Nebraska football fans might be forgiven for looking past Minnesota as the meat of NU’s season approaches. After all, Nebraska has outscored the Gophers 79-28 in two matchups since arriving in the Big Ten in 2011.
But Minnesota does have a strong rushing attack. Will that ground game give Nebraska problems in Minneapolis?
I think an effective way to look at defensive statistics is to compare how a team did versus Nebraska compared to their season average in a given category. In other words, how did Nebraska do against a particular team relative to how that team performed in other games this season. By looking at the numbers in that light, you can get some context in terms of how well—or how poorly—Nebraska performed on a particular day.
Rush v. NU
South Dakota State
Paints a little different picture of Nebraska’s defense, doesn’t it? The graph gives a better idea of how Nebraska’s defense has done against the run when putting the opponents' per-game average into context.
The only games where Nebraska has allowed more rushing yardage to an opponent than that opponent's average was against South Dakota State and Illinois, games Nebraska won comfortably. Conversely, the rushing totals of the two opponents that gave Nebraska the most trouble (Wyoming and UCLA) were, against the Blackshirts, actually below their average rushing totals on the season.
So at this point, it’s not an unreasonable to conclude that Nebraska can expect to succeed even if it is unable to hold an opponent to a below-average day running the ball.
Throwing the ball? That’s a different question.
Pass v. NU
South Dakota State
For Nebraska, There seems to be a little more of a correlation in terms of how it does against the pass and the outcome of that game. Again, the graph can help visualize what the numbers mean.
The UCLA stat does appear to be a little bit of an outlier, suggesting the second-half collapse against the Bruins was more of a perfect storm of events conspiring against Nebraska. Otherwise, there looks to be at least some correlation between games where Nebraska (at least at some point) struggled and games where NU did not hold an opponent under its yearly average in the air.
So looking at the statistics, we can infer that Nebraska is more likely to struggle against a team if its opponent can throw the ball well, and less likely to struggle even if its opponent has success on the ground.
What does that tell us about Minnesota? Well, the Gophers do have a solid rushing attack, ranked No. 4 in the Big Ten conference. But the Gophers’ passing attack is just dreadful, ranked dead last in the B1G by a mile (well, technically, by 71 yards per game).
Leave out the fact that against the two BCS opponents Minnesota has faced, the Gophers have averaged 83 yards rushing per game. Based on the numbers above, a good argument can be made that the best way to beat Nebraska is by effectively throwing the ball, not effectively running the ball.
Unfortunately for the Golden Gophers, they are most certainly better off not throwing the ball. (Although Minnesota is actually throwing the ball slightly better against BCS opponents, averaging 140 yards per game compared to 116.8 yards per game overall.) So based on these numbers, it looks like Minnesota’s strengths do not match up well against Nebraska’s weaknesses.
Or, in short, it looks to be a long day at the office for the Gophers when Nebraska comes to town.
Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge.