Coach Jerry Kill was so determined to re-establish the Gophers' power-rushing identity last week, he said, "I don't care if we throw it one time right now; we're going to run the football."
That plan worked at Purdue. But to beat Nebraska this Saturday, the Gophers probably need to hold their breath and unleash the passing game again. Mitch Leidner and the team's receivers had better be sharp.
The Cornhuskers have the nation's eighth-best rushing defense (95.3 yards allowed per game), but they're the worst in the country against the pass (348.5).
"We'll take what they give us," Kill said Tuesday. "… If we need to throw it, we'll throw it."
As the Gophers study film from last week's Nebraska-Wisconsin game, they might have a hard time believing their eyes. The Badgers have been the epitome of a power-rushing team for years, yet Joel Stave passed 50 times in that 23-21 victory.
Wisconsin never before had won a game while passing 50 times. But with running back Corey Clement injured, and a relatively inexperienced offensive line, the Badgers had trouble pushing past Nebraska's front seven. For one game, Wisconsin morphed into the Air Coryell Chargers.
"If we throw it 50 times, then I might have a heart attack," Kill said. "Maybe 49, but not 50. I think [the Cornhuskers] are good on defense. A lot of people have had trouble running the football against them."
Kill thought the Gophers were too pass-happy before the Purdue game. They had averaged 34 passes per game and ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing. Against the Boilermakers, they passed only 18 times, but rushed for 326 yards, their most in a conference game since 2005.
Shannon Brooks earned Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Week honors, rushing for 176 yards. Fellow freshman Rodney Smith wasn't feeling well, and he still added 52 rushing yards.
It looked like a formula that could help Minnesota maintain its recent mastery over Nebraska. The Gophers rushed for 271 yards and 281 yards, respectively, against the Cornhuskers the past two years, winning both games. Before that, the Gophers were 0-16 against Nebraska, dating to 1960.
New Huskers coach Mike Riley runs a 4-3 defense, just as Bo Pelini did, but as Kill said, "Their defensive line is very physical. I think they are more physical than what they have been. Very disciplined on defense. They don't make a lot of mistakes."
With that last point, Kill was being kind. The Cornhuskers have made a ton of mistakes in the secondary, especially late in games. That's the root cause of the meltdowns that have led to four devastating losses, all on their opponent's final offensive play.
Nebraska has given up 17 passing plays of 30 or more yards, ranking third worst in the nation. But the Gophers haven't exactly been torching teams through the air. They have only four completions for 30 or more yards.
"If you want to run the football, you have to keep [Nebraska] off-balance a little bit," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "You can't just dive it between the tackles and hope for the best."
He added, "We'd better be very good when we throw the football."
Leidner was 8-for-12 for 59 yards at Purdue, with two touchdowns and an interception. Freshman Demry Croft, who has been getting an equal amount of work in practice, was 2-for-5 for 7 yards.
Three weeks ago, Leidner showed he was capable of handling a heavy passing load, when he went 22-for-31 for 264 yards against Ohio. One week later, with the offensive line unable to stem Northwestern's pressure, Leidner went 10-for-21 for 72 yards with an interception and a fumble in a shutout loss.
Leidner said the rejuvenated running game "opens up a lot of things. Hopefully it'll open up our play action, and make that even better. It'll bring the safeties down, and it'll help us out in the passing game."
If last week proved the Gophers still are capable of running opponents into the ground, this is an opportunity for them to show they can beat teams through the air, too.