As Nebraska football approaches its eighth game, it is still looking for its first road victory of the season.
Following Saturday’s contest against Minnesota, the Huskers will have played eight games before their first bye week, a long time for any team, with four games coming on the road.
Road game struggles are something that has defined Nebraska head coach Scott Frost’s tenure. In his four seasons at Nebraska, Frost has three conference road victories, coming against Illinois and Maryland in 2019 and Rutgers in 2020.
Those three schools went a combined 12-22 in those seasons and are generally regarded in the lower echelon of all of FBS football, and more importantly the Big Ten, as of now. This Saturday, Minnesota represents another step in the right direction if the Huskers can successfully get past the Gophers.
“We got to try and win one on the road,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said at Thursday’s press conference. “The guys are used to being on the road and we’ve played some good teams on the road. This is another one and a big challenge.”
The first step in getting a road victory is overcoming its most recent failure. Like its previous two losses, Nebraska lost to a top-10 opponent last Saturday against Michigan by one score in a very winnable game for the Huskers.
Husker players, like in previous one-possession losses this season, kept their heads up high throughout the week, according to Frost.
"We got the best leadership we have had," Frost said. "Damion [Daniels] is doing a great job. Austin [Allen] is doing a great job. Adrian [Martinez] is doing a great job. Deontai [Williams] you know all the guys that you would expect are doing a great job and keeping everybody in line."
The Huskers travel to Minnesota this weekend for the first time since 2019, where they lost 34-7 without a then-sophomore Martinez at quarterback, a painful reminder of how far Nebraska really was from the top of the Big Ten West.
In 2021, Nebraska returns with a much stronger team while the Golden Gophers have floundered to start 2021. That still doesn’t mean Nebraska has issues that Minnesota can easily exploit on Saturday, though.
Freshman offensive lineman Bryce Benhart, a Lakeville, Minnesota native, will play football in his home state for the first time since his high school playing days. Benhart, the No. 2 recruit in Minnesota coming out of high school according to 247 Sports, was the starter at right tackle to kick off the 2021 season.
After the 23-20 loss to now-No. 10 Michigan State, Benhart was benched and didn’t take significant snaps until the injury of freshman offensive lineman Teddy Prochazka against now-No. 8 Michigan in the third quarter.
Benhart came back in at right tackle against Michigan and appears to be taking that spot heading into Minnesota after a respectable performance. With Benhart back in, a successful homecoming of sorts from the offensive line is needed to overcome an overwhelming Minnesota defensive front bent on stepping the run.
“Last couple of years, they really packed the box and made it really tough on us to run it,” Frost said. “We got to do a good job coming off the ball and creating things and trying to get things on their secondary.”
While the offensive line continues to search for redemption, the secondary may finally have turned the corner in its play. After the Michigan game, sophomore defensive back Quinton Newsome finally received a vaunted Blackshirt, a Nebraska tradition awarded to consistently high-performing defensive players.
“People challenged him a lot early on,” Frost said about Newsome. “He wasn’t given it, he earned the [Blackshirt].”
Newsome, who plays the No. 2 cornerback role, came into the season as a suspected weak link of the defense due to junior defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt lining up on the other side. As Frost detailed on Thursday, teams early on would scheme their offenses to attack Newsome’s side and specifically on run plays.
The significant improvement for Newsome comes in tandem with improvement from Taylor-Britt, who Frost said had his best performance of the season last Saturday. After Frost described Taylor-Britt pressing too much earlier in the season, Frost said that the defensive captain is starting to settle into his role.
Taylor-Britt’s performance wasn’t enough to get past the Wolverines but a similar performance against Minnesota senior quarterback Tanner Morgan can be more than enough to help the Huskers emerge victorious. Morgan has significantly regressed from his 2019 campaign and, along with Nebraska defensive Erik Chinander’s ability to take out what team’s want to do, Saturday could potentially be a great day for the Blackshirts.
“They don’t do a whole lot of things,” Frost said. “They’re just good at what they do. They got some really big guys up front and some great backs and some answers off the run. Our defense has got to be ready to do the best it can against the run.”
Saturday’s game, of course, can have a significant impact for the Huskers, who are looking for their first road victory of 2021 while getting back on track for bowl eligibility. Nebraska hasn’t won in Minneapolis, Minnesota since 2015 but Saturday just might be the Huskers’ best chance for such a victory.
Although Minnesota is a significant downgrade from recent road opponents like Oklahoma and Michigan State, overcoming the road-game hurdle might be the boost Nebraska needs as it approaches the home stretch of the 2021 season.
"They go to work the same way every week,” Frost said. “They know they basically have three days left and they get a break so everything we got will be poured into this one."