Gophers acting head coach Tracy Claeys deftly avoided questions about the officiating in last week’s victory over Northwestern, reminding everyone that he’s still making an assistant coach’s salary and can’t afford a fine.
When a pass interference penalty on receiver Drew Wolitarsky negated a 30-yard, third-quarter touchdown pass from Philip Nelson to Isaac Fruechte, ESPN2 analyst Joey Galloway called it “a terrible call,” and it was a setback for a struggling offense.
Moments later, Minnesota scored anyway, when senior linebacker James Manuel returned an interception 24 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. The 20-17 victory did wonders for the Gophers’ psyche, but it didn’t quell concerns about their offense.
The next two games — Saturday against Nebraska and next week at Indiana — will be big tests for offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. There should be opportunities to score, and the Gophers must take advantage because the Cornhuskers and Hoosiers are two of the highest-scoring teams in the Big Ten.
Is the offense up to the challenge?
“I’ll let you know Saturday about 3 [p.m.],” Limegrover said. “I think the kids are feeling good. We’re doing some things a little unorthodox, a little bit different than what we’re showing on film, so I think the kids like that. They’re working their tail ends off, and that’s all you can ask. We’ll let the results speak for themselves.”
The Gophers have scored 26 touchdowns in seven games this year but only 20 touchdowns on offense; six have come from their defense or special teams. By comparison, Indiana has scored 39 offensive touchdowns in seven games, and Nebraska has scored 31 offensive touchdowns in six games.
The Cornhuskers are coming off their second bye week of the season, and the extra time has helped quarterback Taylor Martinez heal from his turf toe injury. Coach Bo Pelini said Thursday that he expected Martinez to play but wasn’t sure the senior would start.
Martinez hasn’t played since the team’s 41-21 loss to UCLA on Sept. 14. The Cornhuskers have cruised to three victories since then — over South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue — using redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. and senior Ron Kellogg III at quarterback.
Claeys said the Gophers are preparing to face Martinez, whom he called “as talented a quarterback as we’ll face in the Big Ten.”
Minnesota’s defense will have its hands full trying to contain two of the Big Ten’s most talented receivers in Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, along with the conference’s second-leading rusher, Ameer Abdullah.
But there’s a reason Nebraska fans have grown restless with Pelini. Good offenses have given the Cornhuskers fits the past two years. It wasn’t only the 70-31 pounding against Wisconsin in last year’s Big Ten championship game. In Nebraska’s four losses last year, it allowed an average of 595 yards per game.
The struggles continued in this year’s opener against Wyoming, as the Cowboys racked up 602 yards in a 37-34 loss in Lincoln. UCLA fell behind the Cornhuskers 21-3 and then reeled off 38 unanswered points.
The Cornhuskers have shown improvement defensively the past three games, and this is another chance to build confidence heading into November games against Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa.
Next week, when the Gophers visit Indiana, the Hoosiers also will be coming off a bye. Indiana has scored at least 28 points in each game this season, but its defensive problems showed in last week’s 63-47 defeat at Michigan.
The Gophers don’t want to get into a shootout with Nebraska or Indiana. To win, Minnesota must sustain long drives, keeping those opposing offenses off the field as much as possible.
It’s a formula the Gophers used in last year’s bowl game against Texas Tech, and it worked until the final 70 seconds, when they blew a seven-point lead in a 34-31 defeat.
“We want to play our game,” Gophers receiver Derrick Engel said. “We want those guys to be in a low-scoring game with us, and hang on to the ball and control the ball throughout the game. If we can play our game and make them stoop to our type of football, that’d be better for us.”
The Gophers have scored an average of 16.1 points in their past 11 Big Ten games, going 2-6 in conference play last season and are 1-2 this year. During that span, they’ve exceeded the 20-point mark only once, in last year’s 44-28 victory over Purdue.
In those 11 games, the Gophers failed to score a point on their opening drive. Counting nonconference play, the Gophers are 0-for-7 in their attempts to score on opening drives this year. A better start might help Saturday, especially playing at home with several thousand Cornhuskers fans in attendance.
“Every single week that’s something we talk about, being able to be a team that comes out the first quarter and starts attacking right away,” Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson said.
The Gophers haven’t announced who will start at quarterback between Nelson and Mitch Leidner, but Claeys has said both will play. Either way, the Gophers will look to build off last week’s victory.
“There were like four or five plays that happened to go against us, like a touchdown getting called back and a couple penalties,” Claeys said. “And I think that was the first time our kids didn’t have the attitude, like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ ”
The Gophers offense produced 13 points against Northwestern. They’ll need more than that to win these next two games.