Gophers vs. Nebraska: Story lines, stats, Randy Johnson’s prediction

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

Gophers vs. Nebraska, 7 p.m. Thursday, Huntington Bank Stadium, FOX (Ch. 9), 100.3-FM

A new era of football for the Gophers and Nebraska kicks off. The Gophers will hand the offensive reins to a new starter at quarterback in Athan Kaliakmanis, who takes over for Tanner Morgan. For the Cornhuskers, new coach Matt Rhule looks to quickly rebuild a proud program.

Three big story lines

How will the new-look Gophers offense fare?

Morgan started for most of four seasons before concussions put Kaliakmanis behind center, and the strong-armed QB excelled in wins over Nebraska and Wisconsin. Gone are All-America performers at running back in Mohamed Ibrahim and John Michael Schmitz at center. If Sean Tyler and Nathan Boe, respectively, fare well as replacements, the Gophers offense should hum.

Will the Gophers defense generate more of a pass rush?

As good as Joe Rossi's defense was in 2022 — the Gophers ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense (13.8 points allowed per game) — it generated only 19 sacks. New DL coach Winston DeLattiboudere III has injected energy into his group, which includes training camp standouts Jah Joyner, Jalen Logan-Redding and Anthony Smith.

Will new Huskers coach Matt Rhule make an immediate difference?

Rhule took a downtrodden Temple program from two wins to 10 wins in three seasons and a scandal-ridden Baylor team from one win to 11 wins in three seasons. He's set up for success at a place where football matters and the cupboard is far from bare.

Two key matchups

Gophers LB Cody Lindenberg vs. Nebraska QB Jeff Sims

Lindenberg takes over for Mariano Sori-Marin as the Gophers defensive leader at linebacker, and his speed will be key in keeping Sims, a transfer from Georgia Tech, under wraps. Sims passed for 4,464 yards and 30 TDs and rushed for 1,166 yards and 11 TDs while starting 23 games for Tech.

Gophers OC Greg Harbaugh Jr. vs. Nebraska DC Tony White

Harbaugh, who shares offensive coordinator duties with Matt Simon, is expected to be the Gophers' primary play-caller. He'll face a challenge from White's 3-3-5 alignment, which is designed to confuse. White left Syracuse for the Huskers after the 2022 regular season.

One stat that matters

6 Consecutive losing seasons for Nebraska, which is 23-45 in that span. Included in that is a 1-5 record against the Gophers.

The Gophers will win if … they control the clock with the running game, are explosive in the passing game, win the turnover battle and keep the Nebraska offense on the sideline. The Gophers will pass more than 21.6 times per game (their 2022 average), but don't expect Air Coryell.

The Cornhuskers will win if … they win the turnover battle and play much smarter than they did under Scott Frost, whose teams lost 22 one-score games. Rhule emphasized discipline during training camp. "I'm confident that if things don't go well early, that we're not going to panic," he said.


Conference openers are always important, and that applies to both the Gophers and Huskers. Minnesota, which faces the Michigan-Ohio State gantlet later in the season, can ill afford an early conference loss if it wants to win the Big Ten West. The Huskers want to quickly establish that the Frost era is in the past.

Last year, the Huskers took a 10-0 halftime lead before Kaliakmanis guided the Gophers to 20 second-half points in a 20-13 Minnesota win. WR Daniel Jackson gives Kaliakmanis a solid primary target, while the return of Chris Autman-Bell from injury will be inspirational. Even more important, 6-7 standout tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford is a matchup nightmare.

RJ's expectation: Nebraska lost each of the past three games in the series by a TD. The Huskers will push the Gophers and keep it a tight game, but Minnesota has enough playmakers to secure the win. Gophers 24, Nebraska 20