These two programs are suddenly beginning to look very much like each other in a couple of ways. Most notably is that both teams will come into this game having already lost more games than a year ago and with identical 4-5 overall records. Whichever team wins this game will be in much better shape for a potential postseason invitation.
But these two programs also find themselves in very similar situations: these two grain belters are the only FBS teams in their respective states and they both find themselves as middle-of-the-road programs in the Big Ten. Yes, sad as it may be for Cornhusker fans, the state of the Big Red has dipped below contending status. Both programs have a good season or two every once in a while, eight or nine wins, and then they’ll suffer a losing year here and there. That’s where things are now.
The other thing that both programs have in common? Both of their fan bases would love to have Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck as their head coach.
Nebraska at Minnesota
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Minnesota -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Play calling
Okay look, I don’t get paid millions of dollars to coach Nebraska football, but some of last week’s play calling vs. Northwestern was beyond a head-scratcher. With a 24-17 lead late in the fourth quarter and a first down at the Wildcat 19-yard line, the Cornhuskers eschewed the running game, which at worse would’ve set up a field goal to go up by 10 and run the clock down. Instead, Tanner Lee throws an interception near the goal line and Northwestern drives down to score the game-tying touchdown before winning in OT. That’s just a microcosm of their problems in CornTown. If head coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf don’t string together more sane play calling, dropping to 4-6 is a near certainty, regardless if this was Minnesota or an eight-man football team from some farm town.
The word “pressure” takes on many meanings here in this matchup. For Minnesota, the under-sized but very active front seven on defense will strive to find the weak points and expose the leaks in Nebraska’s offensive line. If the Gophers can push through the Swiss cheese front of the Big Red and get in the grill of Lee, it could cause plenty of poor decisions and turnovers. For Minnesota, sophomore QB Demry Croft (above, right) has proven to have eyes in the back of his head and has done a decent job of ripping off effective runs when the pressure collapses the pocket. He will need to get the passing game cranked up after last week’s 5-for-12, 74-yard performance left the Golden Boys at 13th in the Big Ten in passing. (By the way, Nebraska is 13th in passing defense, so there you go). Also the Gophers’ dangerous wide receiver, Tyler Johnson, was held to one catch last week. C’mon coaching staff, unleash him here.
3. Hope for the run game
While Minnesota needs to open up the pass, Nebraska needs to grind it out on the ground. I spent last week chastising Nebraska’s running game in the preview for the Northwestern game. Well things got (a little) better after Devine Ozigbo ran for 72 yards and had a handful of effective carries. Even though NU doesn’t have the O-line that Michigan does, the Wolverines piled up 371 rushing yards vs. these Gophers with Karan Higdon and Chris Evans going for 200 and 191 respectively. Sure, they won’t go all Rozier on the Gophers, but if the Cornhuskers can establish the run, even modestly, it should open up the passing game and make their offense more viable than it’s been.
It’s no secret that Mike Riley’s job is on the line. Or maybe it is already doomed. But as mentioned above, Nebraska is 4-5 and will be underdogs vs. Penn State and Iowa after this one. If there is any hope for a 6-6 mark and potential bowl berth, it has to start here. The Gophers will have more winnable matchups with Northwestern and Wisconsin. This game could be a springboard to a really hot finish and leave a positive light shining on the inaugural season under P.J. Fleck.
Games between even teams aren’t usually won by the offenses or the defenses. Most of the time it’s the little things. Which makes it important to note that the Gophers are fourth in the Big Ten in turnover margin, while the Huskers are 13th and the Gophers are also the least penalized team in the conference (33 in 10 games) and the Huskers are ninth (59 total). The way things are trending, put your money on the land of 10,000 lakes.
Prediction: Minnesota 31, Nebraska 21
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.