Game Day: Nebraska vs. Minnesota

Chasing a carrot

What’s left to play for? What’s the carrot? For the Huskers, it's a bowl game. Nebraska hasn’t missed the postseason since 2007. It’s only missed a bowl game twice since 1968. That's their motivation.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Minnesota rush defense

The Golden Gophers are in full rebuilding mode on defense, and the run defense in particular has taken some lumps. In Big Ten play, Minnesota is allowing 5.41 yards per carry and 209.3 rushing yards per game. Its front seven, though stout in the middle, frays on the edges. Nebraska’s run game, which has been hot and cold in league play, will benefit from having the same starting lineup two weeks in a row. Running back Devine Ozigbo is built for bad weather and Jaylin Bradley may also return to the lineup.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Minnesota pass defense

Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee threw three interceptions vs. Northwestern, snapping a string of four straight excellent performances. Minnesota’s pass defense — which has faced only 24.8 attempts per game in Big Ten play, and thus appears stingier than it really is — will try to play underneath zone coverage and bait Lee into another mistake. The Huskers’ trio of top receivers — Stanley Morgan, De’Mornay Pierson-El and JD Spielman — will get some chances, especially if Minnesota loads the box to stop the run.

Minnesota rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

In Year 1 of the PJ Fleck era, the Gophers have a clear identity: Run the ball downhill with a diet of read option and receiver jet sweeps mixed in. Good defenses tend to stuff it, while bad defenses get worn down over four quarters. Nebraska’s run defense has been porous for weeks, and coach Bob Diaco’s recent comments about the expectation for his unit can’t possibly be encouraging to his players.

Minnesota pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Gophers have completed all of 59 passes in Big Ten play, and quarterback Demry Croft has connected on just 39.5 percent in conference games. While Nebraska’s pass defense has consistently struggled, the Huskers should have safeties Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams back in the fold, which will help. Plus, Minnesota is one of those pass offenses where, on third down, you can get after the quarterback, who’s not likely to burn you. Minnesota receiver Tyler Johnson (32 catches, 620 yards, seven touchdowns) is a dynamic deep threat.

Special teams

It’s basically a wash among the kick coverage units — Nebraska has the better kickoff guy in Drew Brown, Minnesota has the better punter in Ryan Santoso — but the Huskers have a slight edge in kickoff return with Spielman. The Gophers have struggled badly in league play with field position after kickoffs.

Intangibles

Minnesota is in Year 1 of PJ Fleck’s "Row The Boat" infomercial, and even if the team has taken a dramatic step back from last season — when the Gophers finished 9-4 — Fleck will get time to turn it around in Minneapolis. Players seem on board with Fleck’s calisthenics and bravado, but it’d be fair to wonder whether Husker players feel the same about their head coach, Mike Riley, and specifically Diaco, whose oddball comments seem to be more about everything other than the job he’s doing.

Key matchup: Minnesota’s run game vs. Nebraska’s run defense

If Nebraska stops Minnesota’s run game, the Huskers almost certainly win. The Gophers’ passing game hits the occasional big play, but Diaco is so freaked out about giving up one of those that he allows a few rushing yards to guard against it. If his bend-don’t-break system traps the Gophers, Nebraska wins. But don’t expect that.

Our take

On a weekend full of big, fun football games, here’s a game the nation will forget — a morning kickoff with a chance of snow between two 4-5 teams. The fan turnout is not likely to be good. The motivation may be low. Somehow, Nebraska will have to pull out of a sluggish orbit, ignore the bizarre comments of the defensive coordinator and just plow ahead. Minnesota is not very good — perhaps, in total, worse than Nebraska — but has to smell victory here. Look for an ugly game that concludes in a tough loss for the Huskers.

Our prediction: MINNESOTA 24, NEBRASKA 21

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