Inside Slant: Minnesota at Nebraska

Donnell Kirkwood

The Gophers' prize for becoming bowl-eligible isn't much of a reward at all. The odds won't be in Minnesota's favor when it travels to Nebraska on Saturday. The Cornhuskers are tied with Michigan for first place in the Legends Division of the Big Ten with a 5-1 record. Nebraska will clinch a spot in the conference title game with two more wins.

A deeper look at the numbers shows how difficult the Gophers' task will be. Minnesota has lost 15 straight to Nebraska, including a 41-14 defeat at TCF Bank Stadium last season. The Gophers are making their first trip to Nebraska since the Huskers joined the Big Ten. Minnesota has lost six straight at Memorial Stadium, where it hasn't won since 1960. That's also the last time the Gophers won a game in the series.

Facing Nebraska, along with the fact the Gophers finish the season against Michigan State, made the Illinois game a must-win if Minnesota was going to become eligible for a bowl game. After struggling to a 3-3 tie at halftime, the Gophers took over in the second half for a 17-3 win. Coach Jerry Kill understood the significance of the victory. Minnesota is 6-4, matching its win total from each of the last two seasons when the Gophers finished 3-9 in 2010 and again in 2011.

Kill let his players celebrate following the win, but the veteran coach, who's completing his second year in Minneapolis, has bigger things in mind.

"I think when you're turning around a program, you let the kids enjoy it, but as a coach, you've got to keep pushing forward, because this is not where we want to be," he said in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Nebraska has won four straight games and is 6-0 at home. The Gophers haven't won two Big Ten road games in a row since 2008. A victory in one of the last two games would give Minnesota seven wins in a season, also for the first time since 2008.

Eleven different players have scored a touchdown for Minnesota this season, equaling the total for 2011: A.J. Barker (seven), Donnell Kirkwood (five), John Rabe (four), MarQueis Gray (three), Isaac Fruechte and Drew Goodger (two apiece), and Derrick Engel, Brandon Green, Rodrick Williams, James Gillum and Michael Carter (one) apiece.

Minnesota snapped a six-game Big Ten road losing streak by beating Illinois. The Gophers have split four road games with a win at UNLV and losses to Iowa and Wisconsin. A win over Nebraska would give Minnesota its first winning record on the road since 2008.

Quarterback Philip Nelson passed for 78 yards in the 17-3 win over Illinois. The last time Minnesota won a game while passing for less than 78 yards was Nov. 10, 2010, against Purdue when Adam Weber was 5-for-9 and passed for 74 yards. Minnesota beat the Boilermakers 35-20 at home.

SERIES HISTORY: Minnesota leads Nebraska 29-21-2 (last meeting, 2011, 41-14 Nebraska)

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The biggest question facing the offense this week isn't about running or throwing the ball. Coach Jerry Kill needs somebody to snap the ball to the quarterback. Thanks to injuries, the Gophers were down to their third-string center starting guard Zac Eppling last week. Starter Jon Christenson went down early in the game with a sprained ankle. Zach Mottla, who had filled in earlier in the season, replaced Christenson but was carted off the field in the fourth quarter after suffering a lower leg injury. Mottla will miss the rest of the season and it is doubtful Christenson will play Saturday. Tommy and Ed Olson have also missed time with injuries. That leaves Eppling to start at center and the coaching staff scrambling to fill the open spots.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Gophers are coming off their best game of the season. Minnesota held Illinois to three points and 276 total yards, including 101 on the ground. The Gophers also came up with two fumble recoveries that stopped Illinois' drives. Playing Nebraska, however, will be one of Minnesota's biggest challenges of the season. The Cornhuskers have scored 374 points in 10 games. Quarterback Taylor Martinez has thrown for 19 touchdowns and run for eight scores. The Cornhuskers also feature their typically powerful running game, which will test the Gophers' defensive line.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Going through three centers and winning a game that's unheard of. Usually, you don't even travel with three centers. We just happened to have a guard that can snap." Minnesota coach Jerry Kill in the St. Paul-Pioneer Press, on injuries at the center position in the win over Illinois.

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Minnesota at Nebraska, Nov. 17 The Gophers controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball against Illinois. Minnesota rushed for 231 yards and allowed 276 total yards. That's unlikely to happen against the powerful Cornhuskers.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Minnesota's banged-up offensive line is a major concern. The Gophers were able to get by with the injuries against Illinois, but playing the Cornhuskers will be an entirely different story. Minnesota must keep the ball away from Nebraska's offense if it's going to stay in the game.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

RB Donnell Kirkwood After struggling for a month, the sophomore ran for 152 yards and two touchdowns against Illinois. Kirkwood has gained 819 yards and has seven touchdowns for the season.

QB Philip Nelson The redshirt freshman will face another tough road test in front of a hostile crowd. The Gophers are 2-2 since he became the starter at quarterback. Nelson only had to manage the game last week against Illinois. He completed 9-of-15 passes for 78 yards, but will need to do more against the Cornhuskers. Nelson had TD passes in his first three starts.

CB Troy Stoudermire The senior has moved into the team lead with 63 tackles, including 45 solo stops. Stoudemire has 3.5 tackles for a loss. He also has broken up three passes and defended three others.

ROSTER REPORT:

OL Zac Mottla sustained a leg injury against Illinois and was carted off the field. He'll miss the rest of the season.

C Jon Christenson sustained a high left ankle sprain in the first half against Illinois and didn't return

WR A.J. Barker missed his second straight game because of an ankle injury. He hurt the ankle against Purdue and tweaked it again in warm-ups before the game against Michigan. Barker leads the team with seven touchdown receptions and averages 19.2 yards on 30 catches.

LT Ed Olson has missed the last five games with an ankle injury.

WR Jamel Harbison tore the ACL in his right knee against UNLV and is out for the season.

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