Game Day: Nebraska vs. Iowa

Lost in the maze

At Iowa and at Nebraska, players and coaches began the year with their eyes on a championship, outwardly expressing their objective and internally building a belief that they were set to break through. But that dream is gone, and the Huskers and Hawkeyes are right back where they were last year, struggling to find a way out of a maze of mediocrity. Both programs know where they want to be. They just haven’t found recently a way to get there.

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2-Minute Drill by Rich Kaipust

Nebraska rush offense vs. Iowa rush defense

The Huskers have gone three straight games without a 200-yard team effort, dropping to No. 14 nationally in rushing offense (256.2 yards). That has coincided with the injury to I-back Ameer Abdullah, but includes running into stout running defenses with Wisconsin and Minnesota. Iowa is closer to the Gophers than the Badgers, allowing 158.5 yards per game and 4.2 per carry. Abdullah said he is getting healthier each week, so maybe that can make a difference here.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Iowa pass defense

Tommy Armstrong regained his touch against Minnesota after completing a combined 14 of 39 passes in the prior two games. Still, his season completion percentage is at 52.4, the running game isn’t adding the diversion it was before, and Nebraska finished its last game without all-time leading receiver Kenny Bell. The Hawkeyes haven’t allowed an opponent to hit 150 passing yards since Maryland reached 206 on Oct. 18.

Iowa rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Iowa has to be licking its chops after watching Wisconsin and Minnesota absolutely shred NU the last two weeks, but it also has its own issues. Since midseason the Hawkeyes have had games where they managed just 116 rushing yards against Maryland, 84 against Minnesota and 101 against Wisconsin — and they rarely break the big ones. Somebody needs to win here, and maybe the Huskers regain some of the success they had earlier in the season.

Iowa pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Hawkeye air attack is probably more efficient than pretty, but that might be all it takes Friday if they can avoid mistakes. Jake Rudock is completing 64.2 percent of his throws, with 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Nebraska is holding opponents to the lowest completion rate in the Big Ten (47.3 percent) and has more interceptions (11) than passing TDs allowed (10). But the Huskers have been falling victim to some timely throws.

Special teams

NU ranks ahead of Iowa in net punting, kickoff coverage and punt returns. The Huskers also swung the Minnesota game last week with a blocked field goal that they returned for a touchdown. Both teams have missed five field goals. The difference might be Nebraska having De’Mornay Pierson-El on punt returns and Sam Foltz punting.

Intangibles

The visiting team has won the last two years, but the Huskers aren’t exactly arriving in Iowa City with momentum or self-confidence. The two have gone a combined 0-4 against Wisconsin and Minnesota (each with an embarrassing blowout) so it comes down to pride and bowl placement. Both have negative turnover margins, but Iowa is one of the least penalized teams in the nation, has fewer injury questions and is bidding farewell to its seniors.

Key matchup: Iowa's Brandon Scherff vs. Nebraska's Randy Gregory

Two of the Big Ten’s best will cross paths from time to time Friday when Iowa left tackle Brandon Scherff gets matched up with Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory. Scherff, a senior from Denison, Iowa, has battled a knee injury but started the season with All-America and Outland Trophy attention. Gregory, a junior from Fishers, Indiana, also had September knee trouble but has rebounded with seven sacks, 10 tackles for losses and 16 quarterback hurries.

Our take

The Hawkeyes’ defense has held Nebraska to 288 and 263 total yards in the previous two meetings and forced five turnovers, although the 2012 game at Kinnick Stadium was played in some severe wind and cold. But if Nebraska doesn’t have Bell to stretch the field and Abdullah at his most dangerous level, it will put an awful lot on the shoulders of Armstrong. Iowa is coming off a spirited effort against Wisconsin, and if it can maintain the better focus and wear out the Huskers that could result in the difference.

Our prediction: IOWA 21, NEBRASKA 20

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