Game Day: Nebraska vs. Iowa

Round 12

It’s a big week in the Big Ten. Perhaps one of the most dramatic final weeks in recent memory. Neither divisional champion has been decided, and four games have to be played before the Big Ten title competitors — who play next week in Indianapolis — are known. For Nebraska, the final round comes with, of course, a little bit of adversity and drama. It probably wouldn’t be a Husker game in 2016 without some of that.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Iowa rush defense

Iowa has had some some surprisingly leaky moments against the run this season, which is rare for a Hawkeye defense. North Dakota State ran for 239 and Penn State ran for 359. Heck, even Rutgers ran for 193. But Iowa figured something out against Michigan — giving up only 98 yards in that game — and Illinois, where it allowed only 61 yards. The Huskers rank 71st nationally in yards per carry (4.41). The offensive line appears to be healthier than it has been most the season, which is good, but NU needs either that group to be at its very best to help back Terrell Newby, or it needs some kind of running threat from Tommy Armstrong, who's working through a hamstring injury.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Iowa pass defense

The Hawkeyes are allowing opposing quarterbacks just a 51.1 percent completion rate this year. That's pretty meager, and cornerback Desmond King is one of the nation's best. Iowa's zone defense tends to fluster Husker quarterbacks — especially on some of those shorter routes that Iowa's 'backers are good at jumping — so whoever plays quarterback for the Huskers — be it Armstrong, backup Ryker Fyfe or No. 3 quarterback Zack Darlington — has to take care of the ball. NU coaches will be cautious against Iowa's secondary. Right now, the Hawkeyes have the upper hand here.

Iowa rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Iowa will run the ball come hell or Herky the Hawkeye. At times — like 34 yards against North Dakota State or 79 yards against Northwestern or 30 yards against Penn State — Iowa is quite awful at this. But, if the Hawkeyes' defense is playing well, think of these runs — a heavy dose of outside zone and inside zone especially — as effective clock managers and setups to longer, play-action throws. Nebraska's defensive scheme aims to swarm the run in a way that dissuades teams from doing it, which is why NU only faces 31.64 carries per game. (Alabama faces more.) But, on occasion, the Husker run defense busts and gives up a long run. That happened in last year's game vs. Iowa, when the Hawkeyes carried the ball just 28 times, but gained 153 yards because of runs of 29 and 67 yards for touchdowns.

Iowa pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

This one doesn't bode well for Iowa. The Hawkeyes didn't have a great receiver to start the season, and their best receiver, Matt VandeBerg, is out with an injury. That doesn't leave much for Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, other than some tight ends and running back Akrum Wadley. Nebraska's coverage this season has been far improved over 2015, and NU's secondary will be up to the task. In Big Ten play, Iowa is averaging 145.8 yards passing. Nebraska should be able to cause some problems for the Hawkeyes here.

Special teams

Here's where King's ability — and Iowa's willingness to use their best play at multiple spots — helps. Iowa is seventh nationally in punt return yards and 11th nationally in kickoff return average because King is a threat in both; against Illinois, it was Riley McCarron who returned punt for a touchdown. Iowa has allowed just seven punts and 17 kickoffs to be returned this season. NU kicker Drew Brown — presuming he can play — has an edge on Iowa freshman Keith Duncan, although Duncan hit the game-winner against Michigan. Iowa has the better special teams bunch coming into this game.

Intangibles

Nebraska has been through about every kind of adversity a team can go through since the last time it played in Iowa City, and it has come out the other end a smarter, tougher team. These seniors seem to welcome the trip to Iowa City, even on a short week, to avenge a loss that ate at them following last season. Iowa's motivation here? To finish strong, with a three-game winning streak, and send out Beathard, one of the program's great quarterbacks, and King, one of the program's great players, the right way. The Hawkeyes are in for a major rebuilding process next season, but they can end this season the way it started: with a lot of potential.

Key matchup: Iowa's running backs vs. Nebraska's defense

If Iowa can't run the ball — if Daniels and Wadley can't break the tackles of Husker defenders — it seems unlikely that Iowa will move the ball with any efficiency. The Hawkeyes may punt 12 times, under those circumstances. But Wadley and Daniels are good at breaking big runs, and they only need a small crease. If they combine for more than 150 yards, Iowa should win this one.

Our take

Don't eat too much leftover turkey for lunch before the 2:30 p.m. kick, because the offenses in this game could make you a little sleepy. Look for a defensive struggle, full of field position and coaching decisions. Big Ten football in November. It does have a rugged beauty to it. By the time the sun sets in Iowa City, it should be a close one.

Our prediction: Nebraska 16, Iowa 14

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Game notes

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