The University of Nebraska football team has been known as the Cornhuskers since late in the 19th century. To Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, another nickname applies to Nebraska, at least for Thursday's season opener at Huntington Bank Stadium.
"We're preparing for ghosts. We have no idea what we're going to face," Fleck said Thursday during a State Fair appearance — comments he reiterated Friday during his news conference.
The Huskers, under new coach Matt Rhule, have the advantage of being an unknown commodity as they try to rebuild after six consecutive losing seasons.
Fleck has had his staff study film from Rhule's time as coach at Temple, Baylor and the Carolina Panthers of the NFL. In addition, the Gophers have analyzed the tendencies of Nebraska offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield and defensive coordinator Tony White at previous coaching stops.
Nebraska's 3-3-5 defensive alignment — which uses three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs — is built to confuse by using multiple looks and angles. The Gophers faced a similar alignment against Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl in December and emerged with a 28-20 victory.
"What they do in a 3-3-5 creates a lot of issues because you can be in a three-down front before the snap, and a five-down front when the ball is snapped," Fleck said of Nebraska. "… It's a very complex defense and without any game film to know exactly how they're going to run it. That's what it means to be preparing for ghosts."
Fleck excited for sellout
The Gophers on Thursday announced that the opener against Nebraska will be a sellout at Huntington Bank Stadium, which holds 50,805. Fleck welcomed the news.
"It just shows where we're headed and where we've come as a program," he said. "There were times when I first got here that I was told, 'You'll never sell that place out.' I took that as a personal challenge."
The Gophers' last sellout came against Ohio State in the 2021 season opener with a crowd of 50,805. The largest home crowds in Fleck's time as coach were 53,756 against Wisconsin and 51,833 against Penn State, both in 2019.
• The Gophers must replace three starters on the offensive line, and Fleck can see a committee approach playing out rather than only five players manning the spots. "You'll see more than just five," he said. "And that's because there's more than five starters. I don't think that there's just five guys that have completely separated themselves from everybody else."
• Fleck said the Gophers still are awaiting the NCAA's decision on the eligibility of defensive back Craig McDonald, the former Minnehaha Academy standout who transferred to Minnesota from Auburn after spending two seasons at Iowa State. The Gophers have requested a waiver in hopes of McDonald being immediately eligible. If they don't receive the waiver, McDonald wouldn't be eligible to play until the 2024 season.