Offensive line must hold tight to win in Lincoln
MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team is going bowling. With a win over Illinois last weekend, the Gophers now have six victories on the season — with two games to play. The first of Minnesota’s two remaining games is a tough road test as the Gophers travel to take on the 8-2 Nebraska Cornhuskers. Here are five things to watch as Minnesota prepares to take on Nebraska, which currently sits No. 14 in the BCS standings.
1. The Gophers are bowl eligible. Can they build off of that?
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From the start of the season, Minnesota said its goal was to go to a bowl game. After beating Illinois last weekend to become bowl eligible, the Gophers aren’t about to settle for just six wins.
With two games remaining in the season, Minnesota is hoping it can win another game or two to perhaps improve which bowl game it will play in. Can the Gophers use the momentum from last week’s win over Illinois and carry it with them into Lincoln?
“The goal is to win every time you step on the field,” said Gophers defensive lineman D.L. Wilhite. “It’s great to be bowl eligible. It’s great to go to another bowl. But for me, it’s just the competitiveness. Every time I line up against somebody, I don’t want to get my butt kicked. If I could have won 12 or 13, that was my goal. Every time I step on the field, I expect to win a game.”
2. Minnesota has faced several dual-threat quarterbacks already. How will the Gophers fare against yet another?
Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez may have a weird delivery when he throws, but the junior quarterback has been a big key to the Huskers offense this year. Martinez ranks second in the Big Ten in total offense (288.2 yards per game), behind only Ohio State sophomore Braxton Miller.
While he averages 77 rushing yards per game and had a 92-yard run this season, Martinez isn’t just a threat with his feet. He’s much improved as a passer, completing a career-high 62.6 percent of his passes. He’s averaging 211.2 passing yards per game, fourth-most among Big Ten quarterbacks.
Minnesota has faced several dual-threat quarterbacks, including two in the past two weeks in Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase. Martinez, however, might prove to be the toughest test yet.
“We’ve just got to play like we did against Illinois, make sure we keep that guy in the pocket,” Wilhite said. “Even though he’s not as jittery as the guy from Michigan, he can move. He’s definitely got some speed to him, so we’ve got to make sure we keep him contained.”
3. How will Minnesota’s offensive line hold up with so many injuries?
The Gophers are without two of their three centers, as Zach Mottla is out for the year with a broken leg and Jon Christenson is questionable for Saturday against Nebraska. That leaves Zac Epping as the only healthy option at center.
Through 10 games, the Gophers’ offensive line has held its own as far as pass protection. Minnesota’s opponents have just 15 total sacks this year, ranking the Gophers in the top five in fewest sacks allowed. Minnesota’s rushing offense has ranked in the middle of the pack as well as the offensive line has helped pave the way to an average of 166.2 rushing yards per game.
But with Mottla out and Christenson a question mark, Minnesota is thin on the offensive line. Left guard Tommy Olson is second in line to back up Mottla, while his older brother, left tackle Ed Olson, is the emergency center should it come to that.
“It could always be like Maryland. We’re not playing a linebacker at quarterback,” said head coach Jerry Kill. “There’s some unusual things that happen in college football and this is a little bit unusual that you play three (centers), even travel three people that can snap in a football game.”
4. Philip Nelson already had one chance to play in a hostile environment. How will Lincoln compare to Madison?
Nelson, the Gophers’ true freshman quarterback, was thrust into the starting role for Minnesota’s game at Wisconsin last month. Camp Randall is often regarded as one of the tougher places to play for visiting teams.
Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., is similar. It has a capacity of 81,091, and Cornhuskers fans treat football like a religion. To prepare for what’s ahead, the Gophers have piped in artificial crowd noise during practices.
“It’s going to be loud. We already know that,” Nelson said of Lincoln. “All we can do is prepare and really focus on being able to execute, especially with some crowd noise.”
5. Donnell Kirkwood had a career game against Illinois. Now, he faces a very susceptible Nebraska rushing defense.
With the passing game not able to do much against the Fighting Illini, Kirkwood carried the offense by rushing for 152 yards and two touchdowns last Saturday. It was a career-high in rushing yards for the redshirt sophomore as he had his third 100-yard rushing game of the season.
Now, Kirkwood will be up against one of the worst rushing defenses in the Big Ten. Nebraska has allowed 179.9 yards per game this season, third-most of all teams in the conference.
“Donnell is gaining confidence,” Kill said. “A year ago he was learning, but I think Donnell has gained some confidence, and then you start feeling good about yourself and it’s like anything, you start performing pretty well.”