Nebraska tries to rebound against surging Minnesota
With an embarrassing 62-3 loss to College Football Playoff contender Ohio State last week knocking it out of CFP contention, Nebraska sets its sights on winning the Big Ten West title and hoping Tommy Armstrong Jr.is healthy.
The Cornhuskers host Minnesota on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network) in Lincoln, Neb., with their senior quarterback in concussion protocol and questionable to play after banging his head hard on the Ohio Stadium turf following a big hit. He went to the hospital, but returned to the sideline in street clothes.
“This is out of our hands, which is a good thing,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “That decision will be made medically.”
The Cornhuskers are in a three-way tie with Minnesota and Wisconsin atop the West at 7-2, 4-2 Big Ten. Nebraska lost at Wisconsin 23-17 in overtime Oct. 29, so a loss to Minnesota would virtually eliminate it from contention. Wisconsin hosts Minnesota in the regular-season finale Nov. 26.
The Golden Gophers ride a four-game winning streak into Memorial Stadium, defeating four of the five worst teams in the Big Ten — Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue.
“It feels good, but we have bigger goals,” Minnesota sophomore running back Rodney Smith told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “This week coming up is a big week for us, and we know that. We've just got to fix our mistakes and prepare for Nebraska.”
If Armstrong cannot play, fifth-year senior Ryker Fyfe will call the signals against Minnesota. Fyfe was 5 of 18 for 52 yards with an interception after taking over for Armstrong last week. He has completed 51.7 percent of his 89 career passes with seven touchdowns and six interceptions.
“He's been here for five years, just like Tommy, so we're confident what he can do,” Cornhuskers center Dylan Utter told the Omaha World-Herald.
Riley is confident his team can bounce back after a demoralizing loss, but said: “You don't exactly flush it. It's not that easy.''
Nothing has come easily in the passing game lately for Nebraska, which completed 21 of 64 passes for 279 yards with four interceptions against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
“Part of the reason is the quarterback isn't allowed any rhythm,'' Riley said. “We've got to do a little cleaner job there. We've got to run the ball better. And my guess if we do that, our passing percentage will go up.”
If Armstrong cannot play, the Cornhuskers also lose a significant part of their running game (4.5 yards per 98 attempts, seven touchdowns). Senior running back Terrell Newby (133, 4.8, five) and sophomore running back Devine Ozigbo (90, 3.8, 5) would be left to carry the load.
“I think that the number one thing we need to do is establish two identity runs that we can repeat better throughout the ballgame that look good,'' Riley said. “Sometimes when you're not doing well, you jump around a little bit. So I think establishing identity well in that way and really rehearsing that is really going to be big for us and proving that and getting back to it.”
The Golden Gophers defeated Purdue 44-31 last week and are 7-2 for the third time in four years. Part of their success comes from an opportunistic defense that has helped them rank third in the nation in turnover margin at plus-12 and tied for fifth with 21 takeaways.
“Going into the last three games, this is everything we've wanted,” Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner told the Star Tribune.
Said Golden Gophers coach Tracy Claeys: “After our first two conference games nobody gave us a chance … to be in here. They kind of said the season was over. We just kept battling one game at a time and we fought our way back into this thing.”
Smith averaged 127 yards and scored eight touchdowns during the winning streak. He leads the Big Ten with 14 touchdowns (13 on the ground) and is second in rushing yards with 954.
“I'm proud of the way he's been rewarded for the work he's put into it,” Claeys said of Smith. “He's become a much more complete back.”
Nebraska is 3-2 versus Minnesota since joining the Big Ten, including a 48-25 victory in Minneapolis last year. The Golden Gophers prevailed 28-24 in Lincoln in 2014.