Pivot point: Gophers, Nebraska bring extra emotion into Saturday’s game

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P.J. Fleck often refers to games as data points, chances for him and his Gophers football coaching staff to gather information, assess the team's performance and make changes where needed.

For fans, judging games typically becomes more emotional than analytical, with spectators invested in the pride of their team winning or losing. It's a black-or-white result for many, with little room for gray area.

Some matchups, though, carry more emotional heft than others and need that jolt of energy. Saturday's contest against Nebraska falls into that category.

Coming off their bye week, the Gophers drag a 3-2 record into Huntington Bank Stadium, a mark boosted by their victory Purdue last time out but forever marred by the home loss to Bowling Green, a bottom-feeder in the Mid-American Conference.

The Gophers are down to their No. 3 running back because of injuries, trot out a passing attack that's averaged only seven completions in the past two games and just lost a former offensive line starter to the transfer portal. Amid all that, tangible improvement remains a must from an offense that ranks 12th in the Big Ten in total yards.

"When you have a constantly revolving door of playmakers, at least on offense, it's really hard to get that consistency at times,'' said Fleck, who expects a healthier Chris Autman-Bell to give the receiving corps a lift.

Fleck and his Gophers will need more than a popgun threat on offense to keep pace with the Cornhuskers, who average 31.9 points per game and have a quarterback in Adrian Martinez who averages 314.9 total yards per game. The erratic Martinez of years past is changing the narrative.

It was easy to write off Nebraska when it opened the season with a 30-22 loss at Illinois, but a fourth consecutive losing season under coach Scott Frost is no longer a foregone conclusion. The Huskers are 3-4, though they've lost to No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 8 Michigan and No. 10 Michigan State by a combined 13 points. And when given a snack from the MAC like Buffalo, they didn't choke on it.

What adds more intrigue to Saturday's game is the recent history – and some dislike — between the combatants. Minnesota has won two in a row and three of the past four against the Huskers and has finished ahead of Nebraska in the Big Ten West standings for the past two years. That doesn't sit well with a proud program like Nebraska, which is only 5-5 against the Gophers since joining the Big Ten.

"I'm not into sloganeering,'' Frost said during Big Ten Media Days in July, a perceived shot at Fleck's "Row the Boat'' culture. "If the players need me to motivate them all the time or come up with a unique slogan to play harder, I probably don't have the right players.''

Nebraska, under Tom Osborne, won three national championships and lost a de facto national title game in a five-year span from 1993 to '97. That's the lofty standard to which the Huskers aspire. In 2014, Bo Pelini got fired, in part, because he couldn't break a seven-year run of either 9-4 or 10-4 seasons. Since then, Nebraska has reached nine wins only once, in 2016. Frost's best season so far is 5-7 in 2019.

Here's the deal for the Gophers: They have the opportunity Saturday not only to stay in the Big Ten West race, one game behind Iowa, but also to bury the Huskers for 2021. A Minnesota win drops Nebraska to 1-4 in the Big Ten and provides Fleck and Co. the chance to lord that over the Huskers on the recruiting trail.

One issue: Are the Gophers good enough to seize that chance? The answer comes Saturday afternoon.

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