A former Air Force Cadet’s line drive field goal saved Nebraska’s season for the time being and gave the Huskers a second life last Saturday.
Can they capitalize on that momentum?
Nebraska (4-2, 2-1) has a much needed bye week coming up followed by two consecutive games against teams yet to win a game in conference play. All that stands in its way of the break is a potentially snowy night game at Minnesota, which happens to be 5-0.
Not to mention that starting quarterback Adrian Martinez (1,586 total yards) and wide receiver JD Spielman (410 yards) are currently questionable to play in the contest.
Minnesota and Nebraska are both led by charismatic coaches who worked their way to the top and are looking for sustained success. That’s about where the similarities end between these two programs.
The Golden Gophers and Huskers couldn’t have had more different offseasons. Despite going 4-8 in 2018, Nebraska was a popular pick to compete for a division title. Instead, the Huskers have struggled to put together complete games and are currently an afterthought in the race at this point.
Minnesota took a leap forward in year two of the P.J. Fleck era back in 2018. Trailing 28-8 at the half at Nebraska last October, freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad left the game with an injury and fellow freshman Tanner Morgan took over. Morgan was able to pull Minnesota within six points of Nebraska at one point before eventually losing by a final score of 53-28.
Morgan has held the starting job ever since, and the Gophers have been better for it. They ended the season by snapping a 14-game losing streak at Wisconsin with a dominant 37-15 victory, and gained bowl eligibility in the process.
The win was a program-changing moment and was treated as such, with the rivalry trophy making a statewide tour over the offseason. On the field, Minnesota has yet to lose since the week prior to the Wisconsin win.
Despite the strong finish to the season, Minnesota was picked by most experts to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten West Division in 2019. The disrespect has bled into the season as well, as the Gophers are one of two current unbeaten teams not ranked in the AP Top 25.
For both teams, Saturday night is about gaining respect. Minnesota’s five wins have come against South Dakota State, Fresno State, Georgia Southern, Purdue and Illinois. A win over Nebraska would be by far its best win of the season.
Nebraska is looking to show that its 48-7 loss against No. 3 Ohio State two weeks prior was more indicative of Ohio State’s dominance than of Nebraska’s struggles. A win in the Twin Cities would prove that the Huskers are still a threat to win the West.
There are a lot of unknowns going into Saturday night. Following Thursday’s practice, Frost would not say if Martinez or Spielman will play on Saturday. Regardless of personnel, it’s unclear how Frost will attack the Gophers from a play-calling standpoint.
Nebraska used its athletic and schematic advantages to dissect Minnesota’s defense in its 53-28 win a year ago. This year, with Martinez and Spielman injured and turnovers a serious issue, Frost could opt for a more conservative approach similar to the one he took against Northwestern last week.
Minnesota’s defense has a lot to prepare for as well, with the Huskers showing several completely different looks on offense throughout the season. Frost has used direct snaps to skill players, I-formation and triple option plays to shake up the offensive attack and complement the original scheme.
Based on Frost’s comments on Thursday, there could be even more in store for this weekend thanks to a strong week of practice.
“It was a good week,” Frost said. “We probably had our best Monday practice ever. Tuesday, we got a lot installed. I thought Wednesday was really good again. They’re prepared, they know their stuff.”
A lot of what Frost decides to include in the game plan will be determined by the weather on Saturday night, which is expected to be cold and potentially snowy.
Offensive assistant coaches Troy Walters and Ryan Held remained adamant throughout the week that weather will not be an issue on Saturday night. Walters said that in his time as a wide receiver in the NFL, he never had any problems playing in the snow. Held added that running backs will not be allowed to wear sleeves, citing the inability to feel the ball while wearing them as his reasoning.
Frost said that conditions will be the biggest factor in the game, but he is not concerned about them working against his team.
“We’ve just got to play well,” Frost said. “It’s less about all those other things than it is just making sure we execute and do the things we’re supposed to.”
The kicking situation is also unclear going into Saturday night, and Frost said the coaches are still working on a solution to recent woes. Sophomore starting kicker Barret Pickering is still recovering from an undisclosed injury, and backup Lane McCallum has struggled in relief. Club soccer player and now-walk-on Matt Waldoch was added to the team earlier in the season, and will travel with the team for the first time this weekend.
Following Nebraska’s win over Northwestern, Frost said he considered giving Waldoch a chance in the game following another miss by McCallum, but didn’t want his first kick to be with the game on the line.
Nebraska at Minnesota will kick off at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday night and can be seen on FS1.