This year’s tilt between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Minnesota Golden Gophers is (unofficially) for more than the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy. Both teams are on a skid, having lost 10 (dating back to last season) and three straight, respectively. Nebraska wants to get Scott Frost his first victory in Lincoln and Minnesota wants to show the world that giving Ohio State all it could handle was a warning, not a fluke.
The series is actually rather old, with the Gophers holding a 32-24-2 edge over Nebraska since 1900. Last year’s 54-21 Minnesota win arguably marked the public demise of the Mike Riley era at Nebraska.
P.J. Fleck is in his second year as the Gophers’ head coach with an 8-10 record. He managed a 5-7 inaugural season and it's not out of the realm of possibility for him to improve upon that in 2018. Will that include a win at the Huskers’ expense?
Minnesota at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 20 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Nebraska -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Carter Coughlin vs. Nebraska’s offensive tackles
The Huskers have a stud from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, in wide receiver JD Spielman, but the Gophers are bringing one of their own. Coughlin is tied for seventh in the nation in sacks with seven, including two last week against Ohio State. How does Minnesota flush Adrian Martinez out of the pocket and force him into mistakes? Stick Coughlin opposite right tackle Matt Farniok, an interior lineman playing an exterior position.
On the flip side, Nebraska could use guard Boe Wilson or tight end Jack Stoll to help nullify Coughlin while giving Stanley Morgan Jr., Spielman and Kade Warner a chance to break free. However, the Gophers can afford to be aggressive with Coughlin considering they have done well (28th nationally) against the run.
2. Zack Annexstad vs. Nebraska’s linebackers
While Annexstad’s stat line versus Ohio State wasn’t overly impressive (13-of-23 for 218 yards and two INTs), it's the part of his passing game that was successful that’s cause for concern. Eleven of his completed passes were for 15-plus yards on an Ohio State defense littered with talent. Worse yet, most came on run-pass option slant routes.
Why should that concern Nebraska? While inside linebacker Luke Gifford is a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of player, neither he nor Dedrick Young should be looked to for constant, reliable coverage on slants. Some say football is a game of inches. When it comes to Nebraska’s back seven, it becomes a game of physics. If an offense can yank the Huskers’ cornerbacks and most interior linebackers to one side, they rarely recover in time.
Look for defensive coordinator Erik Chinander to dial up several formations to help alleviate that pressure. If he can’t, Minnesota receiver Tyler Johnson may pick up where Northwestern’s Flynn Nagel (12 rec., 220 yards, 2 TDs last week vs. Nebraska) left off.
3. Nebraska’s kicking game
Where to start? When you have a scholarship kicker that can’t convert PATs, let alone field goals, you find yourself in a tight spot. If Barrett Pickering is truly the best Nebraska has, going for it on fourth down when other teams would gladly trot their kickers out for an easy three seems like the logical new normal. The problem there is that the Huskers have converted one all season. They’re literally the worst team in the country (129th out of 129 FBS teams) on fourth down.
When it’s time to make the call, Frost may just have to bite the bullet, roll the dice with Pickering and cross his fingers. Outside of Caleb Lightbourn getting thrown into the mix — and if he hasn’t been by now, there’s no reason to think he will be — the Big Red’s kicking game is officially a crap shoot.
After all of this, you’re probably asking yourself why Nebraska’s the favorite in this game. An educated guess is that it appears to be similar to last week’s matchup, only in Lincoln. While Zack Annexstad isn’t Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson, he has an equally good wide receiver target (Tyler Johnson vs. the Wildcats' Flynn Nagel) and an actual threat at running back in Mohamed Ibrahim, who tallied 157 yards on 28 carries and two touchdowns versus Ohio State.
First, substitute Ibrahim’s effectiveness as a running back this week for Thorson’s as a quarterback last week. Then note that much like Northwestern, if a team can hang with Minnesota through the first half (especially the second quarter), it has a chance to put the Gophers away in the early in the third quarter. Nebraska may have an easier time out of the gate, though. While the Wildcats are offensively efficient through the entire first half, Minnesota struggles mightily in the first quarter before being extremely effective in the second.
In the Gophers’ last three games — all losses — they trailed at the half by an average margin of 22-11. In the second half, they were outscored by an average of 18-6. Nebraska must avoid a repeat of last week where they came out firing on all cylinders, punching in a score after four plays followed by five scoreless drives.
The possibility is there for Nebraska to get its first win of the season yet again, but like last week, the Huskers could just as easily give the game away. Until they prove they can play a full 60 minutes of football, it’s hard to give them a pregame nod against an FBS crew.
Prediction: Minnesota 33, Nebraska 29
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces) plus keep up with tat-filled features on his Patreon page.