In Nebraska, Gophers face a fellow Big Ten opponent on the rise

Head coaches P.J. Fleck and Scott Frost are intent on turning around their respective programs.

Wide receiver Tyler Johnson attempts to avoid being tackled on Saturday, Oct. 20 at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska defeated the Gophers with a final score of 53-28. 

Jack Rodgers

Wide receiver Tyler Johnson attempts to avoid being tackled on Saturday, Oct. 20 at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska defeated the Gophers with a final score of 53-28. 

Nick Jungheim

In 2016, P.J. Fleck led the Western Michigan Broncos to a 12-0 regular season record, a conference championship and an appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl game. The following season, Scott Frost accomplished the same at Central Florida, bettering Fleck by capping an undefeated season with a 34-27 victory over Auburn in the Peach Bowl.

Now, both Fleck and Frost are coaching in the Big Ten West conference, Fleck in his third season at Minnesota and Frost in his second season at his alma mater, Nebraska. Together, they represent a pair of coaches leading promising programs back to relevance in a competitive division.

“I think the West has gotten a lot better,” Fleck told the media before the season. “You look at the coaches who have been hired, I mean, Scott Frost at Nebraska and what they’re doing in recruiting right now and the elevation of that program instantly. You can just feel that coming.”

Frost and Fleck may have taken similar routes to their current positions but the situations they inherited differed. Fleck became head coach following a 9-4 season after Minnesota decided to move on from Tracey Claeys. In 2018, Frost took over a Nebraska team coming off a 4-8 campaign, the program’s worst finish since 1958.

Both Frost and Fleck made waves in recruiting, attracting young talent to Lincoln and Minneapolis respectively. Fleck has brought in consecutive top-40 recruiting classes and results are beginning to show. The Gophers have a seven-game winning streak dating back to last season and fans are starting to believe in his process. 

“What I’m excited about is our state, our community, the Twin Cities area, are all talking about Gopher football,” Fleck said. “That’s what I love. I want them to keep talking about Gopher football.”

Meanwhile Frost brought the No. 18 ranked recruiting class to Nebraska last season. As a result, the Cornhuskers have a wealth of young talent, something they may have to lean on this weekend, as the statuses of receiver JD Spielman and quarterback Adrian Martinez are uncertain for Saturday.

“One thing you got to give coach Frost credit for is he recruits,” Fleck said. “There are plenty of people behind [Spielman and Martinez].”

Among the young contributors for Nebraska is freshman wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, the reigning Big Ten freshman of the week. With 684 all-purpose yards this season, Robinson is somebody Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi will be focused on containing.

“He’s explosive in the run game and the pass game,” Rossi said. “They put in the back field, they split him out. He’s a challenge we have to be aware of at all times.”

Another parallel is that Fleck and Frost are offensive-minded head coaches whose teams are more than capable of putting up points. Minnesota and Nebraska each have two players ranked among the top-10 in receiving yards for the Big Ten: Rashod Bateman (2) and Tyler Johnson (7) for the Gophers, and Spielman (3) and Robinson (9) for the Cornhuskers. 

Not to be outdone, both teams can also run the ball effectively. Redshirt seniors Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith of Minnesota combined for 332 yards last week against Illinois. The Nebraska backfield features three of the Big Ten’s top-16 rushers in Martinez (8), junior Dedrick Mills (11) and sophomore Maurice Washington (16).

It is possible that the winning team on Saturday will have to put up big numbers, something that has been a common theme of the programs’ last two matchups against each other. In 2017, Minnesota scored 54 points on 514 yards of offense. Last season, the Cornhuskers’ offense put up 53 points and 659 total yards, a performance that left an impression on the Gophers’ defense.

“They just have a lot of playmakers,” said senior linebacker Carter Coughlin. “Same thing this year, they have a bunch of playmakers, they have skill everywhere. We need to be firing on all cylinders at every position.”

Minnesota and Nebraska will play each other on the last week of the regular season in 2020 and 2021. With the trajectory of these programs, it is not unreasonable to think that they could be fighting for a trip to the Big Ten Championship in those contests. This weekend, the weather may feel like late-November for an important meeting between P.J. Fleck’s Gophers and Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at TCF Bank Stadium.