LINCOLN — Nebraska coach Bo Pelini joked this week about the priority listed at the top of his game plan for Minnesota.
“Not get behind by 14 at halftime, that’s first,” he said.
The No. 16 Cornhuskers (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) have reached this point of the season in unconventional fashion. They’ve come back from double-digit, second-half deficits to win four games.
Because Nebraska has come out on the right side of the drama, the conference’s Legends Division title is in sight.
The Huskers would assure themselves of playing Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis with a win Saturday over Minnesota (6-4, 2-4) and another next week at Iowa.
“They understand what’s at stake,” Pelini said. “We’ve got two tough games ahead of us, and we just have to stay the course. I know this: we are going to get what we earn over the next two weeks.”
Nebraska and Michigan are tied for the division lead, but the Huskers own the tiebreaker because of their win in the head-to-head meeting. If the Huskers lose one of their next two, they would still go to Indy unless the Wolverines beat both Iowa and unbeaten Ohio State.
The Huskers are trying for their first conference title since 1999 and first bid for a BCS game since the 2001 season.
“We’re all aware of that, but we have to stay locked in,” linebacker Will Compton said. “We can’t take this next game lightly at all. We have to take care of us and take care of business. We’re in the driver’s seat, but we have to continue to stay in the driver’s seat, and to do so we have to take care of business this next week.”
The Gophers, who became bowl-eligible with their road win over Illinois last week, are battling injuries on the offensive side.
Zach Mottla has a broken leg and Jon Christianson has a high ankle sprain, meaning converted guard Zac Epping will make his first start at center. Brothers Ed and Tommy Olson, who make up the left side of the line, have been banged up. Wide receiver A.J. Barker is questionable because of a lingering ankle problem.
Freshman Philip Nelson is 2-2 as the Gophers’ third starting quarterback. He played in a venue as unfriendly to opposing quarterbacks as Memorial Stadium when he made his first career start at Wisconsin.
“It’s going to be loud,” Nelson said of Lincoln. “We already know that. All we can do is prepare and really focus on being able to execute, especially with the crowd noise. We’ve got some noisemakers out there (in practice) for us so the best we can do is prepare for the noise. We’ve done it before, so we should be fine.”
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said Nelson’s experience against Wisconsin, where Nelson’s father played fullback in the late 1970s, should help against Nebraska.
“First game, at Madison. That’s a pretty good opening game to get educated in,” Kill said. “So I look for him to be excited. Big thing is we need to make sure we put him in good situations as a coaching staff. Got to make sure we got the center quarterback exchange. That’s the most important thing.”
Last year the Huskers rolled up a season-high 515 yards and broke out to a 34-0 lead on their way to a 41-14 victory in Minneapolis.
The Gophers are much improved defensively, allowing 336 yards and 22.3 points a game. Those numbers were 431 yards and 34.5 points through 10 games a year ago.
“They are a more physical football team, I think, than they were a year ago,” Pelini said. “That’s what you expect. With more time under coach Kill and his staff, you see the improvement and you’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”
The Huskers also deserve credit after overcoming more double-digit, second-half deficits than any team in Nebraska history. Only two other teams in major-college football since 2000 have pulled off comebacks of such magnitude in a season.
Nebraska rallied from 17 points down to Wisconsin, 12 points to Northwestern and 10 points to Michigan State before overcoming a two-touchdown deficit to Penn State.
All the Huskers have gone through to get wins seems to have strengthened their resolve to get to the Big Ten title game.
“We need to go ahead and get it done,” safety P.J. Smith said. “It’s that time. For the last four years we played around. Now it’s time to get the job done. We have been taking it one game at a time. As long as we do that, and finish the game off the right way, we will be there.”