Nebraska, Minnesota trying to recover from rough starts
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Big Ten's West Division is the most winnable of the two these days. The current class of the conference, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, is in the other group.
Nebraska and Minnesota were two of the early favorites, but they've already fallen behind. Their matchup on Saturday will be critical for remaining in the race, with undefeated Iowa off to the strongest start.
''You try not to focus on that stuff too much, but yeah, you do want to know. Is there still a way? Is it still possible to make it to the conference championship?'' Nebraska defensive end Jack Gangwish said. ''Yeah, there is some of that stuff. You look and you wonder, but at the end of the day you have to take comfort in the fact that all you can do is win the next one.''
Minnesota (4-2, 1-1) did just that last week, rebounding from a humbling shutout loss at Northwestern by blowing out Purdue. Nebraska (2-4, 0-2) had the chance at home against Wisconsin but was beaten for a fourth time this season on the other team's final offensive play.
Another loss, and the Huskers will be off to the program's worst start in 57 years.
Here are some key angles to know about the game on Saturday:
The Gophers have three nonconference victories, by three points apiece against non-power conference opponents. The offense has been largely stagnant, ranked last in the league with an average of 19.7 points per game. They're 12th of 14 with an average of 348.5 yards per game.
They returned to their roots against Purdue, with a dominant performance by freshman running back Shannon Brooks and the linemen and receivers blocking for him. But quarterback Mitch Leidner will be counted on for more production against a Huskers team that's worst among all 127 FBS teams against the pass.
That's right: The Huskers have given up an average of 348.5 yards per game through the air.
''If we need to throw it, we'll throw it. I ain't real fired up. We throw it 50 times, then I might have a heart attack,'' coach Jerry Kill said. ''So I'm not going to throw it 50 times. Maybe 49, but not 50.''
Added offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover: ''If you want to run the football, you have to keep them off-balance a little bit. You can't just dive it between the tackles and hope for the best.''
Nebraska has not opened 0-3 in conference play since the 1945 team coached by George ''Potsy'' Clark lost consecutive Big Six games against Oklahoma, Iowa State and Missouri. The Huskers, who haven't started 2-5 overall since 1958 under coach Bill Jennings, have lost seven of their last 10 games to match the program's worst 10-game stretch since the 1959-60 seasons.
BANGED UP ON BOTH SIDES
The Huskers have been hampered by injuries throughout their front seven on defense, but they're expected to have linebacker Josh Banderas (groin) back in action after missing four of the last five games.
The Gophers have been hit hardest on the offensive line and in the secondary. They'll be without three key defensive backs, including starting safety Damarius Travis (hamstring) for a sixth straight game. Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun (knee) was listed as questionable. He has been out for the last two games.
Minnesota has a two-game winning streak against Nebraska for the first time since taking three in a row in 1951, 1952 and 1954.
''Personally, I feel like Nebraska's a pretty big rivalry here,'' Minnesota defensive end Andrew Stelter said. ''We beat 'em the last two years so they're going to come out hungry.''
Nebraska coach Mike Riley pointed to a number of tipped balls down the field by the defensive backs against Wisconsin as signs of improvement. In practice, the Huskers have been doing ''tons of ball drills'' to keep that up.
''I always tell defensive backs and even coach them to that point where you're not going to intercept this ball, but sometimes one finger on a ball saves a game,'' Riley said.