Make no mistake, it’s crunch time for Nebraska football.
The Huskers sit at a real precipice entering Saturday’s game against Minnesota. The result of the matchup is instructive in deciding whether or not the Huskers will make their first bowl game of head coach Scott Frost’s tenure.
What’s more, the game against the Golden Gophers has proven significant in past Nebraska football seasons under Frost.
This weekend’s battle should be no different. Both Nebraska and Minnesota have near .500 records, although the Huskers have played two more games than the Golden Gophers.
Saturday’s contest might be a bit more urgent for Frost’s crew, with Nebraska having just five games left in its regular season, but either side would no-doubt appreciate a crucial intra-conference victory.
Here’s what to watch for as the Huskers look to improve their record to 3-4:
Minnesota mired in uncertainty
Head coach P.J. Fleck’s fifth season in charge has been rather unpleasant, to say the least.
Minnesota opened its season going toe-to-toe with Ohio State on Sept. 2, holding a 14-10 halftime lead and taking a 21-17 lead in the early stages of the third quarter. Minnesota’s defense, however, could not keep up with the Buckeyes, with Ohio State ripping off multiple big plays en-route to a 45-31 victory.
In that game, senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim, the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year, suffered a season-ending injury. Aside from a 30-0 shutout of Colorado on Sept. 18, the Golden Gophers have failed to impress since Ibrahim went down. The Golden Gophers labored to beat Miami (Ohio) and Purdue, and lost to Bowling Green at home as 31-point favorites.
Against Purdue, sophomore running back Trey Potts, who’d served as Minnesota’s feature back after Ibrahim’s injury, left with an undisclosed injury. Fleck announced on Monday that he, too, would miss the rest of the season with the ailment.
On Tuesday, junior offensive lineman Curtis Dunlap entered the transfer portal. Dunlap had appeared in every game the Golden Gophers played this season at guard.
How Fleck adjusts to both absences is worth monitoring. Freshman running back Mar’Keise Irving figures to take a majority of the carries on Saturday, as he’s the most experienced in terms of number of carries this season. Irving has 25 carries for 112 yards so far this season, and interestingly enough has forced the most missed tackles on the team according to Pro Football Focus. Fellow freshman running back Ky Thomas scored a touchdown against Colorado and could be used as a change-of-pace runner.
As for the offensive line, Dunlap has been used as more of a reserve, but the Golden Gophers’ depth at the position could be tested on Saturday. On top of all this, Minnesota senior quarterback Tanner Morgan has once again posted underwhelming statistical numbers following a 30-touchdown season in 2019.
The Golden Gophers are in an odd position at this point in their season, and if Fleck dials the right buttons, Minnesota is certainly a team capable of making some noise over its final seven games this season, this Saturday included.
How legit is Minnesota’s defense?
In the first two games of Minnesota’s season, the Golden Gophers allowed a combined 62 points to Ohio State and Miami (OH).
Since then, Minnesota has allowed only 0, 14 and 13 points in consecutive weeks before a bye week last weekend. This recent resurgence has shot Minnesota to No. 28 nationally in total defense, and the unit is allowing just 77 rushing yards per game.
However, a closer look at the offenses the Golden Gophers have stifled paints a bit of a different picture. Colorado, which Minnesota beat 30-0, ranks second-to-last nationally in total offense, one place ahead of lowly Vanderbilt and behind perennial FBS doormats like Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Bowling Green ranks No. 119 of 130 FBS teams in the metric, while Purdue ranks No. 102. Miami (OH) ranks No. 108, for that matter, meaning Minnesota has faced just one top-100 scoring offense. Ohio State ranks No. 3 in total offense — a total extreme from other units Minnesota has faced — but facing Nebraska should represent a step up in quality for Minnesota’s defense.
Senior defensive linemen Boye Mafe and Thomas Rush, who have combined for 8.5 sacks and 30 tackles this season, will have an opportunity to prove themselves in Minnesota's second test against a quality offense this season.
Punting could prove paramount
Minnesota is ranked in the top half of the FBS in field position margin entering Saturday’s contest, meaning Fleck’s squad excels at putting its opponents in uncomfortable situations to start drives.
This was no more apparent than in the Oct. 2 contest against Purdue, in which sophomore punter Mark Crawford played a big part in Minnesota's 20-13 victory. He averaged 51.3 yards per punt against the Boilermakers, including two 60-yard efforts. Crawford pinned Purdue inside its own 15-yard line on four separate occasions, and his performance earned him co-Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors.
In a game oddsmakers think will be a close affair, field position could ultimately make a difference down the stretch. With Nebraska’s special teams a bit more unsettled, the Golden Gophers look to hold an advantage in that department, which could prove important.
Adrian Martinez’s special season
Nebraska junior quarterback Adrian Martinez is on pace to have his best season at Nebraska, and it’s not particularly close either.
Through seven games Martinez’s passing rating is a 162.4, which would crush his previous high in the metric should he continue at this pace. His 1,754 passing yards could lead to a career high in single-season yards should he continue at his average clip of 251 passing yards per game.
Not only that, Martinez could join elite company in the Huskers’ 3,000-yard single-season passing club, which is exclusive to four Husker quarterbacks all-time. Martinez’s touchdown-interception ratio is on pace to be a career best, as well as his passing yards per attempt.
These statistics underlie how special Martinez has been under center, and how confident he’s become in Frost’s offense. He’s clearly more confident in pushing the ball downfield, and has the receiving corps to back that up.
In addition, Martinez has already surpassed a career high in rushing touchdowns — nine to his previous best of four— and needs 192 yards on the ground to surpass his season-high in rushing yards as well.
Martinez’s play has been well-documented and discussed this season, but the extent of how impressive it's been will no-doubt be a storyline as he approaches more personal-best marks and program career-highs.
Such a season will get lost in history, of course, if Nebraska isn’t able to break out and reach a bowl game. That journey begins on Saturday, with Martinez henceforth the catalyst in the Huskers’ fortunes.