Nebraska travels to Minnesota on Saturday, seeking its first road victory of the season and attempting to get back on the right path after a gut-wrenching loss to Michigan. The issue: Minnesota is no slouch and has gotten the best of the Huskers over the last two seasons.
Although the Golden Gophers look much different from just two seasons ago, they are still a threat to Nebraska’s postseason opportunities.
Here are the players to watch for on head coach PJ Fleck’s squad:
Mar’Keise Irving, RB:
Of all players, the most notable Golden Gopher to watch is the running back.
Minnesota is a run-heavy team, but its top two running backs are already injured. Senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who’d torched Nebraska in the 2019 and 2020 matchups, suffered a season-ending injury in Minnesota’s season-opening loss to Ohio State.
The running back that filled Ibrahim’s shoes, sophomore running back Trey Potts, performed admirably over the Golden Gophers’ next four games. As Minnesota’s lead back, Potts racked up 552 yards and six rushing touchdowns. However, in the Golden Gophers’ 20-13 victory over Purdue on Oct. 2, Potts left the game with an undisclosed injury.
Fleck announced on Monday that the injury would hold Potts out for the season, the second Golden Gopher running back to suffer a season-ending injury.
The first question entering Saturday is whether the Golden Gophers will continue to lean on the ground, running at 71.5% on all its plays per game. If they do, freshman running back Mar’Keise Irving could be taking the reins as Minnesota’s third starting running back this season with big shoes to fill.
Irving has 112 yards on 25 carries, the most of any healthy Minnesota rusher, and could get his name called frequently on Saturday if Minnesota continues its run-first offensive philosophy. How the Huskers’ run defense responds after being gashed by Michigan on the ground in the second half of last weekend’s game could also dictate Irving’s impact.
The Golden Gophers’ offense may not be as potent as Michigan’s, but has proven to churn out quality running back play in recent years. Irving being the potential starter comes from his usage already, notching 25 carries while the other two potential candidates have 13 carries combined.
What’s more, Minnesota tends to rely on running and using just one running back. Ibrahim had 30 carries against Ohio State before his injury and Potts had at least 20 carries in three of his four starts. Whether or not the Golden Gophers continue their primary runner strategy through Irving will be noteworthy.
Daniel Faalele, OL:
The Golden Gophers are on their third starting running back, and currently in the process of reshuffling their offensive line. Junior offensive lineman Curtis Dunlap, a starter at right guard and valuable depth piece, entered the transfer portal. Dunlap wasn't the starter in Minnesota’s last two games but still took significant snaps in those games, signaling a potential blow to an unit that will need all hands on deck come Saturday.
Lining up next to whoever fills Dunlap’s role, senior offensive lineman Daniel Faalele towers over the rest of his peers, standing at 6-foot-9, and weighing 380 pounds. Faalele will have to anchor down the right side while missing a guard he usually played next to in 2019 and this season.
Faalele is the perfect offensive lineman physical attributes wise, and has become a significant part of the Golden Gopher offense. Although the success of the offensive line has been rather dubious at points in 2021, that’s due to the nature of the unit, which is reliant on the whole group and not just one player.
Faaele has been tabbed as a NFL Draft prospect and, if Minnesota’s offense game plan goes as expected, the credit will go to the Golden Gopher offensive line imposing its will on the Huskers. Minnesota is on its third running back so the likelihood of success similar to that of running backs Potts and Ibrahim is pretty low.
The Golden Gophers’ offensive line is a middling run-block unit, but has done fairly well on standard downs, which are plays where the decision to run or pass is more of a coin flip as in obvious situations, like a third-and-ten. That can come in handy if Minnesota consistently stays on schedule with its offense and that starts with its veteran-laden offensive line.
Faalele, being by far the biggest on the Golden Gophers’ offensive line, will make his matchup with whoever lines up on him an intriguing battle. Whether Nebraska uses its outside linebackers with their speed to go by Faalele or attempt to overpower the near 400 pound lineman will be something to watch come Saturday.
Faalele and senior offensive lineman Blaise Andries, who is expected to play right guard in Minnesota’s latest depth chart, fill out a very impressive right side of the offensive line and so it may be expected that Minnesota relies on that side to get its running plays off.
Chris Autman-Bell, WR:
Senior wide receiver Chris Autumn-Bell remains the Golden Gophers’ biggest threat in their aerial attack. Although senior quarterback Tanner Morgan has regressed since his stellar 2019 campaign, Morgan still has reliable targets that can change the game.
Autman-Bell isn’t the lead receiver statistics-wise, as he didn’t make his debut until the Colorado game in mid-September, but he has been a thorn in previous Minnesota-Nebraska games. In the 2020 game, Autman-Bell had five catches for 82 yards and played a crucial role in the upset despite the team missing 33 players due to COVID-19.
Autman-Bell represents a test for the Nebraska secondary, which had a very solid performance against No. 8 Michigan — a departure from recent inconsistency. Autman-Bell gives junior defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt a good test when the two line up against one another, and will present a good measuring stick to see whether Taylor-Britt has officially turned the corner in his play or not.
The rest of the Golden Gopher receiving corps is nothing to sleep on but Autman-Bell, the most experienced, opens up the rest of the Golden Gophers’ passing attack. On top of missing their top two running backs, the Golden Gophers may resemble a more balanced offense against the Huskers.
Autman-Bell is also a part of a solid Minnesota receiving room, which includes sophomore receiver Daniel Jackson and fellow sophomore wide receiver Dylan Wright, a Texas A&M transfer. Morgan has plenty of weapons that are getting healthy at the right time, Autman-Bell being the most productive and reliable of the bunch.
Boye Mafe, DL:
The Golden Gophers defense has proven stingy over the last couple of weeks, but have also not played good offenses. After all, the best scoring offense that the Golden Gophers has played since opening week was Purdue, which scores 23.6 points per game, good for only 102nd in the nation.
After yielding 45 points to then No. 4 Ohio State in their opening game, the Golden Gophers have given up just 53 points. Minnesota’s defense is clearly dominating inferior offenses, but now has its first legitimate test since the Buckeyes.
With Nebraska’s known road struggles, senior defensive lineman Boye Mafe can have another big day. Mafe leads the Minnesota defense in both sacks and tackles-for-loss, five and six respectively.
Mafe is another edge nightmare line-up for Nebraska as it brings back an older offensive line combination with the recent loss of freshman offensive lineman Teddy Prochazka at left tackle. Freshman offensive lineman Bryce Benhart will return to the starting lineup at right tackle while freshman offensive lineman Turner Corcoran returns to his previous spot at left tackle.
On a struggling unit, Benhart and Corcoran have been the weakest links so far and now have to defend Mafe, another high-quality pass rusher. The Huskers did their best to handle Michigan senior defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson but still gave up eight pressures to him, according to Pro Football Focus.
If Minnesota’s defense continues its great play on Saturday, the simple reason will be that Mafe will be a disruptive force like Hutchinson and replicate other great pass rusher performances against Nebraska this season.