- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
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.