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No. 25 Nebraska starts busy stretch at Minnesota

AP - Sports
No. 25 Nebraska starts busy stretch at Minnesota
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Minnesota defensive back Brock Vereen (21) and linebacker Aaron Hill (57) tackle Northwestern wide receiver Christian Jones (14) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- These teams Nebraska has taken to the Big Ten since joining the conference two years ago have been far from the best of this proud, powerful program.

Four-loss seasons are substandard for the Cornhuskers and their fans.

They're in favorable position, though, for a second straight Legends Division title if they can stay on track during the second half of their schedule. Starting Saturday at Minnesota, the 25th-ranked Huskers (5-1, 2-0) begin a busy 35-day stretch with six games that will tell a lot about coach Bo Pelini and his team's standing in the Big Ten.

The conference threw them a curveball with bye weeks on Sept. 28 and Oct. 19, which sandwiched convincing victories over Illinois and Purdue, so the time for breaks is over. But they're 10-point favorites on the road against the Gophers (5-2, 1-2). Then they host fading Northwestern. The trip to Michigan is always tough, but that's followed by a home game against the only other team left in the division without a Big Ten loss, Michigan State.

To finish, they play at Penn State and host Iowa.

''Everything is pretty wide open. That's just the nature of college football,'' Pelini said. ''In my opinion, you can throw 40 teams in a hat and go week to week, and the teams that are going to execute that given week are the teams that are going to win football games. It's not just the Legends Division. It's across college football.''

Nebraska has beaten Minnesota by a combined 79-28 margin in two matchups since they became conference rivals in 2011 and is averaging more than 42 points per game this season. The Gophers, though, will bring some added confidence after winning at Northwestern last week.

''I think they believe in what they are doing,'' Pelini said. ''I shouldn't say I'm glad it happened. Hopefully it caught our guys' attention.''

Here are five things to know about the game between the Huskers and the Gophers:

MARTINEZ MENDING: After missing the last three games due to a turf toe injury on his left foot, Taylor Martinez, the man who holds most of the school's career passing records and is a fine runner as well, is expected to return to the field. Whether he starts will be a game-time decision.

GROUND GAME: The Gophers gave up 246 yards rushing in their Big Ten opener against Iowa, and their front seven will have their hands full again with the Huskers, regardless of how much Martinez factors into the scheme. Ameer Abdullah is the conference's second-leading rusher with 136 yards per game, and backups Imani Cross and Terrell Newby are both averaging more than 5 yards per attempt.

BALL-HAWKING HUSKERS: Nebraska's defense is second in the Big Ten and sixth nationally in the FBS with 11 interceptions over six games, including four by Stanley Jean-Baptiste and three from Ciante Evans. The Huskers had just 13 interceptions in 14 games all season in 2012.

KILL STILL RECOVERING: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill took a leave of absence from the job earlier this month to better treat and manage his epilepsy, but his wife drove him on the six-plus-hour trip to see the Northwestern game last week. Kill even surprised the team with a halftime speech, and the Gophers hung on for a 20-17 victory.

''That's a moment I will leave this university with. For him to come in, it was impossible not to get rolling in the second half. He's just as responsible for that win,'' said senior cornerback Brock Vereen, who has switched positions from safety.

Kill isn't expected to return to the sideline Saturday, but he took in practice this week.

''I'm sure he'll be in the press box for this game. If he's got some advice that will help us win the football game, I'll gladly listen to it,'' said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, the acting head coach in Kill's stead.

REVOLVING DOOR: Philip Nelson is in line to start for the Gophers at quarterback after his solid performance at Northwestern and an illness early in the week for Mitch Leidner. Nelson has started four games, Leidner three, and the coaches haven't expressed any urgency to pick a permanent leader. They're just going with the hot hand.

''I've got a good connection with both of them, a good rapport,'' wide receiver Derrick Engel said. ''We've just got to keep building on it.''

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