How Nebraska starts 1-0 under Matt Rhule
Nebraska's trip to Minnesota has the potential to be pretty punchy. Here's how the Huskers land the most blows.
There’s no bigger riddle in college football than Week 1, and there’s no riddle I like trying to solve more than Nebraska’s next football game. Over the 11 years I’ve covered this program, I’ve tried out a handful of preview formats, from the weird (a weekly encyclopedia) to the conventional. This format, one focused squarely on what Nebraska needs to do or avoid to win, is the one I like best. The goal is to create something useful.
Each week during football season, I’ll write about key players when it’s important to, but there’s no “key players” section. Stats are the foundation for this approach (and there will be plenty), but there’s no statistical comparison.
There is only the riddle, and an attempt to solve it. (Now with footnotes!1)
Line Item | Minnesota -7, O/U 43.5
As an opening-week game, this line has been out for a while and bounced around a bit, opening at Minnesota -8, dropping as low as -6.5 and landing at -7 as of Tuesday night per Vegas Insider’s tracking. The total opened at 46.5 and was as low as 42.5 in some places on Aug. 28. Nebraska’s moneyline odds (+210) imply a 32.5% win probability.
I mention all of these things not for someone who may or may not want to bet on this game (no shame either way if so), but because it’s real-time information that can be useful2 to the general fan. ESPN’s SP+ ratings would make Minnesota a 12.4-point favorite and predict the total to go over. They’re not magical ratings, but I use them often as they’re the one I know the most about. The Prediction Tracker, which tracks more than 40 projected lines at the moment, has an average spread on this game of Minnesota -11.8. If you’re blindly buying what statistical models say, the Gophers are undervalued at -7.
I trust numbers a lot, but I wouldn’t be buying that here for some of the reasons outlined below and some reasons related to simple uncertainty.
1. It’s a selfish way to play football
P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota does not like to share. In fact, it can’t. The Gophers’ top priority on offense is to control the clock, and it works.
In 2017, Fleck’s first Gopher season, Minnesota ranked 43rd in time of possession percentage and went 5-7. One year later, that percentage rose to 31st and the Gophers went 7-6. Minnesota has ranked in the top 10 nationally in that category every season since and is 32-14 (.696), the 18th-best record in the FBS over that span.
Another way to cut it: Fleck’s teams have won the time of possession battle in 77.5% of his games at Minnesota. They are 38-17 (.691) when they do, 6-10 (.375) when they don’t.
Matt Rhule and staff spent much of this offseason casting a pretty similar vision for what they want Nebraska to be—run the ball, control the clock, win the fourth quarter. From ancient myths to Ric Flair, this is a pretty classic setup. To become the team you want to be, you have to beat the team that already is, and I really think Minnesota is a model for where the Huskers are headed.
Nebraska’s new staff gets that usurping opportunity right out of the gates, on the road, where Minnesota is uniquely good at hogging the ball. The Gophers had 62.5% of possession at home last season, first nationally.
How do the Huskers lay claim to the clock? It probably comes down to which team is able to run the ball how it wants. Minnesota must replace three of five starters on the line and all-conference back Mohamed Ibrahim. Western Michigan transfer Sean Tyler is a dangerous player and the Gophers’ best bet to replace Ibrahim somewhat seamlessly. Tyler ranked ninth nationally in all-purpose yards per game in 2022 (146.8), and has scored touchdowns as a rusher, receiver and return man in each of the past two seasons.
Still, if you squint just a little, you could maybe argue Nebraska has a slight edge in the run game. It’s a little more experienced on the line. The coaches love Gabe Ervin Jr.3 in the backfield, offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield’s offense could finally be the right fit for Rahmir Johnson’s skill set and that leaves last year’s 900-yard rusher, Anthony Grant, third on the depth chart. Lot of options on the red side, not much you can point to on either side that feels like certainty in the run game.
It's the uncertain elements, the toss-up categories, that decide most games, and in this case rushing success likely determines which team gets the thing they both want—the most time with the ball.
Measurable: Time of Possession 50%-plus4
2. Off-Schedule Is On-Time Defensively
Based on last year’s data, which is imperfect but the best we have to go on for an opener, this game figures to be played in close quarters. Minnesota ranked 14th nationally in explosive-play percentage5 allowed a year ago. The Gophers have more to replace on defense than offense, so some regression might be in order based on Action Network’s transfer-plus-returning production calculations. Still, I’d be surprised if Minnesota suddenly started giving up a ton of big plays. More? Sure. A lot? Probably not.
Nebraska, based on those same returning production numbers, is likely to improve. Its defense was 41st in explosive-play percentage last season.6 While a good chunk of players return from that group, they’re playing in a new scheme, which happens to be the good news. Defensive coordinator Tony White’s Syracuse defense ranked third in this category a year ago. If you wanted to say whichever team allows fewer of the few explosive plays likely available I wouldn’t disagree, but that’s the case for most football games.
Knowing both teams might be able to limit big plays puts the focus elsewhere. Which defense is able to create its own explosive plays? Those are primarily takeaways and tackles for loss, and takeaways are too random for me. So, tackles for loss is the number I’m circling.
White’s Syracuse defense ranked 56th in TFLs per game (6.1) last year, an above-average number but nothing spectacular. Nebraska ranked 97th (5.0) and Minnesota ranked dead last (3.6). Tackles for loss weren’t important to a Gopher team that went 9-4. It put its defensive chips on getting teams off the field on third down rather than knocking them off schedule before that, and it did quite well (6th).
Nebraska probably isn’t in a position to play that type of game yet under a new staff. The Huskers will likely need the splash plays, the tackles in the backfield, to keep a Minnesota offense off schedule. The Gophers were also very good at converting third downs (3rd) a season ago, underscoring the need to keep Minnesota behind the chains.
White and the Blackshirts also have the advantage of mystery. Minnesota can watch all the Syracuse film it wants, but how White utilizes the talent on hand at Nebraska isn’t on tape. Maybe the Gopher coaches will turn on the film of last year’s Pinstripe Bowl. White didn’t coach that game, but the Syracuse defense he built played it and held Minnesota to a season-low 2.33 rushing yards per carry. (The Gophers still won, 28-20.)
It only took five tackles for loss to do that, but I think Nebraska needs a bigger number this week. Let’s call it six, a number the Huskers haven’t averaged since 2020.
Measurable: 6.0+ TFLs
3. Nothing Special
Both offenses want to run the ball and control clock. Both defenses should be above-average at limiting explosive plays. It’s the season opener. All those things point to special teams as a very visible, not hidden, third of the game. Nebraska’s last two openers against a Big Ten opponent had memorable special teams gaffes—Cam Taylor-Britt’s botched punt return against Illinois in 2021 and the onside kick in Ireland against Northwestern. The Huskers lost those two games by 11 total points. Can’t have that.
The punting should be good on both sides. Nebraska’s Brian Buschini averaged 44 yards per punt last year (26th nationally), but had his best game against Minnesota (55.5 yards per punt) in 2022. Minnesota’s Mark Crawford doesn’t have gaudy stats but has all of the cunning and calm we’ve come to expect from a 30-year-old Australian raised playing Australian Rules Football. If there’s a major gaffe from either punter it’s a pretty big deal, but that seems unlikely.
Punt and kick returns have largely been legislated out of the game, which made it particularly interesting this week when Rhule said he doesn’t plan for Nebraska to fair catch any kickoffs. I’m a little skeptical of that strategy while admiring the aggressiveness.7 Point is, any big return in today’s game is sort of a lightning-strike event. It has the ability to flip a game, but it’s hard to “coach” unless you know you have one of the best returners in the country. Neither team can say that right now, though Minnesota might have an edge thanks to Tyler’s demonstrated ability.
That leaves place-kicking. The Gophers seem likely8 to start senior Dragan Kesich. He’s a big-legged kickoff specialist who has attempted one field goal in his career (a 53-yarder in 2021 that Iowa blocked). Nebraska is turning to true freshman Tristan Alvano, an Omaha Westside alum who wowed in the 2022 state championship game at Memorial Stadium. He’ll make his debut kicking on the road against a conference opponent, which is about as high as the stakes get for a freshman in a season opener.
I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted this before in one of these previews, but in what I expect to be a close game, the team that makes the most field goals really might win.
Measurable: +1 made field goal differential
Game Notes of Note
One of my mantras is “always read the game notes.” You never know what amusing or interesting stuff you’ll find in there. Here are some notes from Minnesota or Nebraska, in my own words, that met either threshold.
Minnesota is 97-36-6 all time in season openers, but just 2-8 when the opening game is against a Big Ten opponent. Nebraska is 11-4 in season openers against a conference foe, but 0-3 when that conference is the Big Ten. The Huskers lost to Ohio State to open 2020, Illinois in 2021 and Northwestern in 2022.
Fleck enters his 11th season as a head coach and seventh at Minnesota. He has, over his career, never beaten a school six times, but has that chance Thursday. Fleck is 5-1 against Nebraska.
The Gophers’ two biggest comebacks of the past decade have both come at the expense of the Huskers. Minnesota rallied from 14 points down in 2014 for a 28-24 win in what would be Bo Pelini’s final home game. Last year, the Gophers trailed 10-0 at halftime of their eventual 20-13 win.
Nebraska ranks 15th nationally and third in the Big Ten with 120 career starts returning on the offensive line.
Linebacker Luke Reimer has led Nebraska in tackles the past two seasons and is the Big Ten’s active career tackles leader (transfers excluded) with 245. The former walk-on needs 55 tackles to become the third Husker to reach 300, joining Barrett Ruud (432) and Jerry Murtaugh (342).9
I promise I don’t have a David Foster Wallace infatuation or anything. I don’t even own, and haven’t read, “Infinite Jest.” I’ve just always felt footnotes were a good way to convey additional information without disrupting the primary narrative. Treat them accordingly.
I’ll look at the Nebraska line each week in this space, but because I think the markets are offering valuable information I’m also planning a “Line Items” post each Friday which will look at the odds in the Big Ten (and beyond) during football season.
Like, really love him in ways they’re just talking about publicly in August.
If you told me today that Nebraska would have 32 minutes of possession in this game, I’d tell you Nebraska won.
I use rushes of 10-plus yards and passes of 15-plus yards for my explosive-play thresholds. Some coaching staffs differ, but you’ve got to set the line somewhere until the NCAA does the smart thing and defines a stat that basically every team cites as important.
Nebraska ranked third in explosive-play percentage in 2021.
This will be an easy one to measure—is it helping or hurting?—after about four weeks.
Minnesota had yet to release a depth chart because teams that don’t identify starters and second-stringers never lose.
I will try to and probably(?) succeed in making this post shorter as the season goes on, but I’ve had an entire offseason to think about this game.