1.) With games against Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan left on the schedule, how important is this game for the Gophers Bowl chances?
Very important. Minnesota is going to have to get at least two more wins here with tough schedule remaining as you mention. This week at home against Nebraska is arguably one of their best chances on the schedule, especially with Michigan, @Ohio State and @Iowa immediately after the bye. Gopher fans know that there are some toss up games like Iowa and Wisconsin with the rivalry game aspect. With the Huskers reeling a little bit after a few tough losses in a row, the Gophers know that it's not going to be an easy game with all the pent up rage the Huskers must have right now. This game is extremely important for Minnesota to keep their bowl chances alive and well.
2.) After playing TCU tough, Minnesota looked like they went into rut the next four weeks despite going 3-1. What was the biggest things holding them back before breaking out against Purdue?
The offense and all the injuries and Minnesota sustained during the non-conference schedule. The Gophers offense, specifically the passing game has been needing a lot of help to get on track. Junior quarterback Mitch Leidner has been very up and down and the lack of consistency has been tough on this Gopher offense. Minnesota hasn't really attempted a pass longer than 25 yards since their third game of the year against Ohio and when they did, it resulted in two interceptions. It's literally been over 10 quarters since Minnesota has taken a deep shot and I absolutely believe 100% that if the Gophers are going to win their fifth game of the season Saturday against Nebraska, they'll need to complete something down field.
And the Gophers have been devastated by injuries, especially on the offensive line and defensive backfield. Minnesota's starting offensive line against TCU is nowhere near the same now heading into Nebraska as they've had different starters at every position along the line this season. Both left guards, Joe Bjorklund and Jon Christenson are dealing with knee issues, Tyler Moore, a true freshman is starting at center and Minnesota is missing Josh Campion now who has started every game since he was a freshman. In the secondary, Minnesota has been without All-American corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun since the Ohio game and without starting safety Damarius Travis since TCU. Travis is expected back in a limited capacity this weekend, but I wouldn't expect Boddy to play. Starting nickle Ace Rogers is out for the year with a torn ACL and back up corner Craig James is out with a broken leg. With all these injuries, Minnesota has been starting a walk-on at safety in Kunle Ayinde and two true freshmen defensive backs got a lot of time last week as well.
3.) Is freshman Shannon Brooks emerging as the guy at the running back spot?
Certainly seems that way, but I still expect Minnesota to maintain a running back by committee approach with true freshmen Shannon Brooks and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith. Smith had been the guy in the non-conference, but Brooks has really come on here the last few games, especially versus Purdue where he absolutely dominated the game averaging over ten yards a carry on 17 attempts last week. Both guys are going to keep getting carries as they're running styles are very different and both add value when they're fresh. The issue has been getting holes opened up for these two as when this Gopher OL is able to, you see games like Purdue happen where Minnesota wins easily. If the OL struggles like they did against Northwestern, Minnesota has issues and are forced to throw, which isn't a good thing. I would expect to see a heavy dose of both Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks on Saturday.
4.) Minnesota reestablished the running game against Purdue last week. How important is that for quarterback Mitch Leidner?
It's essential. Mitch Leidner set career high passing attempts in consecutive games this season already and it's in the Gophers best interest if that doesn't happen again on Saturday. Leidner will make some good throws that have you nodding your head and other ones that have you scratching it. He's the undisputed leader of this Gophers team and his teammates will run through a wall for him and while true freshmen Demry Croft may be the more talented passer in the long term, Minnesota continues to roll with Leidner. When the running game is going, Leidner is able to relax a little bit more, so it's huge for that to happen on Saturday vs the Huskers.
5.) How are the Gophers approaching this game against Nebraska compared to previous years, after winning two straight?
I think they're approaching it this week as a must win knowing the implications of their schedule down the line, so it's very similar to the last few years. I think this Gopher team felt disrespected by the media heading into the Nebraska game the last few years as most B1G fans view Minnesota as a bottom half of the Big Ten team for some reason still, even after back to back eight wins seasons. This team isn't riding too high or too low as they've had both ends of the spectrum to start their Big Ten season, but I think they'll be a lot of excitement in the air with Nebraska coming in to open the Gophers B1G home schedule.