Game Day: Nebraska vs. Iowa

Finishing touches

The adjectives tumbled out of the mouths of Nebraska coaches and players this week, the kind of words you’d like to hear about your own football team. Solid. Consistent. Efficient. Smart. Tough. “Close to perfect,” said the Huskers’ best player, defensive tackle Maliek Collins. They were talking about 11-0 Iowa.

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2-Minute Drill by Jon Nyatawa

Nebraska rush offense vs. Iowa rush defense

Senior Imani Cross piled up 188 rushing yards in his past two games. He had just 146 in the first nine contests. But it remains unclear how exactly he'll be used now that the speedy and shifty Terrell Newby is back healthy. NU seems to have found some rhythm in its ground game of late, but Iowa enters Friday allowing just 3.37 yards per carry (15th nationally). Opponents have produced just seven runs of 20-plus yards against the Hawkeyes this year.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Iowa pass defense

The Hawkeyes have been efficient against the pass, holding teams to 6.0 yards per attempt (17th nationally). They've recorded 13 interceptions, which is tops in the Big Ten. But most of their opponents have struggled through the air. Tommy Armstrong threw four touchdown passes against Iowa last year, averaging 16.8 yards per completion in that overtime win. Jordan Westerkamp should find several openings against that zone scheme.

Iowa rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Stopping the run has been the strength of Nebraska's defense. Occasionally a few ball carriers break into open space, particularly quarterbacks — but still, the Huskers have surrendered just 32 rushes of 10 or more yards (only three teams have allowed fewer). Quarterback C.J. Beathard will likely make a few plays with his legs. The Hawkeyes do have 33 rushing touchdowns (fifth nationally). But can they rely on the run?

Iowa pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Huskers' secondary has been steadily improving, gaining a significant amount of confidence along the way. Nebraska's opponents are now averaging 7.5 yards per pass attempt (88th nationally). The key, though, will be a controlled and effective pass rush against Beathard. If not, he has options. Matt Vandeberg is Iowa's go-to guy. Tevaun Smith is averaging 18 yards per catch. Five of tight end George Kittle's 16 receptions have resulted in touchdowns.

Special teams

Nebraska's coming off its most complete performance in the kicking game, which contributed to the ease of a 31-14 win over Rutgers. The Huskers haven't been consistent enough, though. In league play, NU's net punt average is 39.2, second in the Big Ten and one spot better than Iowa (38.2). The Hawkeyes, with the ball in King's hands, can be dangerous in the return game — they rank 23rd nationally on punts (12.7) and 20th on kickoffs (24.4).

Intangibles

The pressure is mounting on the Hawkeyes. And it's hard to predict how they'll react. They keep winning, and others keep losing. The chance at earning a spot in the College Football Playoff is becoming more real — as is the threat of devastation and disappointment. That wears on you. Nebraska, meanwhile, is overflowing with confidence. The Huskers also had the benefit of a week off to recharge and refuel.

Key matchup: Nebraska's outside receivers vs Iowa's Desmond King

Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore have made plenty of plays downfield this year — oftentimes just by winning one-on-one battles and taking the football away from well-placed defenders. They'll be called on again Friday. NU will need a few big gainers. But can Reilly and Moore consistently beat King? The talented junior cornerback has eight interceptions this year. He certainly won't make it easy.

Our take

This is exactly what the Nebraska-Iowa series needed. The historical powerhouse crawling its way back to relevance as its under-appreciated neighbor enjoys a surprisingly perfect campaign. The Hawkeyes want to reaffirm their legitimacy. The Huskers want to prove they're still capable of being the dominant force in this region. The atmosphere will be wild. The weather will be miserable. The game should be fascinating.

Our prediction: Iowa 27, Nebraska 24

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