Minnesota (7-2) vs. Nebraska (7-2)
Time: 6:30 P.M. CT, Saturday, November 12th
TV: BTN - Kevin Kugler (Play by Play), Matt Millen (Analyst) and Lisa Bylington (Sideline)
Last week: Minnesota beat Purdue 44-31 at home, and Nebraska lost 62-3 to Ohio State on the road
All-time series: Minnesota 31-21-2 (Nebraska won 48-25 in Minneapolis in October of 2015)
Vegas betting line: N/A
Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Nebraska publisher Josh Harvey
Five things you need to know
1. Minnesota travels to Nebraska on Saturday for a matchup with the No. 21 Huskers. Saturday’s game will be Minnesota’s first this season against a ranked opponent and its first since it played three straight against No. 15 Michigan (Oct. 31), No. 1 Ohio State (Nov. 7) and No. 8 Iowa (Nov. 15) last season. Minnesota has lost seven straight games against ranked opponents dating back to the 2014 season. Minnesota’s last win against a ranked opponent was a 28-24 victory at No. 21 Nebraska on Nov. 22, 2014. The Gophers were trailing 21-7 at the half, but quarterback Mitch Leidner led the Gophers on a 10-play, 80-yard game-winning touchdown drive with 3:25 left in the game. Leidner rushed 22 times for 111 yards and two scores and Minnesota also receiving rushing scores from David Cobb and Rodrick Williams. Briean Boddy-Calhoun preserved the win when he forced and recovered a fumble with 1:19 left in the game.
2. Minnesota started the Big Ten schedule 0-2, but has rattled off four straight conference wins in beating Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue. The Gophers last won four straight Big Ten games in 2013, when they beat Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. Head coach Tracy Claeys was the acting head coach in 2013 when Minnesota won those four games, as then-head coach Jerry Kill was dealing with health issues. Prior to 2013, the last time Minnesota won four straight Big Ten games was in 1973 when it beat Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin. The Gophers' most recent five-game conference win streak in the same season came in 1962 when they beat Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue. Minnesota also won five straight league games spanning the 1969 and 1970 seasons. Minnesota ended 1969 Big Ten play with wins against Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan State and Wisconsin before shutting out Indiana to begin league play in 1970.
3. Minnesota is 7-2 overall (third time in four seasons) and 4-2 in the Big Ten. The Gophers have now won at least seven games in a season 32 times in school history and 16 times since 1950. Minnesota has won at least seven games in three of the last four seasons (8 wins in 2013 and 2014 and 7 wins in 2016), which is a feat it last accomplished in 2003 (10 wins), 2004 (7 wins) and 2005 (7 wins). Minnesota will play in its fifth straight (19th overall) bowl game this year. Minnesota’s streak of five consecutive bowls is tied for the longest streak in program history (2002-2006). Minnesota ended a seven-game bowl losing streak last year with a win in the Quick Lane Bowl.
4. This year’s senior class (2013-16) has won 29 games (8 in 2013, 8 in 2014, 6 in 2015 and 7 in 2016), which is the most by a senior class since 2006. That class (2003-06) won 30 games (10 in 2003, 7 in 2004, 7 in 2005 and 6 in 2006).
5. Minnesota leads the Big Ten (third in the nation) in turnover margin at +12. The Gophers have made eight interceptions and recovered 13 fumbles (most in the nation), while throwing six interceptions and losing three fumbles. The Gophers have scored 90 points off of turnovers, while allowing only 23. Last season, Minnesota scored only 37 points off of turnovers, while allowing 72.
Nebraska players to watch
1) Tommy Armstrong, quarterback: I'm expecting that Nebraska is going to have their leader and signal caller back on Sautrday night in Tommy Armstrong. He's the engine that makes this Cornhuskers offense go, as he can do it both with his arm, and with his legs. Armstrong is Nebraska's second leading rusher, averaging nearly 50 yards on the ground in each game this season, as he's rushed in seven touchdowns as well. Where he's struggling a bit is in the passing game, where in Big Ten play, Armstrong is only completing 49.7% of his passes, with touchdown to interception ratio at 4:7. He's the undisputed catalyst of this Husker offense, and will play a large part in this game on Saturday night.
2) Terrell Newby, running back: Newby is the Husker's leading rusher during the 2016 season as he's averaging 71.3 yards per game on a 4.8 yards per carry. Gopher fans will remember Newby well from last season where he went for 120 yards and two rushing scores at TCF Bank Stadium, in Jerry Kill's last game. Minnesota's rush defense in much improved from 2015, as the Gophers rank tied for second as they're only giving up 3.3 yards per carry. Minnesota's got to be able to contain Armstrong and Newby this weekend.
3) Josh Banderas, linebacker: Banderas was fantastic against the Gophers last season tallying up 10 total tackles and a tackle for loss, and he's doing just as well in 2016, as he leads the Cornhuskers in tackles. Minnesota's offensive line has to know where he is at all times.
Keys to the game
1. Have to be able to run the ball and get out early: I'm very interested to see how Minnesota's run offense and defense stack up against Nebraska, as I believe the Gophers hold an advantage there. When Nebraska went against Oregon, Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio State, here's how things looked in the run game for the opposing offense.
Oregon: 7.1 ypc on 47 attempts
Illinois: 5.9 ypc on 21 attempts
Wisconsin: 5.9 ypc on 38 attempts
Ohio State: 5.7 ypc on 42 attempts
As you can see, the last two weeks especially haven't gone well for the Huskers rushing defense. Minnesota's running offense is averaging over 200 yards a game on the ground, and if the Gophers are going to win this game, they're going to have to find success on the ground as this offense isn't built to play from behind.
We also all know how football is a game of momentum and look at where these two teams have been in recent weeks. Minnesota is riding off of four straight Big Ten victories, and Nebraska has lost two straight, including an absolute drumming last week against Ohio State. If Minnesota's able to grab an early lead and get more doubt creeping into the heads of Husker players, it could be an interesting ball game. Minnesota needs to come out firing on Saturday evening.
2. Win the turnover battle: It's no secret that a large part to Minnesota's success this season has been attributed to their ability to win the turnover margin battle week in and week out. During Big Ten play, Minnesota is +9 and that's tops in the B1G thus far, as Minnesota has forced 16 turnovers thus far. Nebraska on the other hand is -2 in the take / give, so if Minnesota's defense is able to give their offense the ball in advantageous situations like the last few weeks, that's going to bode well for this Gopher team.
It also needs to be noted that both Nebraska and Minnesota are number one and two during Big Ten play in interceptions, and both quarterbacks are susceptible to interceptions, so don't be shocked to see a few of those on Saturday night.
3. Find a way to win the game: There's been a lot of talk this week about, "How good is this Gopher Football team?", and the truth is, we'll know a lot more tomorrow night. Nebraska is the first real test for this Minnesota team since Iowa, and when you go back and look at that stretch against Penn State and Iowa, the Gophers found ways to lose, instead of finding a way to win. They had multiple chances against Penn State in the fourth quarter to close the door on the Nittany Lions, and weren't able to do so. Minnesota's beating Iowa at home in the fourth quarter, and let it slip away.
Has Minnesota learned from those mistakes earlier in the season, because there's zero doubt that there will be a point in the second half where this Gopher team will have to prove to themselves and the rest of the Big Ten, that they can win a contested game against an equal opponent.
Whether it's Mitch Leidner and the Gopher offense marching down the field for a score late, Damarius Travis and the Minnesota defense holding up to halt the Husker offense, or Emmit Carpenter nailing a late field goal to put the Gophers ahead, Minnesota has to find a way to win the game.
There's a very likely scenario that Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong will be back, and to be honest, I'm not sure how big of a deal that is, IF (and that's a big if) Minnesota is able to contain Armstrong in the pocket. We've told the story on how ineffective Armstrong has been through the air, and if you take away his ability on the ground and make him become a pocket passer, things look up for Minnesota's chances.
To be honest though, this game is likely just going to come down to whether Minnesota plays a complete game for the first time this season on offense, defense and special teams.
Will the passing offense be effective and efficient to alleviate the likely seven and eight man boxes that the Huskers defense will show to try and slow down Minnesota's rushing attack.
Will the offensive line come out and play with a physicality play after play, and will they stay disciplined in a tough road environment?
Will the receiving options get enough separation when Minnesota is asked to throw, that they can help out their quarterback?
Will the defense be able to neutralize Tommy Armstrong's legs, and will they be able to limit the amount of big plays?
Will Minnesota's special teams be able to play consistently in each opportunity they're given?
These are the kind of questions going through my mind, and the biggest one of all still remains as well.
Can Minnesota find a way to win against a similarly skilled opponent. So far, Minnesota is 0-2 on the season in those games. Will the third time be the charm for the Gophers on Saturday night?
The answer to that will be:
Yes, if Minnesota's plays their first complete game of the season.
No, if Minnesota isn't able to play a complete game.
We'll find out for certain Saturday night.