73F TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, MN
Nebraska's potent option-based offense is making up for the team's defensive issues.
Beginning life without star defensive tackle Jared Crick would appear to only exacerbate that issue, but the Cornhuskers' first meeting with sputtering Minnesota in 21 years may change that Saturday.
No. 13 Nebraska (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) boasts a powerful offense that ranks second in the conference with 37.0 points per game, while the unit's average of 246.8 rushing yards is among the best in the nation. That's been key since the Cornhuskers are 10th in the league against the run, surrendering an average of 167.8 yards and 4.5 per carry.
"It's all fixable," defensive tackle Chase Rome said. "We're not just getting driven off the ball. It's not like they're blowing by."
Losing perhaps their top defensive player will surely provide an added challenge.
A unanimous first-team All-Big 12 selection last season, Crick is out for the season after he underwent surgery to repair a torn chest muscle earlier this week. He suffered the injury in a collision during Nebraska's 34-27 win over Ohio State on Oct. 8.
"You can feel it in practice," Rome said. "It's like a missing piece to a machine ... We're going to mature as a group, especially with a blow like this. Everybody is going to step their game up and the attention to detail is going to be greater."
Rome, Thad Randle and Terrence Moore will rotate with Baker Steinkuhler at the two tackle spots with Crick out.
"We're looking for consistency across the board, not just from those guys," coach Bo Pelini said.
The Cornhuskers' defense may get a dose of relief against the Golden Gophers (1-5, 0-2), who rank at the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring (18.0) and total offense (300.3).
Minnesota has totaled 390 yards of offense while losing its last two games, though both have come on the road. The Golden Gophers followed a 58-0 loss to then-No. 19 Michigan on Oct. 1 by falling 45-17 at Purdue a week later.
They've shown much more promise while losing two of three at home, averaging 24.7 points and 370.0 yards of offense.
"They are well-coached, they're aggressive." Pelini said. "They do present some problems for you. Obviously, we have them at their place, where they're going to be excited, they're going to play hard and they're going to give us their best shot. We'll be challenged up there in Minnesota, there's no question."
Pelini's offense centers around the rushing ability of quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead, who lead the Cornhuskers with nine touchdowns apiece.
Martinez ranks third nationally among signal callers with 584 rushing yards, while Burkhead is third in the Big Ten with an average of 105.8 yards on the ground.
The duo were key to Nebraska erasing a 21-point, third-quarter deficit to stun the Buckeyes two weeks ago. Martinez ran for a score and threw for two others, including one to Burkhead, whose 17-yard TD run capped the comeback.
"You know, they basically have gone offensively what Coach (Tom) Osborne stood for, for years and running option football any way you want to slice it," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said.
Martinez and Burkhead could be poised for big games again with the Golden Gophers ranking among the league's worst rushing defenses, surrendering an average of 166.5 yards and 580 total over the last two games.
MarQueis Gray will likely get the bulk of the snaps for Minnesota after completing 8 of 20 passes for 104 yards with an interception two weeks ago. He has a 48.5 completion percentage while tossing three TDs with four interceptions, but he does pose a threat on the ground with 371 yards on 77 carries.
Freshman backup Max Shortell hasn't been much better, converting 49.1 percent of his attempts with two scores and two picks.
Nebraska has won 14 in a row over Minnesota, but these teams haven't met since 1990.