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November 17, 2012

Match-up watch: Minnesota

NU Run Offense vs. Minnesota Run Defense
Another week, another 100-yard game for Ameer Abdullah. That's four straight now for the sophomore, who's also cut his fumbling problems considerably. Abdullah hasn't put the ball on the ground on offense since the Wisconsin game (though he did muff a punt at Northwestern). He registered 31 carries against Penn State, he got some help from Imani Cross and Braylon Heard. Both could see the field more this week, especially if the game gets out of hand early.

That's entirely possible because the Golden Gophers don't exactly excel at stopping the ground game. They give up 168 yards per game on the ground and Illinois and Indiana are the only two Big Ten teams that have given up more rushing touchdowns (18). Minnesota's leading tackler is Troy Stoudermire, a cornerback. The Gophers can be run on.

One of the game's interesting storylines will be to see whether Rex Burkhead gets to take advantage of UM's overwhelmed defense. Burkhead practiced all week and it's hard to believe the coaches wouldn't spot him a few carries on senior day. But the team's mission is to have Burkhead healthy if it makes the Big Ten championship, and if his playing could derail that plan, expect to see the senior on the sidelines.

Edge: NEBRASKA

NU Pass Offense vs. Minnesota Pass Defense
Minnesota is surprisingly stingy against the pass, as only Nebraska and Michigan allow fewer passing yards per game in the Big Ten. Stoudemire teams with Michael Carter (16 passes defended) and Derrick Wells (10) to form a unit that discourages opposing quarterbacks. Helping them up front is D.L. Wilhite, who is tied with NU's Eric Martin for the conference lead with 7.5 sacks.

Taylor Martinez wasn't asked to win the game with his arm against Penn State and that could very well be the case again this week. His recent prowess in the running game will give Minnesota's defensive backs something else to think about and could open up some different passing lanes. Martinez must continue to work on ball security - he's fumbled 11 times this season, including one that he lost near the goal line last week.

The Gophers will have their hands full with Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner, who has a touchdown in each of NU's last two games. If Minnesota focuses its attention on the outside receivers, don't be surprised to see Kyler Reed submit a big performance. He has been targeted 15 times over the past three games and gives Martinez a nice safety valve if the wideouts are well covered.

Edge: Nebraska

Minnesota Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
The Gopher's rushing offense is good enough to keep opposing defenses on their toes, but isn't a big enough threat to win many games by itself. Running back Donnell Kirkwood has submitted a solid sophomore campaign with 819 yards and a 4.5 average yards per rush so far. He carries the bulk of UM's ground attack, as no other Gopher comes within 100 carries of his team-leading 182.

For the second straight game, the NU rushing defense wasn't in dominant form against Penn State. The Nittany Lions only rushed for 151 yards and the Blackshirts tightened up running lanes in the second half, but PSU's Zach Zwinak averaged 6.7 yards per carry and scored on a 50-yard burst just minutes into the game. There is also the threat of quarterback Philip Nelson taking off from the pocket, though he isn't nearly as dangerous as some of the other mobile quarterbacks Nebraska has faced this season.

Minnesota knows it doesn't have the horses to keep up with the Huskers, so they will likely try to shorten the game by bleeding clock with their ground game. If Nebraska can stonewall Kirkwood early on, build a lead and force Nelson, a freshman, to pass against its vaunted secondary, it could be a long day for the Gophers.

Edge: NEBRASKA

Minnesota Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
Nebraska's secondary has been among the nation's best this year and didn't disappoint last Saturday. The Huskers frustrated Matt McGloin into a painful second half in which he completed only eight of his 19 passes and threw a third-quarter pick to Daimion Stafford that helped get Nebraska right back in the game.

Now the Huskers get to face a freshman quarterback who has just two road starts under his belt and has thrown for more than 150 yards just once. Nelson could only must 78 passing yards against lowly Illinois last week and is completing just 55.6 percent of his passes. To his credit, however, he hasn't thrown an interception in his past three games and has only taken three sacks this year.

A.J. Barker has provided a solid target for Nelson with 577 receiving yards and seven touchdowns this year. Former quarterback MarQueis Gray is another wideout to watch, as his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame could cause some matchup issues. The Huskers expect to play more nickel and dime defenses this year, which will once again unleash Ciante Evans to wreak havoc from the nickel position.

Edge: NEBRASKA

Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Minnesota is pretty average in most areas of its special teams. Barker and Kirkwood handle most of the punt and kick returns, respectively. Kicker Jordan Wettstein has missed eight of his twenty field goal attempts and hasn't made a kick longer than 44 yards. He is just eight for 15 this season when kicking a field goal of 30 yards or more.

Where the Gophers excel is in their coverage units. They are tops in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage and have allowed just 51 yards total this year on punt returns. Considering Nebraska's return units have struggled mightily of late, the Huskers don't figure to hurt Minnesota here.

Then there is Brett Maher, who can shank a 16-yard punt as he did last week before launching the punt of his life in crunch time. His performance this season hasn't been as even as was expected coming in, but he has won three Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week awards this year.

Edge: EVEN

Nebraska Will Win If:

It just takes care of business. The Huskers will try to shut down Kirkwood and force the Gophers to the air early. On offense, NU will give Minnesota a heavy dose of Abdullah and Martinez on the ground. As long as the Huskers don't commit any dumb turnovers, their talent should be enough to come away with the win.

Minnesota Will Win If:

It can punch the Huskers in the mouth early and show them this won't be an easy contest. The Gophers must find success on the ground to keep the pressure off of Nelson.

X-Factor:

Home-field advantage could play a key role in this one. It is not only senior day for Nebraska, but it's also Tom Osborne's final game. The atmosphere should be electric at kickoff and the fans will be ready to lose it at the sight of any Minnesota blood in the water. Can Nelson handle a rabid audience on the road? We're about to find out.

Prediction: Nebraska 48, Minnesota 21



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