The Gophers still control their own Big Ten West title chances, but to reach the conference championship game in Indianapolis, they will have to swim across a sea of red — twice.
Asking any team to win back-to-back games at Nebraska and Wisconsin is tough, let alone a program that hasn’t won in Lincoln since 1960 or Madison since 1994.
The Gophers last splashed into these red seas two years ago and got devoured by nearly identical scores — 38-13 at Wisconsin and 38-14 at Nebraska.
“We have a great challenge ahead of us,” coach Jerry Kill said, knowing Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium will be Senior Day for Nebraska. “But the good thing is we’re playing for something in November.”
The Gophers were still alive in the Legends Division race at this time last year, too. They were 8-2 but lost two hard-fought games — 20-7 against Wisconsin and 14-3 at Michigan State — before a disappointing loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.
These Gophers (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten) hope to turn that experience into a stronger finish. There have been good signs the past two weeks, with the 51-14 rout of Iowa and the surprisingly narrow 31-24 loss to No. 6 Ohio State.
Kill regretted all the Gophers’ mental errors against the Buckeyes, but it told him something when his team fell behind 14-0 and fought back to make it 14-14 late in the first half. Ohio State has turned plenty of 14-0 leads into 40-point blowouts.
“I think our kids are just playing their guts out right now,” Kill said. “But we know we’ve got a lot of things to improve.”
The Gophers are 10½-point underdogs at Nebraska (8-2, 4-2), yet there are reasons this one seems doable. They upset Nebraska 34-23 last year at TCF Bank Stadium, and the Cornhuskers are coming off a humiliating 59-24 loss at Wisconsin.
Nebraska’s own Big Ten title hopes all but vanished in Madison. The No. 21 Cornhuskers would need to beat the Gophers, then Iowa next week and have Wisconsin lose twice. Nebraska fans are beyond restless: The Huskers haven’t won a conference title since they took the Big 12 crown in 1999.
“We’ve won a lot of football games since I’ve been here, a lot of football games that many programs would love to have won,” said coach Bo Pelini, who is 66-26 in seven years at Nebraska. “I’m not looking to defend the program or where we are right now. What we come here to do is win a conference championship and win a national championship. And we’re going to fight tooth and nail to keep trying to get that done. I’m not going to sit here and apologize.”
Pelini’s teams have a history of responding well to blowout losses. He has had plenty of practice. In 2011, Nebraska suffered a 48-17 loss to Wisconsin but bounced back the next week and defeated Ohio State. In 2012, Ohio State trampled Nebraska 63-48, but the Huskers won their next six games. Last year, Iowa embarrassed the Huskers 38-17 on Black Friday, but Nebraska responded with a Gator Bowl victory over Georgia.
“I’ve got the greatest respect for Coach Pelini,” Kill said. “Shoot, we’ve had one of those games this year [the 30-7 loss at TCU]. For some reason, things snowballed. But I promise you that his football team, with his intensity, he’ll have them ready.”
Last year, the Gophers caught Nebraska with senior quarterback Taylor Martinez limited by a foot injury, and his sluggish performance was critical. Now, senior running back Ameer Abdullah is playing with a sprained MCL in his left knee.
Abdullah, who had 165 yards on 19 carries (8.7 average) last year against the Gophers, injured the knee Nov. 1 and returned to gain 69 yards on 18 carries (3.8 average) against Wisconsin. Pelini said Abdullah might not be 100 percent the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, the Gophers feel like their running game is in peak form. David Cobb, who rushed for 138 yards against Nebraska last year, needs 115 more to break Laurence Maroney’s single-season school record of 1,464.
Nebraska got steamrolled by Wisconsin’s running game last week, as Melvin Gordon broke LaDainian Tomlinson’s NCAA record with 408 rushing yards. The Badgers passed for just 46 in that game and still reeled off 56 consecutive points.
As good as Cobb is, the Gophers likely will need a more balanced attack this week. Mitch Leidner completed seven of 19 passes for 85 yards and two interceptions vs. Ohio State. Donovahn Jones was too sick to play, so his return this week gives the Gophers another option at wide receiver.
Two of Leidner’s best games came at home against Iowa, and at Michigan, before an announced crowd of 102,926. If he plays that well Saturday, before 87,000 at Memorial Stadium, the Gophers could find themselves halfway across the red sea, with their Big Ten title hopes still intact.