Curtis Dunlap on Tuesday Between the transfer portal. Dunlap had appeared in every game the Golden Gophers have played this season at guard.
The way Fleck adjusts to both absences is worth watching. Running back Mar’Keise Irving is expected to win the majority of races on Saturday as he is the most experienced in terms of number of races this season. Irving has 25 carries for 112 yards so far this season, and it’s interesting that he’s forced the team’s most missed tackles according to Pro Football Focus. His fellow freshman, running back Ky Thomas, scored a touchdown against Colorado and could be used as a pace change runner.
As for the offensive line, Dunlap has been used more as a reserve, but the Golden Gophers’ depth at post could be tested on Saturday. On top of all that, Minnesota senior quarterback Tanner Morgan once again posted disappointing stats after a 30 TD season in 2019.
The Golden Gophers are in a strange position at this point in their season, and if Fleck picks the right buttons, Minnesota are certainly a team capable of making some noise in their last seven games this season, this Saturday included.
How legitimate is the defense of Minnesota?
In Minnesota’s first two games of the season, the Golden Gophers allowed Ohio State and Miami (OH) 62 combined points.
Since then, Minnesota has allowed just 0, 14 and 13 points in straight weeks before a week off last weekend. This recent resurgence has propelled Minnesota to 28th nationally in total defense, and the unit is allowing just 77 rushing yards per game.
However, a closer look at the offenses the Golden Gophers hushed up paints a slightly different picture. Colorado, which Minnesota beat 30-0, ranks second to last nationally in total offense, a spot ahead of modest Vanderbilt and behind perennial FBS doormats like Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Bowling Green ranks No.119 out of 130 FBS teams in the metric, while Purdue ranks No.102. Miami (OH) ranks No.108, by the way, which means Minnesota has faced just one Top 100 offense. Ohio State ranks third in total attack – an extreme total compared to other units Minnesota has faced – but facing Nebraska should represent an improvement in the quality of Minnesota’s defense. .
Senior defensive linemen Boye Mafe and Thomas Rush, who have 8.5 sacks and 30 tackles this season, will have the opportunity to prove themselves in Minnesota’s second test against a quality offense this season.
Punting could be essential
Minnesota is ranked in the top half of the FBS in terms of field position margin heading into Saturday’s competition, which means Fleck’s team excel at putting their opponents in awkward situations to start practices.
It wasn’t any more obvious than in the Oct. 2 game against Purdue, in which second-year punter Mark Crawford played a big part in Minnesota’s 20-13 victory. He averaged 51.3 yards per punt against the Boilermakers, including two 60-yard efforts. Crawford pinned Purdue inside his own 15-yard line four times, and his performance earned him co-Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors.
In a game, bettors think it will be an end case, the position on the pitch could ultimately make a difference down the stretch. With the Nebraska special teams a little more volatile, the Golden Gophers are looking to hold an advantage in this department, which could prove to be important.
Adrian Martinez’s special season
Nebraska junior quarterback Adrian Martinez is about to have his best season in Nebraska, and it’s not particularly tight either.
Over the course of seven games, Martinez’s passing score is 162.4, which would crush his previous metrics record if he continued at this pace. His 1,754 passing yards could lead to a career-high yardage in a single season if he continued to his average clip of 251 passing yards per game.
Not only that, Martinez could join the elite company in the passing club in a single 3,000-yard season from the Huskers, which is an exclusive four-quarterback Husker of all time. Martinez’s intercept touchdown ratio is set to be a career best, as are his passing yards per attempt.
These stats underline how special Martinez has been under center and how confident he has become in Frost’s attack. He’s clearly more confident pushing the ball into the field and has the receiving body to back him up.
What’s more, Martinez is already past a career-high in rushing touchdowns – nine at his previous best-of-four – and also needs 192 rushing yards to pass his season high in rushing yards.
Martinez’s game has been well documented and discussed this season, but the scale of his impression will undoubtedly be a storyline as he nears the program’s personal best scores and career highs.
Such a season will be lost in history, of course, if Nebraska is unable to break out and reach a bowl game. That journey begins on Saturday, with Martinez now the catalyst for the Huskers’ fortunes.