After dropping below .500 for the third time this season, Nebraska football looks to even its record once again as the team travels to Minneapolis this weekend to play the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Minnesota went undefeated in nonconference play, starting the year 3-0, but went 1-5 in conference play, with the team’s sole Big Ten win coming against Illinois. After back-to-back losses to Iowa and Michigan, here are some Golden Gophers players to watch as they try to get back on track.
Demry Croft, QB
Senior Conor Rhoda entered the season as the Golden Gophers’ starting quarterback, but Croft took over the starting role after a number of disappointing starts from Rhoda. The 6-foot-5 sophomore played phenomenally against Michigan State, throwing for 163 yards and three touchdowns as he staked his claim for the starting spot.
Since then, Rhoda has not played at all, but Croft has not reached that 163 yard total again. Predominantly a run-first team, he completed only five passes against Illinois and Michigan. In the team’s two most recent losses, he has no touchdowns and one interception, while only completing 16 passes combined. The goal for Croft is not to win the game single-handedly, but to manage the game effectively and not turn the ball over. Although Minnesota hardly throws the ball, he will play an important role in the game.
Rodney Smith, RB
Volume is the name of the game for the 5-foot-11 junior running back. Smith had double-digit carries in every Minnesota game since November 2015, although his productivity is down from a year ago. Against Oregon State this year, he had 30 carries for 92 yards and a touchdown, but the end zone is an elusive place this year for him.
With only three touchdowns on the season, Smith will finish the season nowhere near his total of 16 touchdowns last year. Fellow running backs Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary each have five touchdowns, but nowhere near the amount of carries. Smith struggled last week against Michigan, gaining 38 yards on 18 carries, but he did score a touchdown. Although it hasn’t always been smooth sledding for Smith, he will be a lock for 10-plus carries and always has big-play potential.
Thomas Barber, LB
The native Minnesotan scarcely played during his freshman year, but made a big leap to become the team’s leading tackler in his sophomore season. He started the season slow, with only seven tackles in the team’s first two games combined, but quickly turned it around. His five-game streak of posting at least 10 tackles was broken last week against Michigan when he only recorded seven tackles.
Barber’s 82 tackles lead the team, and second place is far behind with 64 tackles. In fact, with 57 tackles, he has more solo tackles than all but one of his teammates this season. Additionally, his nine tackles for losses also top the team. A force to reckon with on defense, he will look to reignite his double-digit tackle streak this week.
Jacob Huff, DB
After only recording seven tackles in limited action in his first two years at Minnesota, Huff emerged as the team’s dominant defensive back as a junior. His opening-game interception against Buffalo earned the 5-foot-11 defender more playing time, and he made the most of it since then.
Against Middle Tennessee, he recorded four tackles, but the highlight of the game came when he intercepted his second pass of the season and returned it 67 yards for a touchdown. His performance in the game earned him the honor of being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. His tackle totals went up over the course of the season, with seven against Purdue and nine against Michigan State, and his third interception of the season came against Iowa two weeks ago. With Tanner Lee’s turnover troubles, Huff has a chance to make it four on the season.
Tyler Johnson, WR
In terms of receiving production, no one comes close to Johnson on the Golden Gophers, as he leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by massive margins. His 32 receptions are followed by 13 from Rodney Smith in second, and the gap is even larger when it comes to yards and touchdowns. He has 620 yards and seven touchdowns on the season, while all other players on the team have 705 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson displayed a tremendous connection with Demry Croft this season, catching all of the quarterback’s touchdown passes, including a three-touchdown performance against Michigan State. He was a non-factor against Michigan, catching one pass for 14 yards, but Croft only had five completions all day. Due to play calling, Johnson does not always put up gaudy stats, but he is beyond a doubt the team’s top target, and may require a consistent double-team effort from the Nebraska secondary to stop.
Nebraska takes on Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium this Saturday, Nov. 11, with kickoff set for 11 a.m. The game will air live on FS1.