Game Day: Nebraska vs. Minnesota

Growing up fast

The Huskers think a strong second half is coming. Their counterparts in Minneapolis have already experienced it. They both have young offenses, but Minnesota can show Nebraska how fast they grow up

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Minnesota rush defense

The Huskers keep finding a way to run the ball. Credit coach Scott Frost and his offensive staff for consistently plugging away at it, game after game, even against good run defenses. NU continues to average nearly 200 rushing yards and 4.43 yards per carry, a more-than-respectable number given NU has used three different running backs — one of whom is a receiver — and two different quarterbacks. Nebraska has seven runs of 40 yards or more — many of them from Maurice Washington, who has struggled with injuries and disciplinary issues the last two weeks. Minnesota’s rush defense hasn’t faced a run game as explosive as Nebraska’s, but it is allowing just 3.69 yards per carry. Its defensive line is not among the best in the Big Ten, nor has it been tested that much, considering Minnesota’s offense holds on to the ball so well. If 150 yards is the general line of demarcation on which team has the advantage, take Nebraska, which run the ball with either quarterback.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Minnesota pass defense

Trouble ahead for the Huskers. The weather — cold, wet, probably a little windy — doesn’t lend itself to success, and it’s not clear whether receiver JD Spielman will be healthy enough to be a factor. (Will he play in his Minneapolis homecoming? One sure has to think so.) Who throws the passes? Adrian Martinez is the better option over Noah Vedral, of course — if Martinez is mobile. Take away his ability to bust a pocket — fix him to a spot — and he’s far less effective. Vedral knows the offense and can probably manage the short passing game better from the pocket. Minnesota’s pass defense is smart in coverage — corner Antoine Winfield, Jr. is one of the team’s best players — and keeping both the completion rates and big plays down. Minnesota hasn’t allowed a pass longer than 40 yards this season.

Minnesota rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Gophers are not efficient at running the ball — just 3.49 yards per carry — but they do it a lot anyway, which helps possess the ball. Minnesota has 45.6 totes per game — third in the Big Ten and 17th nationally — using running back Rodney Smith to shoulder the load. Smith is a warrior, having recovered from a knee injury last year to average 20 carries and 107 yards per game. He gets three yards where there might only be two, and he runs behind one of the Big Ten’s biggest offensive line/tight end combos. Nebraska’s defensive line — at full strength due to the return of Khalil Davis from a suspension — will be up to the challenge, though. The Huskers’ front seven and defensive scheme is such that it’ll put Minnesota behind the chains more than once because of run-throughs and well-timed blitzes.

Minnesota pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Gophers are 5-0 because of their receivers. Minnesota’s trio of Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell are all big-bodied, sure-handed targets who bail out Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan and have combined for 62 catches, 1,107 yards and 12 touchdowns in five games! They beat man coverage, they’re huge targets in zone coverage and they can all run after the catch. No defense is going to stop that trio entirely, but bad weather could slow them down if Morgan — averaging a league-best 11.3 yards per attempt — can’t get them the ball. Make no mistake: It’s all those receivers. Minnesota allows more than three sacks per game. Morgan is a fine quarterback completing 70.3 percent of his passes, but he’s not a NFL guy. Those receivers are, though, and Nebraska’s defense can harass and even sack Morgan all it wants. Sooner or later he just throws it up, that trio goes and gets the ball. Root for bad weather.

Special teams

Take Minnesota. Nebraska’s field goal game is still a big question mark — even with Lane McCallum’s game-winner against Northwestern, and the kickoff coverage defense is among the league’s worst. Nebraska’s kickoff and punt return games have hit a wall, too. NU punter Isaac Armstrong is the team’s best specialist by some margin. Minnesota’s kicking game is decent and Smith is the kickoff returner. He’s liable to break one.

Intangibles

Minnesota will have the home field advantage, one of its biggest crowds in a long time, and all the momentum an undefeated team enjoys. Nebraska will have the look of an underdog that may have to rally around a backup quarterback on the road. It’s not the worst mindset to inhabit. Vedral is a better backup quarterback than most in the Big Ten, but his teammates won’t expect him to bail out the offense with his feet the way Martinez does. If Vedral plays, look for the team and coaches to rally around it. A 14-13 win counts the same as 45-17. And, again: Bad weather is to NU’s advantage. Anything to neutralize those receivers.

Key matchup: Minnesota’s playaction passing game vs. Nebraska’s defense and the weather

The Gophers have thrown just 23 third-down passes all year. In other words, they’ve rarely been behind in a game and they’ve rarely been behind the chains. Minnesota gets chunk passing plays on first and second down to its receivers, and it does that by faking the run and gets its studs on big angle plays all over the field. Nebraska has to be ready for tendency and attack the gills of the Gophers’ offensive line when it happens. So much of Minnesota’s success is rooted in its offense controlling a game.

Our take

This is a tough assignment for Nebraska if it doesn’t have Martinez, who’s usually good for two or three “off schedule” plays per game that not only gain yards but leave defenses wary in their wake. Minnesota has a really nice identity on offense that blends a ball-control run game with a big-play passing attack. It’s like the Raiders in 1976 or something. To win, NU has to have offensive efficiency and a defense that gets Minnesota off kilter. It’s a tall task on the road, and it would represent not only Scott Frost’s best win as a Husker coach, but the best win Nebraska’s had in three or four years. One final time: Root for bad weather.

Our prediction: MINNESOTA 28 NEBRASKA 21

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