Banged-up, bowl-bound Gophers head to Nebraska

Minnesota has handled its recent injuries well.

Samuel Gordon

It’s flu season for students and injury season for Gophers football players.

Several key Minnesota players are hampered with an injury. But the team’s schedule shows no remorse.

The banged-up Gophers travel to Lincoln, Neb., this weekend for a showdown with a very good Nebraska team.

“I’ve coached for 30 years, and this has been a unique situation on the offensive side of the ball,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said referring to his team’s injuries.

Top wide receiver A.J. Barker is still questionable with a bad ankle. So is wideout Derrick Engel. Ed and Tommy Olson, who began the season at starting left tackle and guard, respectively, haven’t played together in more than a month. And because of injuries to Zach Mottla and Jon Christenson, the Gophers are down to their third-string center.

“There’s some unusual things that happen in college football, and this is a little bit unusual,” Kill said. “That’s a challenge for us, but that’s part of the game.”

So far, Minnesota has stepped up to the challenge. The Gophers are still 6-4 and bowl eligible for the first time since 2009.

The healthy players still seem to be in good spirits, and new center Zac Epping said the team is making the adjustments necessary to overcome the injuries.

“As an offensive line, we’re all pretty close together, so it’s pretty easy [to adjust],” he said.

Epping began the season at right guard and has played multiple positions across the offensive line in response to the team’s injuries.

“[Coaches] told me at the beginning of the season to get ready to play guard or get ready to play center,” he said. “I’m ready to play whatever position.”

Starting quarterback Philip Nelson said all of the centers snap differently and he’s had to adjust to each center, but “it shouldn’t be too big of a problem” adjusting to Epping.

Nelson and the Gophers might have a tougher time adjusting to the rowdy crowd at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium.

Memorial Stadium has sold out every home game since 1962, and Nelson said the Gophers are piping in extra noise at practice in preparation for Nebraska’s fans.

The No. 16 Cornhuskers do a great job of igniting them.

Nebraska, normally known for its stout defense, leads the Big Ten in total offense and rushing offense this season, and quarterback Taylor Martinez is one of the best in the business.

Martinez, a junior, has always been a tremendous ball carrier — he’s rushed for 770 yards and eight touchdowns so far this year — but this season he’s a much more polished passer.

In 10 games this year, Martinez has already thrown for 2,112 yards and 19 touchdowns — both career-highs.

“He’s improved his throwing skills. There’s no question about that,” Kill said. “But they’ve also surrounded him with good people.”

A couple of those people are running back Ameer Abdullah and wide receiver Kenny Bell.

Abdullah has eclipsed 100 yards rushing in each of his last four games. He’s run for 942 yards and eight touchdowns this season.

Bell is Martinez’s favorite target, and his 653 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns are both tops on the team.

The Cornhuskers (8-2) are tied atop the Big Ten Legends division with Michigan, which beat the Gophers on Nov. 3.

If the Cornhuskers win out, they’ll clinch a berth in the conference championship game to face Wisconsin.