Game Day: Nebraska vs. Minnesota

Well-grounded Gophers

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill’s gritty group can trip up teams with more talent. So the Gophers keep burrowing away, and Saturday they enter Memorial Stadium for an 11 a.m. kickoff with Nebraska — with their West Division destiny under their control.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Minnesota rush defense

If there's one weakness the Gophers would appear to have on the defensive side, it would be a penchant to give up big runs if their talented trio of linebackers can't make a play. Minnesota's smallish defensive line should have trouble with an inconsistent-but-occasionally-strong Husker offensive line. Ameer Abdullah is healthy enough to play, and he made a few nifty plays against Wisconsin when he had the room. NU needs more out of quarterback Tommy Armstrong in the run game.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Minnesota pass defense

The Gophers boast one of the best pass defenses in the Big Ten, and should against use a man-to-man style against Nebraska, daring the Huskers to hit big plays or perfectly execute screen passes. Minnesota's secondary, which includes Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Cedric Thompson, should match up well against Nebraska's wide receivers. Armstrong has struggled mightily in the throwing game, so look for offensive coordinator Tim Beck to give him some early rhythm throws to boost his confidence.

Minnesota rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Gophers only average 4.77 yards per carry — which ranks 39th nationally — but they are dogged in their pursuit of the running game. They'll pound and pound, specifically with running back David Cobb and quarterback Mitch Leidner. Nebraska's run defense had actually held up well this year — until Wisconsin, where the Huskers gave up 581 rushing yards and 408 to Melvin Gordon alone. Will that NU defense show up in Lincoln? Don't bet on it. But running is what Minnesota does.

Minnesota pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Gophers run to set up the playaction pass, but let's not kid ourselves: Leidner is no Joe Montana, or Rickey Foggie for that matter. As big as Minnesota's wideouts are, and as good as tight end Maxx Williams is, Nebraska still has the kind of pass defense that frustrates most excellent quarterbacks, much less a throwing running back like Leidner.

Special teams

Nebraska has made more strides in special teams this year than any other unit, and it shows in a consistent victory in the battle for field position. That said, Minnesota has an elite punter in Peter Mortell, who leads the Big Ten in gross punting average. Gophers kicker Ryan Santoso has range beyond 50 yards on field goals. Nebraska's coverage units have been strong all season, and De'Mornay Pierson-El is one of the best punt returners in college football.

Intangibles

It's Senior Day at Nebraska, and such a fact seemed to derail Minnesota back in 2012 when the Gophers made their first visit to Memorial Stadium in decades. Minnesota won't be cowed this time — not after beating Nebraska 34-23 last year. The Huskers are coming off their worst game in nearly two seasons, and the collective attitude of the team this week hovered between wanting to forget what happened at Wisconsin and wanting to gird against the inevitable criticism of losing another game. It's not a good mental state.

Key matchup: Minnesota's running game vs. Nebraska's defense

The Gophers want to pound the ball, burn up the clock, and force the opposing offense to execute. If Minnesota is able to run the ball for 200-plus yards, Nebraska's offensive efficiency — which has been lousy lately — had better be nails. NU's defense again has to carry the load.

Our take

Nebraska has the athletes and talent to beat Minnesota by two touchdowns. Don't bet on it. The Gophers have a style that frustrates many opponents, including the Huskers. A fourth-quarter game awaits, but Nebraska will be tough enough to pull it out. Remember: The Huskers are pretty good at winning close games.

Our prediction: Nebraska 24-17

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