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Gophers football vs. Nebraska: Keys to game, how to watch, who has edge

The Gophers, 1 win from bowl eligibility, are 4-1 against Nebraska under coach P.J. Fleck

Minnesota Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim (24) drags several Nebraska defenders with him as he fights for yards against Nebraska on Oct. 12, 2019, at TCF Stadium in Minneapolis.
Minnesota Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim (24) drags several Nebraska defenders with him as he fights for yards against Nebraska on Oct. 12, 2019, at TCF Stadium in Minneapolis.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press
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Minnesota at Nebraska

When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.
TV: ESPN2
Weather: 42 degrees, sunny, 11 mph wind from east
Betting favorite: Gophers, minus-16

Records: Gophers (5-3, 2-3 Big Ten) are one win away from bowl eligibility. Head coach P.J. Fleck is 4-1 vs. Nebraska and has yet to beat a program five times. Nebraska (3-5, 2-3) fired Scott Frost in September after a loss to Georgia Southern dropped them to 1-2. Interim coach Mickey Joseph is 2-3, with wins over lowly Indiana and Rutgers and losses to Oklahoma, Purdue and Illinois.

History: One of Fleck’s most-memorable games came against Nebraska in 2020. Minnesota was down 33 players due to COVID-19 protocols and injuries but pulled out a 24-17 win on a cold and snowy December afternoon in Lincoln. Minnesota leads the all-time series 35-25-2.

Key matchup: Gophers receivers vs. Nebraska secondary. Minnesota has gone away from deep passes, in part, because they haven’t worked. They have completed 4 of 15 with five interceptions in the past four games, per Pro Football Focus College. But they will need this as part of their arsenal to keep defenses honest in the final month.

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Freshman guard Mara Braun scored nine first-half points and finished with 18 points, six rebounds and four steals. Sophomore guard Katie Borowicz made 6 of 9 3-point attempts to finish with 16 points.

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Who has the edge?

Gophers offense vs. Nebraska defense: The Cornhuskers are outside the top 100 in the nation in scoring, total yards, rushing and passing yards allowed. They are vulnerable. Joseph fired defensive coordinator Erik Chinander after they allowed 580 yards in a 49-14 loss to Oklahoma in September and installed Bill Busch as an interim. Purdue then put up 608 yards across 101 plays in a 43-37 win Oct. 7. … Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said Busch doesn’t have an extensive body of work, which makes it difficult to know what to prepare. “For me, I hate that,” he said. … Minnesota has relied on RB Mo Ibrahim, giving him 36 carries in the Gophers’ 31-0 win over Rutgers last week. He scored three touchdowns to give him a program-record 46. The sixth-year senior is fourth in the nation with a136-yard average. Nebraska made Illinois RB Chase Brown earn his yards on the ground last week; the all-Big Ten back needed 32 carries to get 149. Ciarrocca noted that Nebraska’s 3-4 front has given Minnesota headaches in the past, but they are without captain inside linebacker Nick Henrich. … Ciarrocca estimated he called two “shot” passing plays downfield against Rutgers, but they weren’t in the right coverage, so they checked out. With a lead, they didn’t need to force it. But deep balls have “to be become a component for us,” he said. EDGE: Gophers

Gophers defense vs. Nebraska offense: The Cornhuskers’ total offense is just below the national median this season (66th out of 131), and Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi is concerned about their propensity for explosive plays. “That is a high level of concern for us,” he said. Nebraska had eight plays in excess of 20 yards in a 43-37 loss to Purdue, and three while taking an early 9-6 lead over No. 17 Illinois before falling 26-9 last week. … The availability of QB Casey Thompson, a Texas transfer, is in doubt after he left that game with numbness in his throwing hand. Chubba Purdy and Logan Smothers filled in, but there is considered to be a falloff with the backups. … Nebraska had three interceptions and one lost fumble against the Illini and are 111th in the country with a minus-6 turnover margin. Minnesota is plus-3, with Tyler Nubin’s two picks leading to two TDs vs. Rutgers. … Slot receiver Trey Palmer is the biggest pass-catching threat. The 6-foot-1 LSU transfer leads Nebraska in all major categories, including 97.8 yards per game and five total touchdowns. Rossi notes Palmer’s acceleration and body control in and out of a route’s break points. Palmer set a school record with 237 receiving yards vs. Purdue. … The Gophers continue to search for interior pass rush, but edge rushers Jah Joyner and Danny Striggow could have success on Nebraska’s suspect play at tackle. EDGE: Gophers

Special teams: K Matthew Tickett has made 89% of field goals this season, but P Mark Crawford hasn’t been able to flip the field enough with a 41-yard average. Nebraska K Timmy Bleekrode has made 71% of FG tries. Palmer, the speedster from LSU, also returns punts and kicks but hasn’t broken a big one. EDGE: Nebraska

Prediction: Nearly every week, the Gophers have faced uncertainty about who the opposing quarterback will be. Sometimes, they haven’t faced the backup (losses to Purdue, Illinois and Penn State), but if Thompson can’t play, Nebraska won’t be able to score enough to match what their leaky defense often gives up. Minnesota, 27-17

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