Postseason implications are on the line when the 25th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers visit TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday afternoon to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Big Ten Conference play.
Both teams enter with five wins on the season and needing one more to become bowl eligible.
Nebraska is coming off its second bye in the past four weekends and will be seeking its ninth consecutive regular-season Big Ten victory. Prior to their latest idle date, the Cornhuskers cruised to a 44-7 win at Purdue on Oct. 12, which marked their largest margin of victory in the three seasons since joining the Big Ten.
While head coach Bo Pelini largely scoffed at having multiple bye weeks, they no doubt helped out senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who has missed the past three games with turf toe and is hoping to suit up for the first time since Sept. 21.
“Taylor did a little bit (Sunday),” head coach Bo Pelini said at his weekly press conference. “He did some field work yesterday. He took some reps. We’re just seeing how hies progressing, how he comes out of it, how he feels later on today, tomorrow. We’ll see if we can give him a little bit more on Tuesday and kind of play it by ear as the week goes on.”
Meanwhile, Minnesota will be looking to build on last week’s 20-17 triumph at Northwestern. That victory snapped a two-game slide for the Golden Gophers, who are trying to become bowl eligible for the second straight season under coach Jerry Kill. Coach Kill has taken an indefinite leave of absence to seek treatment for an ongoing series of epileptic seizures and, while he has not been on the sidelines for the past two games, he did make the trip to Northwestern to watch his team pick up its first conference victory of the season.
The head-to-head series between these schools has been one-sided for the last half-century, as Nebraska has won 16 straight meetings dating back to 1963, including nine in a row in Minneapolis.
With Martinez out, the Cornhuskers have gotten admirable contributions from redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong, Jr. and senior Ron Kellogg III. Armstrong has led the team to a 3-0 record as the fill-in starter, but Kellogg has also been rotated in and performed well. Armstrong did struggle against Purdue, as he completed only 6-of-18 passes for 43 yards and was intercepted three times. However, Kellogg came in and provided a spark, completing 10-of-13 attempts for 141 yards and a touchdown. Junior I-back Ameer Abdullah carried 20 times for 126 yards and a score, marking his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season. He is the nation’s sixth-leading rusher, averaging 136.0 yards per tilt.
A garbage-time touchdown with 40 seconds to play was all that stood between Nebraska and its first shutout since 2009. Still, there was plenty for the Huskers defense to celebrate in that victory. They bottled up the Boilermakers to a season-low seven points, 11 first downs, and 216 total yards. The unit also notched five sacks and a pair of takeaways. Randy Gregory recorded two of those five sacks and also scooped up a fumble.
“I think our takeaways have been better,” Pelini said. “I think there are some reasons for it. We have some playmakers in some areas. I think we are faster than we have been in the past. When we execute pretty well, we have a chance to be pretty good.”
Minnesota’s offense made just enough plays to hang on and beat a tough Northwestern squad. Philip Nelson completed 8-of-11 passes for 112 yards and a score, while David Cobb ran for a game-high 103 yards on 20 carries. Nelson, a sophomore, started four of the first five games this season before redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner started the next two. However, after the Golden Gophers were forced to punt on their first four possessions, Nelson relieved Leidner and led the team on its only scoring drive of the opening half. Minnesota scored all 20 of its points with Nelson under center, as he played the lion’s share of the second half. Still, the strength of the offense is on the ground, where the Gophers rank 28th in the nation in rushing offense. Four different players have recorded at least one 100-yard rushing game this season.
Minnesota’s James Manuel broke a 7-7 third-quarter tie with a 24-yard interception return, which swung the momentum in the Gophers’ favor. Defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman was effective in disrupting passing lanes, as he also recorded a pick and broke up three passes in all. Theiren Cockran chipped in with a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Meanwhile, the run defense limited the Wildcats to a pedestrian 3.6 ypc. Antonio Johnson led the way with a game-high 11 tackles in the victory. On the season, Damien Wilson paces the defense with 43 tackles (4.5 TFL). Sophomore Eric Murray has tallied a team- best seven pass breakups.
Minnesota is coming off a sound victory and will play in front of a fired up home crowd with the nationally-ranked Cornhuskers in town. At the end of the day though, Nebraska’s ground game and unforgiving defense may prove too tough to overcome.