One team has a first-year coach implementing his new system, trying to point a program that hasn’t won a conference title in a half-century in the right direction.
The other team has an embattled coach who already has lost the safety net of the athletic director who hired him and is just trying to salvage bowl eligibility for a proud program.
Saturday morning when the Gophers play Nebraska at TCF Bank Stadium, two teams trying to dig their way out of sub-.500 seasons will meet with the prize of a stop-the-bleeding victory at stake.
The Gophers (4-5, 1-5 Big Ten) are coming off their first blowout loss of the season — 33-10 at Michigan, in a game in which they gave up 366 rushing yards.
They have lost five of their past six games after a 3-0 nonconference start.
Coach P.J. Fleck doesn’t see a team that’s panicking, rather one that’s circling the wagons. Case in point was Sunday night’s team meeting.
“We got very real, very quickly,’’ he said.
The reality was Michigan was the better team and played much better than Minnesota. Unlike in their other Big Ten losses, the Gophers weren’t a possession here or play there from flipping the result. Sunday’s session got some things off their chests.
“I don’t know if anger’s the right word, but we were very upset with the way we played,” senior punter Ryan Santoso said. “Of course, we know we were better than that. … How are we going to get there, how are we going to change each day?”
The Gophers had Monday off and returned to practice Tuesday morning, and Fleck liked the response he saw.
“Today was probably one of the best Tuesdays we’ve ever had,” he said. “The energy was high. We got back to hitting again. The response was phenomenal.”
Whether that carries over to Saturday remains to be seen. One priority for the Gophers: getting more from a passing game that’s produced a combined 260 yards over the past three games.
In Lincoln, the Cornhuskers (4-5, 3-3) have similar frustrations, though on a different scale. Third-year coach Mike Riley has seen his team go 2-4 at home, the latest loss being a 31-24 overtime setback to Northwestern.
With AD Shawn Eichorst already out, Riley could be the next to go at season’s end, although new AD Bill Moos told the Omaha World-Herald on Tuesday that no decision has been made on Riley’s future with the Huskers.
Like Fleck, Riley is stressing the value of forging ahead under tough times.
“My expectations are we will have a great week of practice,” he said. “This is a great time for all of us not be controlled by our circumstances but be controlled by the moment of what we get to do.”
Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee sees the chance to play in a bowl game — the Huskers need two more wins, just like the Gophers, to reach eligibility — as plenty of motivation.
“That’s been a goal of ours throughout the year,’’ he said. “… It’s still good to have that out there and something to really strive for.”
Merely qualifying for a bowl might not be lofty goal for a program that won three national championships in a four-year span in the 1990s, but that’s Nebraska’s reality now.
“To not still have that out there as something would be kind of denying what’s on everybody’s mind,” Riley said. “It would be great for our team and seniors in particular to fight and get some wins to get bowl eligible.”
The Gophers have that same aspiration, but winning Saturday takes priority.
“They’re as hungry for a win as we are, Lee said.