The Gophers have strange juju when it comes to opposing quarterbacks.
In their nonconference games, they played South Dakota State’s J’Bore Gibbs in his first career game, Fresno State’s Jorge Reyna in his second career start and Georgia Southern’s freshman backup Justin Tomlin.
Then in the Gophers’ first Big Ten games, they forced Purdue’s and Illinois’ starting signal-callers out of the game. At Purdue, defensive end Tai’yon Devers sacked Elijah Sindelar and broke his clavicle, likely ending his season. Against Illinois this past Saturday, a hard hit from safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and defensive tackle Keonte Schad ended Brandon Peters’ day.
So the Gophers spent most of those games facing backups: Purdue’s Jack Plummer and Illinois’ Matt Robinson. And they might continue that streak Saturday when Nebraska comes to TCF Bank Stadium. Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez left last week’s game early with a lower-leg injury.
Martinez was one of the few returning Big Ten starters at quarterback and was supposed to be one of the first challenges for the Gophers defense at that position. In last year’s meeting, he flamed the Gophers with 276 yards and three touchdown passes, going 25-for-29. He also rushed for 125 yards and a score.
“He’s very dynamic,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said, adding he doesn’t like to think back to that 53-28 loss to an 0-6 Nebraska team.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost told reporters Monday that Martinez “will be all right,” but he is waiting to see how he feels in the next couple of days before making a playing call.
“We have a week to help to see where Adrian is. But we feel comfortable if we have to go with Noah [Vedral] and Luke [McCaffrey],” Frost said.
Vedral, a sophomore, helped the Cornhuskers win the game Martinez exited, engineering a final drive that gave Nebraska the last-second, 24-yard field goal it needed to defeat Northwestern 13-10. McCaffrey, a freshman, came in for one snap when Vedral lost his helmet on one play.
Vedral transferred from Central Florida when Frost took the Nebraska job ahead of last season, so he has even more experience in that offense than Martinez. Fleck said while he has plenty of film on Martinez, he had to dip back into Vedral’s high school days to understand him better. He said Vedral can run and in many ways is similar to Martinez.
“It’s very hard to prepare for somebody that you don’t see on film because you just don’t know what they do,” Fleck said, adding his staff always makes a contingency plan for backup quarterbacks. “… The contingency plan is always smaller than the game plan, right? … Unless that quarterback fits exactly what that other quarterback is like.”
The Gophers have had to dip into that backup plan the past two games. While Sindelar was questionable for Purdue with a concussion, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said the defense still game-planned for him.
“He’s not really a mobile guy, and the backup is. And then all of a sudden, you saw him make some plays with his feet and convert,” Rossi said of Plummer’s scrambling moves that helped the Boilermakers bridge an 18-point halftime gap to lose only by a touchdown. “But that’s what you’ve got to be able to adjust. That’s football. Injuries happen.”
Illinois was a slightly different situation, Fleck said. Peters was more mobile than his backup, and the Gophers took advantage, sacking Robinson three times.
“It makes it difficult on anybody when you don’t know what that person can do,” Fleck said, adding the feeling is similar to the first game of the season with all the unknowns. “… You spend 100 hours a week finding out exactly what you want to be able to do. And when that changes, that is worrisome.”
And yet, the Gophers are 5-0 through all these quarterback mysteries.
The Gophers lost a 2020 recruit on Sunday, with three-star Texas offensive tackle Casey Collier announcing his decommitment on Twitter.