Game Day: Nebraska vs. Iowa

Tortoise vs. Hare

Just like in the story, the Tortoise has had the upperhand in this series. But could this be the year the Husker Hare runs away with a victory?

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Iowa rush defense

The Huskers have found their stride over the last four games, averaging 231.5 yards per game and 5.17 yards per carry. The return of Adrian Martinez — and the run presence of Luke McCaffrey — has undoubtedly helped, as have a couple bye weeks, improvement from Dedrick Mills and the seasoning of NU’s offensive line. What makes NU’s run game tricky is its ability to attack the edges of a defense, and while Iowa’s defense has adjusted to a more flexible schematic package in the last two years, the Huskers had reasonable success in Iowa City last year (140 yards) and should again this season. A good goal is 150 yards, and Nebraska has the horses to go north of that. Can McCaffrey’s wheels hit the road a few times?

Nebraska pass offense vs. Iowa pass defense

The Hawkeyes’ pass defense, as coordinated by Phil Parker, is a sturdy, bend-don’t-break bunch that has four interceptions in the last three games. A terrific pass rush — anchored by defensive end AJ Epenesa — sure helps, too, but Iowa just tends to be good at its assignments. NU’s pass offense, whether it’s Martinez or anyone else, has a hold-your-breath-and-wait quality to it. The Huskers try to stay aggressive, and that can lead to interceptions. While Nebraska will have the services of JD Spielman in this year’s Black Friday game — he didn’t play last year due to injury — the Huskers won’t have many weapons around him unless Wan’Dale Robinson comes back. Tough sledding here for Big Red, especially if the weather kicks up ugly as expected.

Iowa rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Hawkeyes have run the heck out of it against Nebraska in recent years, so looking at their modest season averages (132 yards per game and 3.74 yards per carry) doesn't help much. Iowa uses three running backs — Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Tyler Goodson — in its usual zone running scheme. Goodson is a budding star. Nebraska’s run defense hasn’t been good for awhile. Even in a 54-7 win over Maryland it wasn’t terrific aside from forcing three fumbles. So if Iowa rushes for fewer than 200 yards, call it good. Call it progress, too, since Iowa hasn’t been under 200 against NU since 2015.

Iowa pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

When you watch Friday’s game, you’ll see, yet again, another team with a better receiving corps than Nebraska. The Hawkeyes have a nice quartet — led by Tyrone Tracy and Ihmir Smith-Marsette — for quarterback Nate Stanley, who lost two first-round NFL picks in tight ends Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson. Stanley has the kind of cannon arm to throw into any kind of weather, but Stanley can, at times, hold on to the ball too long. Iowa’s scheme prefers the downfield throw to the short crossing routes that tend to bedevil Big Red, so NU’s secondary could bow up OK, especially if the weather complies.

Special teams

The Hawkeyes have had iffy special teams in the past — the 2014 game, anyone? — but that’s not the case in 2019. Iowa has one of the Big Ten’s best punters (27-year-old Arizona State transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton) and arguably its best kicker in Keith Duncan, who has made a nation-leading 27 field goals this season, including 12 from 40 yards or longer. Nebraska could use any of four different field goal artists Saturday. Iowa has the better punt and kick returners and the better kickoff return defense, too. If Nebraska plays to a draw here, call it good.

Intangibles

Nebraska has had growing pains this season. That’d be the phrase for it. Scott Frost has had to battle some recalcitrance and apathy in the locker room and seems to have won that battle in the last two games, even if NU only grabbed victory in one of the two. The Huskers are playing for more emotionally and logistically — Iowa has already qualified for its usual mid-tier bowl — and Memorial Stadium on a bad weather day tends to be more juiced than it is on sunny, warm days. Still, Iowa has an identity, confidence and the same plan that has worked for four years. The Hawkeyes know they can win. The Huskers, until they do it, have hope.

Key matchup: Nebraska’s offense vs. the elements, Iowa and itself

Frost wants to build his church on the rock of scoring points and moving the ball — creating pressure on the opposing offense — and the rout over Maryland shows an example of how he can do it. NU has been very good recently in first quarters, and it’ll need that to continue against Iowa. If the weather’s awful — and it could be — NU’s run game has to be smart in its reads and exchanges. Nebraska ultimately has to get out of its own way, though. The Huskers have eight turnovers in the last four Iowa games. Iowa has one.

Our take

Nebraska’s quest for a minor bowl and a win over Iowa may not amount to a hill of beans nationally, but this is NU’s hill, and NU’s beans. A win over pretty-good-not-great Iowa would represent the best victory in four years and a real sense of accomplishment in a messy year two for Frost. It’s hard to see Nebraska winning the scrappy Iowa way — the Hawkeyes have perfected the 17-16 style of victory — but the weather may necessitate it. This is a straight-up toughness game, and guess what — Nebraska’s offense is tough enough. How about that defense? Time to find out. If the Huskers dig deep, they’ll like what they find. Ready for Christmas in New York? Or Detroit? Or will it be home for the holidays? We think it’s close. Really close.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 24, IOWA 23

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Game notes

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