Minnesota's rush defense has had its problems all season, giving up an average of 166.5 yards per game on the ground. When it comes to stopping running quarterbacks, though, the numbers are significantly worse. Michigan's Denard Robinson torched the Gophers on the ground in the Wolverines' 58-0 win back on Oct. 1, as Minnesota's defense had no answer for Robinson's dual-threat ability.
Obviously that plays right into the hands of Nebraska and quarterback Taylor Martinez, who comes into today's game ranked fifth in the Big Ten in rushing at 97.3 yards per game. While the Huskers have taken some of the load off Martinez in recent weeks by giving junior Rex Burkhead and their three freshmen running backs more of the carries, this could be a perfect opportunity for Martinez to get back to his big play ways running the ball.
If the Gophers devote too much attention to containing Martinez, it will only open up more room for Burkhead, who's led the way for NU on the ground this season as the No. 3 rusher in the Big Ten at 105.8 yards per game. Not only that, the Huskers also get back freshman Braylon Heard, the team's third-leading rusher on the year, after he missed the past three games with an infection in his leg.
NU Pass Offense vs. UM Pass Defense
Like most teams, it's expected that Minnesota will make stopping the run its top priority on defense to try and force Martinez to make plays with his arm. That's worked at times earlier this season, but in most cases Martinez is at his best throwing the ball in play-action against one-on-one coverage match-ups.
The thing about Minnesota's defense is it has used a different scheme in every game it's played this season, so Nebraska likely won't know what to expect from the Gophers until the game goes along. However, NU is expecting a lot of activity from the front four and a good amount of blitzes, which will force Martinez to make quick decisions in the pocket when he does pass.
The good news for Nebraska is Minnesota will be without its No. 1 cornerback coming into the season, Troy Stoudermire, who broke his wrist early in the year. As a result, UM has just three interceptions this season and have given up 247.7 passing yards, which ranks 91st nationally. As long as Martinez can get some time in the pocket and makes the right reads, the Huskers should have several opportunities to make some plays through the air.
UM Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
If there's one area where Minnesota could do some damage to Nebraska's defense, it's the running ability of quarterback MarQueis Gray. Leading the Gophers with 74.2 yards per game, Gray was at one point right behind Robinson and Martinez on Big Ten rushing list before being temporarily sidelined with an injury. At 6-4, 229, Gray poses a significant challenge to any defense, especially considering he's athletic enough that he was used as a wide receiver last year.
For Nebraska, a guy like Gray could be a big problem. The Huskers have had trouble all year long stopping mobile quarterbacks, and none they have faced so far have been the caliber of runner of Gray. Against Ohio State, true freshman Braxton Miller almost single handedly beat NU with his scrambling, as he put up 71 rushing yards in the first half alone and finished with 91 on the night. Had it not been for an ankle injury that forced him out of the game early in the fourth quarter, Nebraska's school-record comeback may have never been.
Needless to say, the only real way Minnesota stands a chance today is if Gray puts up a miraculous individual performance and can keep drives going with his legs. The Huskers have had two weeks to devise a plan to contain Gray on the ground, and even with the loss of star defensive tackle Jared Crick, they should be able to hold their own against a Minnesota line that at times features three freshmen.
UM Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
As good as Gray may be as a runner, his passing ability is pretty much non-existent. Gray has completed just 48.5 percent of his passes this season for just 624 yards, and he has thrown more interceptions (4) than he has touchdowns (3). He's been so ineffective throwing the ball that Minnesota turned to freshman Max Shortell at one point. Shortell didn't fared much better, completing just 49.1 percent of his throws with two touchdowns and two picks.
That probably won't cut it against a Nebraska secondary that finally looks to be coming into its own. Senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is settling in after missing the first three games of the season, and the Huskers hope to have found their other starting corner in Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who moved over from receiver and came up with a huge interception against Ohio State.
Minnesota rarely tests defenses down field with the pass, so as long as NU's secondary can stick with receivers and take away the short underneath routes, they'll be able to put Gray into position where he has to make longer throws to move the ball. Based on what he's shown so far, that's the ideal situation for Nebraska.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
With all the problems Minnesota has had offensively, maybe its best chance of scoring could be in the return game. Return man Marcus Jones averages 27.8 yards per return to rank second in the Big Ten and among the top 15 nationally. Considering how many points the Gophers have given up already this season, Jones's average is especially impressive considering how many returns he's had so far.
The only problem for Minnesota in this match-up is Nebraska's special teams have been as good as any in the country all season long. Jones is second only to NU's Ameer Abdullah in kickoff returns, as the freshman leads the Big Ten and ranks second nationally with 28.8 yards per return.
Then of course there's Brett Maher, who's connected on 11-of-13 field goals and all 28 of his extra points this season and has twice been named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week. His only two misses this season came from 50 yards out, including one that sailed directly over the goal post against Wyoming.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can pound the ball on the ground while mixing in a few big pass plays and protecting the football offensively. On defense, the Huskers have to be able to contain Gray's running ability and prevent him from keeping drives alive with his feet. So long as it doesn't continuously shoot itself in the foot and allow the Gophers to hang around, this one should be over before the fourth quarter.
Minnesota Will Win If:
Gray can take over the game and burn Nebraska's defense like so many mobile quarterbacks have this season. The Gophers will also have to find a way to throw the ball down field to keep the Huskers' defense honest. They'll also need to get some stops on early downs and make Martinez pass the ball.
Nebraska's motto for this game, and for the rest of the season for that matter, is to "start fast, finish fast." The Huskers have been plagued all year by slow starts, and many times have needed major second half adjustments to finally get going. If they can jump on the Gophers from the beginning today, this game should be an easy victory. If the Huskers sputter and let Minnesota stay close, it could be a frustrating four quarters.