MINNEAPOLIS -- Nebraska ventures to Minnesota, its first return visit to any venue in its third year as a member of the Big Ten, and tries to keep pace with Michigan State atop the Legends Division. Here’s what to watch:
The Nebraska quarterback situation: We’ve been talking about it all week -- OK, all month and beyond, but things remained unresolved for the Huskers even as they boarded the short flight from Lincoln to Minneapolis on Friday morning. Will Taylor Martinez return from six weeks off with turf toe to play against the Gophers? Probably. Will he start? Possibly, though redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. is still an option.
The offensive game plan: If Martinez returns, look for the Huskers to concoct a strategy that puts him in the least amount of danger possible. With Martinez in charge in the season’s first three games, Nebraska rushed the ball on 64 percent of its plays. Over the past three games, that figure jumped to 67.1 percent. It ought to crawl even higher this week. The senior QB just needs to get his feet -- or toe -- wet in this return. Then if all goes well, he can cut loose in a week.
The defensive progress: Two of Nebraska’s top three rush-defense performances and its top two pass-defense showings of the year came at the start of Big Ten season against Illinois and Purdue. Minnesota, like the Huskers’ past two opponents, is no offensive juggernaut, but the Golden Gophers run the ball well, averaging more than 210 yards. Minnesota’s dual-quarterback system presents another challenge for the Blackshirts, though sophomore Philip Nelson appears to have earned the edge. He led Minnesota to all of its 20 points two weeks ago in a 3-point win over Northwestern.
Third-down success: No stat more accurately illustrates Nebraska’s overall efficiency than its performance, offensively and defensively, on third downs. The Huskers have lost the third-down battle in just one game -- you guessed it, Sept. 14 against UCLA. Since that game, Nebraska has converted 24 of 43 third downs while holding its foes to 10 of 40. In its five wins, Nebraska is converting 55.6 percent of its third downs. Its foes have converted 24.6 percent in those same five games.
The Jerry Kill factor: Minnesota’s third-year coach has missed the past two games while taking a medical leave of absence after he continued to struggle with epileptic seizures. Kill traveled last week to watch the Gophers beat Northwestern. He even spoke to the team at halftime. No word on his plans for Saturday, though acting head coach Tracy Claeys said he expected Kill to attend the game. His appearance, even if for a short period of time, could provide a boost of energy and spark Minnesota in front of its home crowd.