Landon Wirt, senior sports editor: Nebraska 28, Minnesota 13
As I’ve hit on this week, I have no clue what to expect from Minnesota on Saturday.
Head coach P.J. Fleck’s squad has been wildly inconsistent so far in 2021. It’s without its top two running backs and is led by a quarterback in senior Tanner Morgan that’s struggling to rediscover his form from the Golden Gophers’ magical 2019 season.
The Golden Gophers, at this point in their season, are faced with more questions than answers. It should be noted that Minnesota is in a completely different place in its season, too, with Saturday marking the Golden Gophers’ sixth game of the season, whereas Nebraska will be playing on its eighth consecutive Saturday.
Minnesota certainly has time to find its footing without senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim and sophomore running back Trey Potts with half its season remaining, and Morgan has plenty of time to regain his form and command of the Golden Gopher offense.
However, I feel that the bye week Fleck’s squad had before this weekend’s matchup won’t be enough time to sort that out.
Nebraska has started relatively slow in its two prior 11 a.m. kickoffs, against Fordham and Oklahoma, respectively, and I believe it will on Saturday as well. The insertion of redshirt freshman offensive lineman Bryce Benhart back into the starting lineup, as well as the offensive line’s general shakeup because of it, will still require some game time to gel.
In addition, establishing and slowing down whoever Minnesota’s lead back is — whether freshman running back Mar’Keise Irving or freshman running back Ky Thomas — might take some time, too. Minnesota’s offensive line is a serviceable unit at creating space for its runners, ranking No. 68 in FBS in offensive line yards, which could pose problems for Nebraska regardless of which Minnesota running back takes a majority of the carries.
For reference, Michigan, who ran for 204 yards on Nebraska last week, ranks No. 42 nationally in the metric.
Nebraska’s talent, both defensively and offensively, should shine through against a shorthanded Minnesota team in the end, and I believe a hungry Husker team in must-win mode will bring the physicality and discipline needed to snap Fleck’s two-game winning streak over Nebraska head coach Scott Frost.
Martin Herz, assistant sports editor: Nebraska 27, Minnesota 10
Fall weather is finally here, bringing out the best of classic Big Ten football. Minnesota is coming off its bye week but lost Potts, its most productive offensive player by far, and appears to not have an answer for its starting running back.
On defense, the Blackshirts have held their own and done especially well against one-dimensional offenses such as Buffalo. Minnesota runs the ball at a high rate and unlike the Wolverines, its ground game hasn’t been that effective so far this season.
Minnesota is 93rd in expected points added per run, coming in at a poor -.032 per rush. The Golden Gophers run at a rate similar to Michigan yet the Wolverines average .109 expected points added per run and is ranked 34th in the country.
The Golden Gophers’ reliance on something that has been very ineffective will make life easier for the Blackshirts, and the Nebraska defense should get stops due to the nature of Minnesota’s offensive play calling. On top of that, Morgan is not the threat that he was in 2019, as he’s completed just 52% of his passes and ranks eighth in the Big Ten in adjusted yards per pass attempt.
The Huskers, on the other end, continue to be as dynamic as they come for an offense. Although Nebraska lost freshman lineman and recent starting left tackle Teddy Prochazka for the season, Nebraska’s offense has produced no matter the offensive line arrangement.
Michigan senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson had eight pressures last Saturday yet Martinez was sacked just once. Martinez’s improved pocket awareness has held up Nebraska’s offensive line much better and that should continue into Minneapolis, Minnesota on Saturday.
The worry for Nebraska is its special teams play. The Huskers did fine against Michigan when it came to field position, but there hasn’t been enough to show consistency in their play within that unit.
Minnesota is also top-20 in the country, like Michigan was, with creating field position and forcing opposing offenses to be in worse spots to begin drives. If Nebraska doesn’t have any horrific special teams errors, the play of this unit shouldn’t have the impact it has had in previous games this season.
In the end, Frost should notch his first road victory in October, meaning Nebraska enters the bye week 4-4.
Jason Han, assistant sports editor: Nebraska 21 Minnesota 10
Almost all the factors, whether it be talent, current form or coaching nous point to a Nebraska victory. In fact, there’s only a few factors which point the Golden Gophers’ way.
For one, there’s the history of the fixture. In recent memory, Frost’s experiences against Minnesota have been rather mixed. The team was blown out in 2019, but that was an exceptional year for Fleck’s team. The more inexcusable game was last December, where a poor, near-decimated Minnesota team still managed to outlast the Huskers.
That being said, the team in question was led mostly off the efforts of a running back who is out for the season. At the same time, it can rather definitively be said that this is not the Nebraska team of last year, or really of years previous under Frost.
Therefore, this first concern for the Huskers will likely be a nonfactor heading into Saturday’s game.
The other significant concern for Frost and his squad is the team’s inability to close out close games, and there’s more weight behind this claim. While the situations against Michigan State, Michigan and Oklahoma lay fresh in the memory, one may be better served looking at the example of Illinois when considering the course of Saturday’s game.
Now, of course, it’s nearly an insult to compare any outfit to Illinois, which, bluntly, is a terrible team. Minnesota is significantly better than the Fighting Illini, but the point is that even in close games against vastly inferior opponents, as was the case against Illinois, the Huskers struggle.
There’s asterisks to this point. As Frost said after the game against Illinois, the team was forced to throw out 50% of its playbook due to a strange defensive alignment. Unless the Golden Gophers try to run an entirely different scheme, this likely won’t be a problem.
The game should be categorically easy for the Huskers, but once Minnesota starts to creep in with some momentum, particularly if the game is within a few scores heading into the fourth, this is also when Nebraska can prove its mettle.