LINCOLN — Any coach who analyzes Minnesota's four-quarter takedown of Northwestern last weekend can't help but gain an appreciation for the effectiveness of the Gophers' plodding style.
That's the opinion of Nebraska linebackers coach Ross Els, anyway.
He saw Minnesota physically subduing the Wildcats at the line of scrimmage over the course of an afternoon, never wavering from its grit-based plan to wrestle away the opponent's heart, willpower and drive. The Gophers fell behind early, but didn't flinch. Just three of their 63 offensive snaps went for more than 20 yards (none over 30), yet their 20-17 victory felt more decisive than the final score would indicate.
“Fun to watch, from a pure coaching standpoint,” Els said.
Not fun, however, if you are lining up across from the relentless Gophers, who are committed to wearing you down. It's the exact formula that Minnesota, now 5-2, has tried to utilize for seven straight weeks.
Els described it this way: “We've got you on the ropes. We're just going to keep running the same type of play, keep running power at you, keep pounding at you, keep getting first downs and run out the clock and you're not going to get the ball back.”
That's what Nebraska can expect on a chilly Saturday afternoon in the Twin Cities. An old-school game of smash-mouth football, where the last one standing in the trenches earns a much-needed Legends Division win just before a grueling stretch run begins.
“The whole team is a physical group,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “The way I look at it is, they're going to pound the football and they're going to try to impose their will on us. It's going to come down to who is tougher.”
It's up to Papuchis' young defense to prove it can match the tenacity and aggressiveness of a run-first offense.
But Nebraska's offensive line, now without star guard Spencer Long, will have its hands full, too.
The Gophers are allowing 123.3 rushing yards per game, which ranks 24th nationally. They've held Nebraska running backs to 4.2 yards per carry the past two years. Taylor Martinez has 74 rushing yards on 18 carries in two games against Minnesota.
NFL defensive tackle prospect Ra'Shede Hageman, listed at 6-foot-6, 311 pounds, creates the most disruption, but the entire Gopher defensive line fits the prototypical Big Ten mold, NU senior Jeremiah Sirles said.
“Big, strong. (They) really know how to plug up their gaps and how to stay gap sound,” said Sirles, who's expected to make his 35th career start Saturday. “It's just going to come down to a lot of coming off the ball.”
The potential return of Martinez, who has missed Nebraska's past three games, could give the Huskers a boost — though it was the NU receivers who were responsible for much of the production in blowout wins over Minnesota the past two years.
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Brandon Kinnie took a screen pass 61 yards and Kenny Bell scored on an 82-yard reverse to help the Huskers win 41-14 in Minneapolis two years ago. Last season, Bell caught two touchdown passes of more than 30 yards, Jamal Turner had a 27-yard grab and Quincy Enunwa had one for 29 yards during Nebraska's 38-14 win.
There could be more chances for big plays again Saturday, too, according to Bell. The Gophers have improved defensively, he said, but their scheme hasn't changed.
“Minnesota's been the same for three years now,” Bell said. “I think we can expect the same kind of stuff out of them.”
That assessment applies for Minnesota's offense, too.
The Gophers operate most often out of pro-style formations, with multiple tight ends or multiple backs. Quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner are expected to split reps, but both are run threats — whether it be the zone read option, designed draws or improvisational scrambles.
Minnesota has run the football 72.1 percent of the time, which is the sixth-highest average nationally. That tactical stubbornness is the main reason it ranks 28th nationally in rush offense (210.1 yards per game) despite averaging 4.68 yards per carry (46th nationally).
“They're going to try to control the tempo, try to keep us on the field as long as they can to keep our offense off the field,” senior Ciante Evans said. “Run the ball. Try to get into manageable third-down situations where they have the whole playbook to choose from.”
Eleven of Minnesota's past 14 scoring drives have taken at least eight plays. The Gophers had a 16-play possession last 9:44 at Michigan three weeks ago, resulting in a touchdown.
There's no secret what Minnesota wants to do. It's up to the NU defense to stop it.
Said Papuchis: “They're going to try to run the football, keep our offense off the field and make the game kind of as grind-it-out as possible.”