Preview: Can Gophers get past emotional win, compete in Nebraska?
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Who: Minnesota Gophers (6-4, 2-4 in Big Ten) at No. 16 Nebraska Cornhuskers (8-2, 5-1)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb. (capacity: 81,091)
TV: Big Ten Network
Line: Nebraska by 20
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (2nd season, 9-13). Nebraska -- Bo Pelini (5th season, 47-18).
Series: Minnesota leads 29-21-2
Last meeting: Making its first visit to the Twin Cities in 22 years and first as a member of the Big Ten, Nebraska trampled the Gophers in a 41-14 mismatch. The Gophers failed to score in the first half, and by the start of the third quarter they were trailing 34-0.
At stake: Bowl eligibility tastes sweet for the Gophers after heading to the offseason early in back-to-back years. A gritty 17-3 victory at Illinois last week, coach Jerry Kill's first Big Ten road win with the "U," has stamped the Gophers' season with a tangible sign of progress. However, though the Gophers have made it to the six-win threshold, Kill's team has yet to notch a signature victory. With games against Nebraska and Michigan State remaining, the Gophers still have a chance to grab an upset win and make a bid for a better bowl game. But to do so on Saturday would require the Gophers to do something they have not done since 1960 -- defeat Nebraska in Lincoln. Nebraska has its Big Ten Legends division title hopes hanging in the balance. Tied with Michigan atop the standings, wins against the Gophers and next week at Iowa would ensure the No.16-ranked Huskers of a trip to the Big Ten title game and a shot at the Rose Bowl.
Gophers: WR A.J. Barker will be sidelined for the third consecutive week with a right ankle injury. Barker, the Gophers' top receiver, has not practiced since retweaking the injury in pre-game warm-ups two weeks ago against Michigan. Though Barker has been ruled out, fellow WR Derrick Engel appears set to return after a one-game absence due to a hamstring strain. He was not listed on the Gophers' weekly injury report on Thursday. DT Roland Johnson is out with a right knee injury, which has hounded him for the last few weeks. Lamonte Edwards will also not travel with the team, out with an undisclosed injury. An ankle sprain knocked C John Christenson out of last week's game against Illinois, but he enters the weekend as a question mark. If Christenson is able to play, Kill said his responsibilities would be limited to a backup role behind targeted starter C Zac Epping. LB Lamonte Edwards, DE D.L. Wilhite, CB Jeremy Baltazar are all labeled as questionable for Saturday with unknown injuries. C Zach Mottla underwent surgery Tuesday to repair a broken left leg, suffered last weekend. WR Jamel Harbison is sidelined for the season as he rehabs from a torn right ACL.
Nebraska: Former All-Big Ten RB Rex Burkhead is questionable, as he has been all season, with a nagging left knee injury. Burkhead, who has missed five games throughout the season, was limited at times in the practice this week. FB Mike Marrow (knee) and WR Taariq Allen (knee) both suffered season-ending injuries three weeks ago against Michigan on Oct. 27. DE Avery Moss (shoulder), LB Zaire Anderson (knee) and Tyler Wullenwaber (knee) are also out for season.
Three things to watch
Up against the odds Emotions peaked last week for the Gophers as the team experienced a joyous post-game celebration, amid a few tears from an elated group of seniors, after securing their long sought-after goal of making a bowl game. With that significant milestone in hand, the question becomes whether or not the Gophers can take another step forward in the final two games of the season. They had plenty of shortfalls last week at Illinois in a battle of lower-tier Big Ten teams, but the Gophers left Champaign having done what was needed in the type of winnable conference game that they had consistently eluded them in the last two years. Letdown is a keyword heading into Saturday. The Gophers have struggled to build off their success from week to week. After pounding Purdue 44-28 on Oct. 27, the "U" faltered in a match-up of overt missed opportunities at home against a susceptible Michigan squad. In order to have a shot at upsetting the Huskers, the Gophers can't afford a letdown in the confidence and energy gained from their most recent win. A win at Nebraska, against a team that it is has not beaten in its last 15 attempts, could dramatically change the landscape for Kill's program. Not only would it be Kill's first defining victory in his short time with the Gophers, but it would also mark the program's first upset since 2005 against a team ranked No. 20 or better. The players are understanding of the odds, but relish their position.
"Most people are going to be rooting against us. Most people don't think we're going to come into this game and fight," sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood said. "A lot of people think we're going to lose. We like it like that. We're the underdogs. That's what's on the back of our shirts. It's going to be on the back of our shirts as long as Coach Kill is here."
Keep on running: Taking a large number of snaps out of a power I-formation, the Gophers relentlessly ran at Illinois, and it worked to the tune of 231 yards rushing yards. Kirkwood was in top form as he ran for 152 yards (28 carries) and both of the Gophers' touchdowns. The outright success of the run game, fueled by an O-line that played surprisingly well given a three-man in-game change at center, took a layer of pressure off freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. Nelson is in need of that on Saturday. Without key receiver A.J. Barker in the last two games, the Gophers have labored to come anywhere matching the promise shown against Purdue. Nelson completed only nine passes for 78 yards last week. Getting Kirkwood and secondary tailback Rodrick Williams Jr. in a rhythm early on could result in opening Nelson up to gradually integrate the passing game. They will be without Barker again, but sophomore wide receiver Isaac Fruechte showed signs in glimpses against Illinois that he can make the tough, near-sideline catches that had been going to Barker. While offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover likely won't back away from the pass as he did in Champaign, Kirkwood and Williams can be expected to face a heavy workload. Nebrasksa is second in the Big Ten in pass defense, behind Michigan, but they have had periodic issues stopping the run. The Huskers' rush defense ranks seventh in the conference, yielding 181.8 yards per game.
Defense first: Nebraska hasn't had preseason All-American Rex Burkhead at their full disposal, but it hasn't mattered much. The Huskers are getting plenty of offense from elsewhere. Dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez has made himself the most dangerous QB in Big Ten, pairing an average of 211.2 passing yards per game with the potential to pass the 100-yard mark on the ground - he has run for a combined 309 yards in the last two games. Sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah has also taken up the slack on offense by emerging as Nebraska's top rushing option, sitting 58 yards away from the 1,000-yard milestone. The Gophers have been notoriously inconsistent this season in stopping the run. In losses to Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin, they were gashed for 182 or more rushing yard, allowing at least one running back to have a plus-100-yard day. However, the "U" defense is coming off its best showing of the season, having suffocated Illinois in key situations and surrendering its lowest point total in a Big Ten game since 2004. That's not going to be replicated against Nebraska, but if the Gophers can produce some of the strong stops they have had in every game this season, the emphasis will be placed on their offense to capitalize on the slim openings given to them. The offense's inability to do so has been a crucial factor in derailing the Gophers' in all four of their losses.
The call: Nebraska The Gophers are up against too much in this one. For a team sporting a roster lined with freshman and sophomores, a trip to Lincoln can be enough to rattle confidence levels. Regardless of the obvious strides made defensively last week, Nebraska's rushing capabilities conflict with where the "U" defense has been the weakest. It would not be surprising to see the Gophers hang with the Huskers in the first half, but if the offense runs into its usual extended slow patches Nebraska will be able to open up the score in the final two quarters.