The Gophers and Huskers square off in a key Big Ten West battle
Nebraska and Minnesota are two programs trending in very different directions at the moment. After a dream 7-0 start to the seasonm, the Cornhuskers have dropped back-to-back games on the road to top-10 opponents, the latest in blowout fashion. On top of that, Tommy Armstrong — Nebraska's quarterback and best player — is out indefinately.
On the other side of the field, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are riding a four-game winning streak during which they have scored more than 37 points per game. Additionally and unlike Nebraska, they control their own destiny in the Big Ten West. The Huskers need a win this weekend and help — including a likely win by Minnesota over Wisconsin to end the year — in order to punch a ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Minnesota at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: BTN
Spread: Nebraska -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Minnesota bringing heavy pressure on passing downs
No matter who the Huskers end up going with under center in place of their injured starting quarterback, he's going to be a pocket-passer with a fraction of Armstrong's mobility. You can bet that Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys will be focused on disrupting the Nebraska pocket without fear of a quarterback scramble doing much damage. If Nebraska's quarterback — likely Ryker Fyfe — can make quick decisions with the ball after the snap, he's likely to find open receivers on short routes all day. If the Gophers can cause him to second-guess anything and hesitate on passing downs, Nebraska is going to have a hard time moving the ball through the air.
2. Nebraska's run defense
The Huskers gave up 238 yards on the ground at 5.7 yards per carry against Ohio State last weekend. Two weeks ago, Wisconsin gashed the Blackshirt defense for huge gains at key points in the game via some counters and modified zone reads. I'm not sure Minnesota can consistently pouind the ball up and down the field against Nebraska, but the Gophers are more than capable of breaking big plays outof the backfield. Three backs have combined for 21 touchdown runs. All three have scoring runs of 37 yards or longer.
3. Can Minnesota do any damage against the Husker secondary?
Mitch Leidner hasn't throw a touchdown pass since Oct. 1. I just told you about Minnesota's running game and how it will probably garner most of Nebraska's attention on defense. That puts Leidner in a position where he'll need to move the ball through the air against — despite their performance last weekend — one of the more talented secondaries in the country to a man. Open receivers are likely to be few and far between for the Gophers. That doesn't bode well, as Minnesota is likely going to need to keep pace with — even without Tommy Armstrong — a very capable offense.
From what I've seen, a blowout loss is easier to recover from than a close game where you thought you had a chance to win. Look for a focused and motivated Nebraska team to take the field and attack the Gophers on both sides of the ball right from the start. Even with Ryker Fyfe under center, the Minnesota secondary is undermanned against one of the better receiving corps in the Big Ten. I like Fyfe to put his arm on display early, connecting on some deep balls that lead to things loosening up in Minnesota's front seven. This should go a long way in helping a Cornhusker running game that has struggled with consistency as of late. When the Gophers have the ball, I have a tough time seeing them moving the changes consistently, given that they are fairly one-dimensional and predictable. Nebraska's talented athletes on defense should be able to prevent Minnesota from finding its offensive rhythm.
Prediction: Nebraska 27, Minnesota 16
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.