Two teams with disappointing starts to their respective seasons square off in a key B1G West battle.
This was supposed to be a battle for divisional supremacy. Heading into the season, many pundits (myself included) had either Nebraska or Minnesota coming out on top in the Big Ten West. Nebraska had a new coach who was installing both a new system and mindset, hoping to get the most out of what some thought was the most talented roster in the division. Minnesota was going to ride the momentum of the last couple of seasons as well as what was thought to be an elite defense to national relevancy, perhaps even a conference title.
Somewhere along the way, both plans that appeared to look so good on paper were derailed for a variety of reasons. Minnesota and Nebraska are no longer focusing on winning the division at this point. Neither team is eliminated, but saving the season has become the priority for both programs — and that starts in with this game.
The Gophers hold a two-game winning streak over Nebraska, and that's not sitting well with Husker Nation.
College Football Podcast: Week 7 Preview
Nebraska at Minnesota
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Minnesota -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Nebraska's defensive line vs. Minnesota's offensive line
Nebraska defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are two of the best in the Big Ten when healthy. They'll be looking to shred a Minnesota offensive line that has had some issues all season — allowing over 1.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for a loss per contest. If the Gophers can't keep Nebraska's defensive line out of the backfield, Minnesota's newfound playmaker Shannon Brooks will be kept in check.
2. The use of Andy Janovich
The Husker fullback broke loose for what should have been a game-winning 55-yard touchdown run last weekend against Wisconsin. It was one of only three carries on the day for Janovich. His 19 carries for 170 yards are far and away the most impressive numbers posted by any Husker running back this season. If Mike Riley and the Husker staff can accept the fact that Janovich is their most productive ball carrier, it will go a long way in figuring out their woes at the position. Giving him 10-15 carries and controlling the tempo from wire-to-wire might be Nebraska's best option in this one. That would also open up the play-action for Tommy Armstrong Jr. and allow him to do the same type of damage with his legs that we saw Trevone Boykin do to the Gophers earlier this season.
3. Can Nebraska finish?
All four of the Huskers' losses have come on their opponent's final play — either in overtime or regulation. A running joke in Nebraska is that the team would be fine if the games only lasted 59 minutes. The Huskers have weapons on offense. They have the ability to do more damage to Minnesota's defense than the Gophers can do in return. The key will be whether or not Nebraska can get that game-clinching first down or make that defensive stop necessary to seal the deal.
There are quite simply no more expectations for Nebraska in 2015. Fans are walking away from their televisions or flat out not watching the games, hoping instead for better days down the road. For the first time since Mike Riley arrived in Lincoln, the pressure is off — and that might be a good thing. Look for the Huskers to lean on Armstrong and Janovich in the running game to put together a couple of long scoring drives in the first half, jumping out to a lead at halftime. Once that happens, the much-maligned Blackshirt defense will be able to pin their ears back in the second half and go after a quarterback who hasn't proved he can lead his team to a come-from-behind win. I see Nebraska reverting back to a run-heavy attack with a few short passes — only when necessary — mixed in to control this contest from start to finish, ending their drought against the Gophers and putting the Huskers back in the race for the Big Ten West division.
Prediction: Nebraska 24, Minnesota, 16
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Scott is the editor-in-chief of KnowItAllFootball.com, a Big Ten site for Big Ten fans. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.