The 16th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers hope to keep pace in the race for a spot in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game, and the next hurdle in their way appears this Saturday in Lincoln when the Minnesota Golden Gophers come to town.
Minnesota's 17-3 win at Illinois last weekend made the team bowl eligible, as it was the Golden Gophers' second triumph in the last three games and the sixth in 10 total outings this year. Minnesota had won a total of six games in each of the past two seasons, and the club is eligible for the postseason for the time since 2009. The win over the Illini was also important in that it snapped the Gophers' six-game losing streak on the road against Big Ten rivals.
Coach Jerry Kill was obviously pleased with the recent win, but also genuinely happy for the veterans on his team as they will get the chance to play in one final bowl game.
"I just think of the seniors, and I am happy for them. We still have work to do. We still have two games left and that's our focus. I am happy for those older kids because when you have a coaching transition, it's a hard thing on them. It's been tough but they have responded well and I am just happy for those kids because they have been through a lot."
Nebraska comes into this clash sporting an 8-2 overall record and a 5-1 mark in conference, which has it tied with Michigan for the top spot in the Legends Division. However, the Cornhuskers own the tie-breaker by virtue of their 23-9 victory over the Wolverines earlier this season. Coach Bo Pelini's squad was most recently in action last Saturday at home against Penn State, and rallied from a double-digit deficit in the second half to earn a 32-23 victory.
Pelini is also appreciative of the effort put forth by Nebraska's collection of seniors, and with this being their final game at Memorial Stadium, he effused praise upon them.
"It's a special group of guys. Obviously it means a lot to me. It's hard to believe that this is their last go around in Memorial Stadium. I've recruited them all and brought them here under some tough situations. It's a tremendous group of kids not just as football players but more importantly as kids how they have represented this program, and what they have done off the field as much as they have done on the field."
Minnesota owns a 29-21-2 lead in the all-time series with Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers have dominated the Gophers of late, winning the last 15 matchups, the most recent of which being a 41-14 final in Minneapolis last season.
Minnesota gained only 78 yards through the air last week at Illinois, as QB Nelson Philips completed just 9-of-15 passes on the day. RB Donnell Kirkwood took it upon himself to shoulder much of the offensive burden, as he rushed for 152 yards and two TDs, averaging nearly five and a half yards per carry in the process.
The UM defense certainly did its part, not allowing a TD and holding the Fighting Illini to a mere 276 total yards, of which only 101 came via the run. The Gophers logged two sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries in the contest, and LB Aaron Hill led the team with 10 tackles, seven of which were unassisted. The three points allowed to Illinois were the fewest surrendered by Minnesota to a Big Ten foe since it blanked Illinois, 45-0, back in 2004.
Through 10 games, Minnesota is scoring just a tad more than it allows (23.2 ppg to 22.3 ppg), and the team uses a balanced, if unspectacular offensive approach in averaging 166.2 ypg on the ground and 187.5 ypg via the pass. Nelson has started four games this year, and has hit the mark on 57.1 percent of his passes for 791 yards, six TDs and four interceptions, while Kirkwood has amassed 819 yards and five scores on 182 carries (4.5 ypc, 81.9 ypg). A.J. Barker is the team's leading receiver with 30 grabs for 577 yards and seven TDs.
Minnesota's strength on defense is its ability to control the passing game, as foes typically generate just 168.8 ypg through the air. The Gophers have been credited with 21 sacks among their 53 TFL, but they've come up with only 14 turnovers. Troy Stoudermire leads the team with 63 total tackles, while DL Wilhite has seven sacks.
The Cornhuskers kept their dreams of playing for the Big Ten title alive last weekend, as they got past visiting Penn State after trailing for much of the contest. It was the third time in the last six games that Nebraska battled back from a deficit of 12 points or more to claim victory, as QB Taylor Martinez tallied 275 yards of total offense (171 passing, 104 rushing), and had a TD toss. RB Ameer Abdullah led the NU ground assault with 116 yards on 31 carries. In all, the Huskers rolled up 438 yards of total offense, while allowing the Nittany Lions 391 yards.
Ciante Evans and Will Compton finished with 10 tackles apiece, and the Nebraska defense was credited with three sacks and three takeaways, two of which belonged to Daimion Stafford.
Martinez is one of the better dual-threat signal-callers in the nation, as he has thrown for 2,112 yards, 19 TDs and only eight interceptions, while running for 770 yards and eight TDs on 132 carries. Abdullah is fast approaching 1,000 yards for the season, settling in at 942 yards with eight rushing scores himself. Kenny Bell continues to pace the NU receiving corps with 35 catches for 653 yards and six TDs.
Nebraska is outscoring its opponents by 12.4 ppg (37.4 to 25.0), and the Husker defense has been on point as well against the pass, yielding a mere 164.4 ypg. Foes have found open running lanes, to the tune of 180 ypg, but the unit as a whole has made some big plays, namely 27 sacks, 75 TFL and 17 takeaways. Compton paces the team with his 83 tackles, while Eric Martin leads the way with 7.5 sacks and 12 stops total behind the line of scrimmage.