Game Day: Nebraska vs. Minnesota

Staying positive

Even though Nebraska is winless halfway through the season, the coaches are sticking to a positive message. There are bad plays, but not bad guys. Things can get fixed.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Minnesota rush defense

Minnesota’s aggressive run defense has been excellent in every game this season but one, when Maryland chunked the Gophers for 315 yards. Outside of that, UM has allowed 2.82 yards per carry. Pretty stiff. Nebraska’s run game has proven dangerous with three games over 200 yards. NU’s scheme spreads out a defense, then sends Devine Ozigbo downhill at the middle of it. It’s working, and even if Minnesota has a stingy scheme, don’t be surprised if Nebraska grinds out at least 150 on the ground. Adrian Martinez hasn’t busted a big zone read for weeks, but he’s capable if Minnesota gives him room.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Minnesota pass defense

For having a freshman quarterback, NU’s pass offense is pretty potent under Martinez. He’s still working on the finer details of the game — reading defenses, taking check-downs when they’re his best bet, throwing the fade pass — but his 62.3 percent completion rate is snazzy. Minnesota’s pass defense was picked apart in losses to Iowa and Ohio State. The coverage isn’t bad, but the Gophers’ back end struggles to tackle receivers after the catch. Minnesota does have the league’s top sack-getter in junior Carter Coughlin, an undersized-but-quick defensive end converted to linebacker who can get around an offensive tackle. He has seven of Minnesota’s 11 sacks, which means the Gophers don’t blitz much and don’t have a lot of sack artists aside from Coughlin. Nebraska’s receivers have to break tackles and make big plays. Martinez should be able to scramble, too.

Minnesota rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Minnesota’s run game took a big hit when running back Rodney Smith tore up his knee and had season-ending surgery. His two replacements, Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams, are both freshmen. Ibrahim had 157 yards against Ohio State in a breakout game. He’s a smaller, shifty back who doesn’t need much of a hole, so he’s a good fit for UM’s inside-zone running game, which is used to set up the pass. Minnesota will use a wildcat formation with 6-foot-4, 240-pound receiver Seth Green — a converted quarterback — in red-zone and goal-line situations. Nebraska has been hot-and-cold in stopping the run but should have back a healthy Tyrin Ferguson at outside linebacker.

Minnesota pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Gophers may have the Big Ten’s biggest group of wide receivers, and junior Tyler Johnson (36 catches, 521 yards) and freshman Rashod Bateman (29 and 280) are tough covers because they’re both 6-foot-2. Eight of their 10 catches in the red zone have gone for touchdowns, so watch for those corner fade routes. Between the 20s, Minnesota likes to keep freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad in rhythm with quick stops and slants. Whether it’s an RPO or play-action pass, Annexstad uses the play-fake a lot. He’s completing 53 percent of his passes — his accuracy is so-so at best — and Nebraska needs to take advantage with good pressure and clever coverages. Does NU have the secondary depth to do it? Which of Nebraska’s safeties will be good to go Saturday? Annexstad may be the worst quarterback Nebraska faces in the Big Ten West. The Huskers have to do something.

Special teams

Nebraska has stabilized at punter, which is good, but kicker Barret Pickering missed a field goal and extra point at Northwestern. Not good. Minnesota lost its top punt returner in Antoine Winfield Jr. — out for the season with a foot injury — but the Gophers do enjoy one of the nation’s best punt coverage units, which allows them to be 17th nationally in net punting. UM kicker Emmit Carpenter missed two field goals at Ohio State last week, but he has one of the Big Ten’s stronger legs and can hit from distance.

Intangibles

Nebraska hasn’t won a home game in more than a year. Memorial Stadium is a great place to play when the team is winning and doing well. When NU struggles, the stadium becomes a giant worry box, and everybody can feel it, including the players. So the Huskers have a twisted home-field advantage in that way. Minnesota has better special teams, gets penalized less often and seems to have a clearer identity to its style of play.

Key matchup: Minnesota’s wideouts vs. Nebraska’s cornerbacks

This could be the game. Johnson and Bateman will get good looks from Annexstad, and NU’s corners — some combination of Dicaprio Bootle, Lamar Jackson, Cam Taylor, Eric Lee and others — will have to make plays. Annexstad, still growing as a quarterback, isn’t going to make throws like Clayton Thorson or David Blough, so Nebraska has to get a few interceptions. Do that, and Nebraska wins.

Our take

This isn’t a "must win" game — that’s Bethune-Cookman — but Minnesota represents a “darn well should win” game. If you think the culture change between Mike Riley and Scott Frost is big, the transition from the Jerry Kill/Tracy Claeys era to PJ Fleck is even bigger. Fleck is in Year Two of what’s likely to be a four-year overhaul, and Minnesota’s depth and talent just isn’t where it needs to be. Nebraska, at 0-6, is favored over a 3-3 team for a reason. NU has a better quarterback and skill players, and arguably Minnesota’s two best players — Smith and Winfield — are out for the year with injuries. That’s just enough for Nebraska to win and finally — finally! — deliver Scott Frost’s first win.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 28, MINNESOTA 21

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