Nebraska football is 1-2 against Minnesota since head coach Scott Frost took over the Huskers’ program in 2018, with the two most recent iterations of the matchup going in favor of the Golden Gophers.
Throughout Frost’s tenure, matchups against Minnesota have proved significant. This Saturday’s clash is no different.
A victory over the Golden Gophers marked the first of Frost’s coaching career at his alma mater, a much-needed 53-28 triumph in 2018 following an 0-6 start. Nebraska was without then-sophomore starting quarterback Adrian Martinez when the teams met in Week Seven of the 2019 season, but the Huskers’ 34-7 loss sent the team into a tailspin that resulted in a 5-7 record.
In the second-to-last game of the 2020 season, Nebraska had a real opportunity to finish a COVID-19-altered season with a respectable .500 record, standing at 2-4 with games against Minnesota and a to-be-determined contest against a squad from the Big Ten East remaining.
What’s more, Minnesota had 33 players missing due to coronavirus contact tracing protocols, so a Nebraska win was almost expected. However the Huskers fell 24-17, securing the third consecutive losing season of Frost’s tenure.
The theme of those games, according to most Nebraska players and coaches that spoke on Monday, was the Golden Gophers’ physicality and discipline.
Minnesota ran for 322 yards on Nebraska’s defense in 2019 and 206 yards in 2020. The Golden Gophers have the second-best run defense in the Big Ten and fifth-best nationally, allowing just 77 yards per game. Nebraska, both offensively and defensively, will need to be up to the task on Saturday against a Minnesota team with a track record of getting the better of Frost’s crew.
“[Their defense] is a group that flies around. They’re physical, which is nothing that’s necessarily new in the Big Ten,” a now-junior Martinez said at Monday’s press conference. “I know [Minnesota] is going to be ready to play, they always have been, and they’ve gotten our number over the last couple of years.”
Following yet another close loss to a ranked opponent, Nebraska could no-doubt use a physical, disciplined performance in order to get back in the win column ahead of its Week Eight bye week.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is coming off of a bye week itself following a 20-13 victory over Purdue on Oct. 2. Frost said that he’s expecting the best performance of the season from the Golden Gophers on Saturday, and must manage the challenge of scheming for new wrinkles while also getting the best out of his team against an opponent that has had Nebraska’s number in recent years.
“I think we were 4-2 when we went up there two years ago and we played really uninspired football… We didn’t play tough that night,” Frost said at Monday’s press conference. “[Minnesota] had a really, really good team two years ago, good team last year, but we haven’t played our best against them either.”
Nebraska was able to impose its will for stretches of play last Saturday against No. 8 Michigan, but ultimately failed to execute offensively when the situation called for it. The Huskers had two late drives to perhaps secure a signature victory over a top-ten opponent, the first resulting in a fumble by Martinez with 1:45 remaining and the second stalling at midfield.
The ultimate narrative and nature surrounding the 32-29 defeat has been discussed ad-nauseam over the past 48 hours, but above all it places this Saturday’s game as a point where another bounce-back performance is necessary.
The Huskers have played in seven consecutive weeks without pause, eight including this Saturday, but have shown an impressive propensity to respond to close losses with strong performances no matter the point in the season. With five regular-season games remaining and each game holding increasingly more importance, Nebraska has no option but to generate a response on Saturday.
“This team knows how to battle, they do. We still, despite our record, know how good of a team we are and what we’re capable of,” Martinez said. “We still have some big games on our schedule and the biggest one is Minnesota.”
A potential bounce-back performance for Nebraska will come on the heels of another shakeup in its offensive line. Offensive line struggles have been one of the central storylines of the team this season, but the unit found its footing in recent weeks and generally did well in pass protection against Michigan’s fearsome front seven.
Frost announced on Monday that the team will be without freshman offensive lineman Teddy Prochazka for the remainder of the season due to a knee injury. On Saturday, when Prochazka left the Michigan game, freshman offensive lineman Bryce Benhart filled in at right tackle, while fellow freshman offensive Turner Corcoran took over Prochazka’s left tackle spot. Corcoran started the year at left tackle, but was moved to the easier spot after a string of poor performances.
It’s yet another twist in the tale for the Huskers’ much-criticized unit ahead of a matchup with a Golden Gopher defense that has conceded an average of nine points per game over their last three contests.
Once again, Nebraska is set up with a crucial opponent it must beat if it wants any hope of a postseason opportunity. It’s no surprise that the Huskers’ late-season postseason push starts with the Golden Gophers, a team that’s played such an important role in shaping Nebraska’s narrative over the past few years.
“There’s not a lot of time left to get accomplished what we want to get accomplished this season,” junior tight end Austin Allen said at Monday’s press conference. “All we can do is take it one game at a time and hit the reset button.”