Game Day: Nebraska vs. Iowa

Unwavered

The Nebraska coaching job can age a man like the American presidency has aged men, and Mike Riley wears all of the three years — and then some — that he’s been at Nebraska. Riley has not won enough games. Just 19 — against 18 losses — in three seasons. His critics billed him as a “.500 coach” upon his arrival, and he’s close to being just that at Nebraska. But the job didn’t devour or derail Riley, players and assistants said. Riley didn’t change.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Iowa rush defense

Nebraska’s run game has been in a funk since a decent performance against Wisconsin, and there’s no compelling reason to think an outing against Iowa will change that. Although the Hawkeyes’ defensive line — anchored by Howells grad Nathan Bazata — has been pliable at times, Iowa’s trio of linebackers has been excellent, and the man in the middle, Josey Jewell, is one of the nation’s best. Because of Devine Ozigbo’s ankle injury, Nebraska may only have two running backs healthy for the game and the offensive line remains a shuffle job. EDGE: IOWA

Nebraska pass offense vs. Iowa pass defense

Iowa has a risk/reward pass defense. The Hawkeyes have intercepted 16 passes this season, with cornerback Joshua Jackson snagging seven of those. Iowa has also allowed six passes of 40 or more yards. If Nebraska receivers Stanley Morgan, JD Spielman and De’Mornay Pierson-El can win some one-on-one matchups, quarterback Tanner Lee should be able to deliver some strikes. Can the Huskers be aggressive, like they were in the Penn State and Purdue games, or do they get too safe? The weather — warm and sunny — should cooperate with the passing game. EDGE: NEBRASKA

Iowa rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Hawkeyes have been hot and cold running the ball, plowing for 243 yards against Ohio State, but just 25 against Wisconsin and 19 against Michigan State. New offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz seems more willing to abandon the run if it isn’t there, but any team with a pulse would be wise to pound it at the Huskers, who have allowed at least 199 yards rushing in their last six games. Why would NU’s defense suddenly bow up against Iowa? Perhaps defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, a former Hawkeye, will attach special meaning to this game. EDGE: IOWA

Iowa pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Iowa quarterback Nathan Stanley will be a good one. He’s a sophomore in his first year as a starter, and there’s enough great stuff on tape — especially that Ohio State win — to suggest, in two years, he may be among the Big Ten’s best. He’s elite in the red zone — 63.4 percent completion rate, 14 touchdowns, zero interceptions — and his top receiving targets, including Omaha South grad and sophomore tight end Noah Fant, are dynamic players. Nebraska’s pass defense allows a lot of easy completions and rarely disrupts a receiver or makes plays on the ball. EDGE: IOWA

Special teams

Iowa’s coverage units are excellent — among the best in the Big Ten when it comes to limiting kick and punt return yards from the opponent — while Nebraska’s return units are a little better than the Hawkeyes’ counterparts. NU has the better kicker — senior Drew Brown — and the better punter in Nebraska’s Caleb Lightbourn, who has played his best in league play. EDGE: NEBRASKA

Intangibles

Iowa is playing for a warmer bowl destination and sheer dislike for Nebraska; the Hawkeyes surprisingly botched their own senior day game in a 24-15 loss to Purdue. NU’s players haven’t been living under a rock, so they’re playing for their coach, Mike Riley, who’s on a very hot seat, for the seniors, and, well, just to beat Iowa, which becomes Nebraska’s bowl game. Iowa has won three of the last four in this series, including two straight in Lincoln. Nebraska has nothing to lose. Neither does Iowa, really, aside from a game in warm weather. EDGE: NEBRASKA

Key matchup: Iowa’s run game against Nebraska’s hideous run defense

Nebraska linebacker Chris Weber said it best on Monday: Why would Iowa do anything else but run the ball, considering how the Huskers have defended it? So Iowa will pound the ball and NU will have to stop it. One difference: Stanley is not a threat as a runner. So the read option won’t be an issue. Maybe Diaco’s boys can rally.

Our take

Nebraska’s season has already ended in a cloud. Will there be a silver lining? That’s the question now, and inconsistent Iowa serves a reasonable foil. NU could send Riley out on an up note, but the Hawkeyes care about this game a lot and won’t take NU lightly. The game is still about blocking, tackling and toughness, and Iowa has the edge there. Thus, it squeezes out the win on Black Friday.

Our prediction: IOWA 23, NEBRASKA 19

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