NCF Nation: Mike Moudy

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Look for the hidden meaning as Minnesota visits Nebraska on Saturday. It’s not hard to find.

The 25th-ranked Golden Gophers come to Memorial Stadium at 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten after a seven-point home loss to Ohio State last week. The No. 23 Huskers stand at 8-2 and 4-2 on the heels of losing by five touchdowns at Wisconsin.

The 11 a.m. kickoff on ESPN provides a chance for Minnesota and Nebraska to move on from the disappointments of last week. There’s more at work, though. This 55th meeting in the series offers a study in how two programs appear on a similar trajectory, yet, upon close inspection, may represent passing ships in the night.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah and the Cornhuskers are looking ahead to their big game against Minnesota on Saturday.
 Minnesota is trending up. Eight wins over 12 games of Big Ten play marks its best run in 40 years. Nebraska, meanwhile after the debacle in Madison, is struggling to move out of neutral in its seventh season under coach Bo Pelini.

The Huskers have lost seven games by 17 points or more since joining the Big Ten in 2011. And as the careers wind to a close of their most dynamic players over that period -- record-setting Ameer Abdullah at I-back and receiver Kenny Bell -- questions have gone largely unanswered this week about how to fix the big-game problems.

“We need to win this football game,” Bell said. “We have to.”

It’s a sentiment shared by players and coaches on both teams.

The Gophers remain in control of their destiny to win the West Division, though they must win in Lincoln and at Wisconsin next week. Sound farfetched? So did an eight-win season in 2013. Or a chance to repeat it.

With one victory, Minnesota will reach eight wins again -- a feat it has accomplished once in the past 50 years.

Even after last week, the moment of which the Gophers have dreamed is here, said fourth-year coach Jerry Kill.

“I wish close counted,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said, “but it doesn’t.”

Kill said the Gophers are confident about their final stretch. He also recognizes the potential danger in wanting too badly to clear the next hurdle as a program.

“Preparation takes all the pressure out of it,” Kill said. “I think the big challenge for us coaches and players is to make we do a great job of preparation, so we’re confident going in.”

Minnesota beat Nebraska 34-23 last year in Minneapolis, the Gophers’ first win in the series in 17 games. Nebraska has won the past seven meetings in Lincoln, dating to 1960.

“Winning on the road, in the Big Ten or anywhere,” Kill said, “is not easy to do.”

Nebraska was reminded as much last week. The stunning defeat to the Badgers created anxiety in Lincoln. Pelini, 66-26 at Nebraska, defended his program to fans and media.

“I’ve been around coaching and football long enough to know that you stay the course,” Pelini said.

The Huskers face the longest odds of the four teams left in contention to win the West Division. A Wisconsin win Saturday at Iowa or next week over the Gophers or one Nebraska loss -- it closes at Iowa -- would eliminate the Huskers.

Nebraska last won a league title in 1999.

“It’s about having a short memory,” senior offensive guard Mike Moudy said.

The Wisconsin game, Moudy said, “is in the past.”

“You can’t change anything about it,” he said. “All you can do is get better. We are just going to worry about Minnesota.”

As the Huskers picked up the pieces from last week, Brian Saunders, a Nebraska fan and ex-Marine formerly of Laurel, Nebraska, helped arrange an online fund drive to fly a banner near Memorial Stadium on Saturday before kickoff with the message: “Fire Bo Pelini.”

The bid raised less than 25 percent by the deadline of the required $1,500.

Saunders, 25, who lives in Orlando, Florida, said he still hoped to fly the banner next week in Iowa City.

The effort, while perhaps extreme, illustrates the restless state around Nebraska’s program.

Some fans and players, it seems, don’t know what to think. In practice on Tuesday, seven top-unit defenders voluntarily relinquished their traditional Blackshirt jerseys. The other Blackshirts remained.

“All you can do is take the coaching,” senior cornerback Josh Mitchell said. “We have proven that we know how to do things correctly.”

So has Minnesota.

Who moves forward on Saturday? Maybe it's the team that most successfully got past last week.
LINCOLN, Neb. – It was going to overtime: Nebraska and McNeese State.

The Cowboys owned the second half on Saturday. And when the 19th-ranked Huskers took possession with 1:14 to play at their 44-yard line, tied 24-24, and blitzing safety Dominique Hill sacked Tommy Armstrong Jr. to force a fumble that bounced to right guard Mike Moudy, Nebraska just needed to survive and regroup.

Time ticked away. Inside of 40 seconds, Armstrong lined up in the shotgun with Ameer Abdullah to his right. The sophomore quarterback, amid the chaos, yelled to the star I-back and team captain.

"Be ready," he said. "Expect the ball."

And then this happened:

video

Armstrong recognized a blanket of zone coverage on the outside. He kept his eyes forward. But in his mind, the QB locked in early on Abdullah -- the fourth option on this play -- and found the senior in the flat matched against 218-pound middle linebacker Bo Brown.

“Adrenaline takes over in those heated moments,” said Abdullah, the nation's top returning rusher from 2013.

The ball traveled 12 yards in the air and reached Abdullah at the Nebraska 44. He shook Brown as Hill collided with the linebacker.

“I was just trying to get to the end zone,” Abdullah said. “It’s a blur.”

Cornerback Gabe Hamner and defensive tackle Kevin Dorn converged on Abdullah. They lunged at him as safety Aaron Sam hit the running back squarely from the front at midfield. Abdullah bounced away from all three and sprang into open space.

“I saw a special player making a great play,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.

Safety Brent Spikes had a shot near the McNeese 45, but Abdullah accelerated past him just as tight end Cethan Carter laid out Wallace Scott with a block to the linebacker’s right shoulder.

“I was just trying not to get in his way,” said left guard Jake Cotton, one of several linemen to get downfield as Abdullah navigated traffic.

Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he figured if Abdullah got the ball in space, he could make a few guys miss.

"He made a few guys miss," Beck said.

Cornerback Jermaine Antoine had the final shot at Abdullah, but Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp deterred him near the 25.

"He’s our leader," Westerkamp said. "He brings it all the time. It’s great to have a guy with that attitude."

Abdullah reached the end zone with 20 seconds on the clock and secured a 31-24 win -- after 58 yards and 16 seconds of excitement.

"He put the team on his back and won the game," Pelini said. "Thank God for Ameer. He showed why he is who he is."
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

Injuries impacted UGA, Nebraska seasons

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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This season's similarities are striking for the combatants in this season's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia and Nebraska. Perhaps the most notable similarity between the Bulldogs (8-4) and Cornhuskers (8-4), though, is the numerous injuries that helped prevent them from playing up to their potential.

ESPN.com's David Ching and Mitch Sherman discussed how injuries affected the teams' seasons and what might have been if not for all the physical ailments.

1. Out of all of the injuries they sustained this season, which one was the costliest and why?

Ching: There are a lot of directions you could go here, but Todd Gurley's ankle injury and ensuing three-and-a-half-game absence probably hurt the most. Gurley is one of the biggest difference-makers in the country, and Georgia's potent offense simply wasn't as good without him in the lineup -- particularly when fellow tailback Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury the week after Gurley went down against LSU. It's not a coincidence that Georgia bounced back from a two-game losing streak upon Gurley's return, nor that the Bulldogs went 4-1 down the stretch once he was back. He totaled 755 yards and 10 touchdowns in those five games.

Sherman: Taylor Martinez began this season as most indispensable Husker -- and by November, we saw why. Without the fifth-year senior, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback, including four this season, the Nebraska offense shifted from the strength of this team to a liability. The Huskers failed to gain 400 yards in each of their final four games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III performed admirably, but their numbers paled in comparison to the production expected from a healthy Martinez. In good position to become the second QB in FBS history to surpass 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, he suffered the fateful foot injury in Nebraska’s season opener. By mid-September, his limitations were painfully apparent, stamped into the record books with losses to UCLA and Minnesota in Martinez’s final two starts.

2. Which position group dealt with the most injury issues?

Sherman: Problems on the offensive line began on the opening series of the sixth game against Purdue as All-Big Ten right guard Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury. Long was the leader of the line and a motivating force for the entire team as a senior captain and former walk-on turned solid NFL prospect. As soon as his linemates began to wear Long’s jersey No. 61 as a tribute, the injury bug spread. First, it was left guard Jake Cotton. Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, despite staying in the lineup, dealt with injuries, too, as did center-turned-guard Cole Pensick. Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy, missed the final four games. The injuries hurt most in practice, and Long’s injury got the snowball rolling. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska rushed for 285 yards or more in four of five games. After Purdue, it never topped 195 on the ground.

Ching: Georgia's safeties could make a reasonable argument here, but let's go with the receivers. Malcolm Mitchell suffered perhaps the most bizarre injury of the season when he tore an ACL while leaping into the air to celebrate Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson on the Bulldogs' second offensive possession of the fall. Justin Scott-Wesley, who essentially caught the game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and LSU, tore an ACL while covering a punt against Tennessee. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with midseason injuries, and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph didn't play until Game 8 against Florida after injuring his hamstring in August. Because of the regular lineup shuffling, six Bulldogs have at least 20 catches this season.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia went 4-1 after sophomore RB Todd Gurley returned to the lineup, and the only loss was the 'Miracle at Jordan-Hare.'
3. What do you think this team might have accomplished if health hadn't become such a factor?

Ching: I hesitate to say Georgia would have been a BCS title contender because its defense was probably not championship caliber. But it's hard to predict what might have been with any certainty since the Bulldogs started losing key contributors in the first quarter of the first game. I'll go so far as to say the Bulldogs at least would have won a third straight SEC East title and been in the running for an at-large BCS bowl spot. With Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own against Kentucky, at the trigger and an impressive array of skill talent, this had the potential to be the scariest offense Georgia has ever put on the field, but we never saw the full complement for even one full game.

Sherman: It’s difficult to quantify in wins and losses, considering the other problems that plagued these Huskers, notably with turnovers and on special teams. Nebraska could have outscored Minnesota with a healthy Martinez and Long. And it’s likely that the second-half meltdown against UCLA never would have happened if Martinez was operating at full strength. The Huskers moved the ball well in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. Injuries weren’t the issue against the Spartans; turnovers were, but freshmen committed all five. And Martinez, while turnover-prone since his freshman season, torched the Spartans a year ago. But even at 10-2, Nebraska would have missed a repeat trip to the Big Ten title game.

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