It’s always exciting to get a great deal, but Nebraska might get more than it bargained for in mid-November, courtesy of a Big Ten darkhorse.
The (unofficial) Battle for the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy between the Huskers and the Minnesota Golden Gophers has featured a little bit of everything since Nebraska joined the Big Ten. There’s been Husker blowouts, Minnesota claiming victory in Lincoln and just last year, then-No. 21 Nebraska slugged it out with the Gophers with such gusto they won 24-17.
Minnesota is obviously looking to make a statement in head coach P.J. Fleck’s first year at the helm. Knocking off the Huskers would certainly be a jaunty feather in Fleck’s cap.
The two frontrunners for Minnesota’s starting quarterback spot (Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft) have one career start between them. As a result, the battle for the starting gig may drag into fall camp. Look for the Gophers to lean on a running game led by returning backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks as the new signal-caller works to find his flow in the offense.
This dynamic duo of Smith and Brooks combined for 1,808 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2016 and Smith’s 16 scores was second-most in the Big Ten. He also averaged 4.8 yards per carry while Brooks averaged 4.7. Even more good news for the Gophers’ rushing attack comes in the form of the offensive line: Four starters return with freshman Conner Olsen looking to be tabbed for the center position.
A fantastic hire was made in former Ohio State offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Ed Warinner, now in charge of the Gophers’ entire ground game. It looks like Minnesota’s gearing up to become a more traditional Big Ten offensive threat.
Having a steady rushing attack will come in handy as the Gophers look to get their quarterback in rhythm with a wide receiver corps that must adjust to the lack of 2016 leading receiver Drew Wolitarsky. No Minnesota wideout mirrored even half of Wolitarsky’s 860-yard output last season.
On defense, the Gophers are led by senior linebacker Jonathan Celestin who finished second on the team in tackles last season with 80. In a modified 3-4 defense, defensive tackle Steven Richardson will likely use all of his 6-0, 300-pound frame to free up space for Celestin to wreak havoc.
Richardson is a danger to offenses himself as he led the Gophers in tackles for loss in 2016 with 11 and racked up seven sacks. Sophomore linebackers Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber look to assist in offering a Wisconsinesque defensive challenge.
Should the game come down to field goals, it will become uniquely interesting. Nebraska’s veteran Drew Brown will clash with 2016 Big Ten Kicker of the Year Emmit Carpenter who not only made 92 percent of his attempts last year (20-of-22) but was also perfect on ten attempts over 40 yards.
On paper, Minnesota has a team that looks to at least be competitive by the time they face the Huskers, but there are other reasons why Nebraska may trip up in Minneapolis.
First is the Fleck Factor. He’s not Jim Harbaugh in terms of eccentricity, but he’s getting there. His players clearly buy into the “Row the Boat” mantra as his Western Michigan Broncos held a 1-11 record in 2013 versus going 13-1 in 2016. Keep in mind that one loss came at the hands of then-No. 8 Wisconsin as the Badgers bested WMU by eight points in the Cotton Bowl. Minnesota’s schedule is nothing if not manageable, especially early on. The Gophers’ nonconference slate consists of Buffalo, Oregon State and Middle Tennessee State.
They then face Maryland, Purdue and a Michigan State team that doesn’t look like it’ll rebound too well from last year’s 3-9 effort due to criminal investigations and academic matters. Follow that bunch up with a home game against Illinois and this team could very well be ranked at 7-0 thanks to Fleck’s infectious brand of momentum-producing vigor.
“(P.J. Fleck) has got that kind of enthusiasm that, even though us as coaches think it’s corny, it works with the players.” – An opposing Big Ten assistant coach (Athlon Sports)
The second reason that Nebraska might not be able to lay claim to the $5 Trophy is thanks to something they actually have control over: their own schedule. We’ll have a solid idea of just how good the 2017 Huskers are by Halloween as they’ll have invited both Wisconsin and Ohio State to Lincoln by then.
The Big Red gets a week off before visiting Purdue, but their next opponent could set the table for the Gophers to dine at. Northwestern visits Lincoln for the (again unofficial) Battle for NU and Justin Jackson’s Wildcats appear to be very capable of wearing Nebraska out both physically and emotionally.
Another caveat in the Big Red’s schedule is a game that won’t even be played before the Huskers visit Minnesota. A trip to Happy Valley to face an unruly crowd cheering on the Nittany Lions will loom large over the horizon.
There are quite a few question marks surrounding both teams heading into the season, but depending on how quickly they’re answered, Fleck may row his quirky boat through the Huskers come November 11.