2-Minute Drill: Iowa Hawkeyes at Nebraska Cornhuskers

Yes, it's a rivalry and, no, the stakes aren't always going to be epic

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No one promised Iowa and Nebraska was always going to be a championship trophy presentation.

Nebraska fans thought it would be. Iowa fans hoped it would be. Let’s retrace the steps since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011 to see how many of these have mattered.

2011 — The Huskers snuffed a pass-heavy Iowa offense, 20-7. That clinched second place in the Legends Division (ah yes, the Legends and Leaders).

2012 — A 4-8 Iowa team made the Huskers work for the Legends Division title, 13-7, at Kinnick. Here’s one that put one of these teams in the B1G title game.

2013 — Iowa manhandled the Huskers. Bo Pelini somehow didn’t get fired after a bizarre postgame. It clinched second in the West behind Wisconsin.

2014 — Nebraska won in overtime at Kinnick to clinch ... wait for it ... second in the West. Pelini won and was fired two days later.

2015 — Iowa secured a 12-0 season at Memorial Stadium a week after clinching the West with a win over Purdue.

2016 — And here’s another second place in the West, this time for Iowa.

2017 — Iowa is 6-4 (3-5 Big Ten). The Huskers are 4-7 (3-5). This is for third place in the West. Not optimum, but probably pretty close to what everyone predicted for these two this season.

So far, it’s 3-3 and one division title decided (two total). Lots of second places to Wisconsin. Probably not what either side is shooting for.

Iowa rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

First-year defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, a former Iowa linebacker, runs a 3-4 defense. Every week, he tells Nebraska media that it’s going to take time. And it is. Still, the now might be bad enough to get everyone fired. Or is bad enough. In their last six games, the fewest rushing yards Nebraska has allowed is 199. Minnesota backed over the Huskers for 409 rush yards.

The Huskers’ D-linemen — Freedom Akinmoladun (6-4, 280), Mick Stoltenberg (6-5, 305) and Carlos Davis (6-2, 295) — have size, but the unit is young. Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Ben Stille leads Nebraska with 7.5 tackles for loss.

Can Iowa take advantage of this? Really in just about every year, the answer would be yes. This year? The Hawkeyes average 3.37 yards a carry in conference.

Akrum Wadley needs 138 yards for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, which would make him just the fourth back in Iowa history to hit that mark.

Who knows? He could get it all Friday or none of it.

Advantage: Push

Iowa pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Huskers are getting a ton of run support from the safeties. Aaron Williams (5-11, 190), Antonio Reed (6-2, 210) and Joshua Kalu (6-0, 195) are Nos. 4 through 6 on the team in tackles even after missing a few games apiece.

Huskers corners have been shaky. Eric Lee and Chris Jones have fought it out at one spot, with Jones listed as the starter this week. Lamar Jackson has held on, but UNL’s secondary has allowed opposing QBs to complete 61.2 percent of their passes, picked off just six passes and has allowed 108 pass plays of 10-plus yards (12th in the Big Ten).

The Huskers haven’t really gotten to the quarterback this year. They’re tied for last in the Big Ten with 14.0 sacks.

Read more: Iowa needs to find that 'tough, smart, physical, together' thing

Does Iowa have an offensive line capable of taking advantage of a poor run defense? Can the Hawkeyes protect sophomore Nate Stanley? Iowa allowed six sacks last week to Purdue. The Boilermakers ran some different fronts and a few well-timed blitzes that got home, but this mostly was one-on-one matchups.

Remember the Ohio State game and Iowa’s tight end attack? Wisconsin did. So did Purdue. In the last two games, Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson have been held to six catches for 56 yards combined.

Quarterback Nate Stanley’s numbers the last two games have been what you’d expect, but he remains the most stable performer on Iowa’s offense.

Advantage: Iowa

Iowa rush defense vs. Nebraska rush offense

The fact of the matter is you’ll see a game with two bad rush offenses. We’ve tracked Iowa’s run game woes all season. Here’s the deal with Nebraska: The offensive line was a question mark going into the season and remains a big one. Injuries have thrown true freshman Brendan Jaimes (6-5, 280) into a starter’s role. This week, the Huskers’ OL will be three juniors, a true freshman and either a senior or a redshirt freshman at right guard.

Nebraska’s 111.2 yards per game are 13th in the Big Ten and 118th nationally. Devine Ozigbo (6-0, 230) has fought injuries this season, but leads UNL with 480 yards. Mikale Wilbon (5-9, 200) has gotten 20 carries the last two weeks and has three TDs.

In the last five weeks, the Huskers have rushed for 44, 40, 112, 69 and 67 yards.

The Hawkeyes are trending off standard when it comes to run defense. The 4.2 yards per carry is tracking toward the worst since 2014.

Still, Iowa’s front seven has been the group that has punched the clock every week. No reason to think it won’t this week.

Advantage: Iowa

Iowa pass defense vs. Nebraska pass offense

Maybe the game turns here.

Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee has put up numbers. His 267.1 yards per game is No. 2 in the Big Ten. He’s also second in the league with 2,938 yards. He’s tied for the league lead with 13 interceptions, but you saw the rushing numbers. He’s under a lot of pressure with a running game that’s been null.

The Huskers also have a great group of receivers. Junior Stanley Morgan (6-1, 195 and 54 catches for 912 yards and eight TDs) is historically good. He needs 88 yards to become the first 1,000-yard receiver in Huskers’ history. Redshirt freshman J.D. Spielman (5-9, 180) is a playmaker who craves the ball (55 catches for 830 yards and a pair of TDs). De’Mornay Pierson-El ripped Iowa in 2014 as a punt returner. After a few injury-plagued seasons, Pierson-El has 42 catches for 584 yards and five TDs.

You saw how it went at cornerback for Iowa last week. With the wind to its back, Purdue torched the right cornerback spot for two TDs. Sophomore starter Manny Rugamba was benched. Sophomore Michael Ojemudia gave it a shot and was benched after allowing a long completion. True freshman Matt Hankins was burned for a TD on a perfect throw. Josh Jackson moved from left to right to stop the bleeding.

Hlas: No bluster with Josh Jackson, just belief

Hankins gets the call this week. Iowa can’t afford to let Lee get comfortable.

Advantage: Nebraska

Special teams

If Iowa doesn’t simply catch punts this week, someone needs to be fired. It’s gotten to that point. With an offense that is allergic to yards, every inch matters. Last week, wide receiver Matt VandeBerg let one punt hit the turf and fumbled another. Can’t win with that.

Pierson-El is returning punts against for Nebraska and still is good at it, averaging 7.1 yards per return (fifth in the league). Spielman is third in the Big Ten with 24.8 per kick return. Nebraska’s coverage units are 11th (kick) and 10th in the league.

Read more: Iowa trying to work through frustration of last two weeks

Huskers kicker Drew Brown is one of the best in the B1G (12 of 14 this season with 6 of 8 from 30-plus and a long of 44). Punter Caleb Lightbourn also is among the league’s best, averaging 42.1 yards a kick with 22 fair catches, 20 inside the opponent’s 20 and 12 punts of 50-plus.

Wind had a lot to do with Iowa’s punting problems last week, but the 29.9-yard average was the worst since a 29.5 in a win against Minnesota in 2013.

Advantage: Nebraska

Intangibles

1. Who wants to be here? — This is a game of competitors, but the last two weeks for both of these programs have been drags. It’s cold, it’s the season finale. The Huskers need academic magic to qualify for a bowl. Iowa is going to a bowl and would prefer it be somewhere warm. This is a dreary deal and it’s going to test fortitude. Who can find the spark?

2. New coach coming — That always makes for weird energy. Does the program with the likely outgoing coach phone it in? Does it fire up and send Mike Riley off with a game ball? Does it treat the game as an audition for the next coaching staff? Really, if you’re Nebraska, play like crazy because this likely is your final takeaway from 2017. Why not win a trophy and deliver misery to the Hawkeyes?

3. Old coach staying — Everything is fine, everything is fine. That Ohio State thing was cool. Wait, wait, 66 yards against Wisconsin? Lose to Purdue? Well, off to the pitchforks and torches store. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is in year 19. He’ll have years 20 and 21 and maybe more if he wants it. Probably that many. Iowa needs this game and the bowl or the offseason is going to be a long, long nuclear winter with a lot of unsatisfied energy and uncomfortable questions.

Iowa-Nebraska prediction

Nebraska will win if ... Tanner Lee throws for 300 yards and three TDs and if the defense can hold Iowa to less than 100 rushing yards.

Iowa will win if ... it can shed the malaise that seems to have set in the last two weeks. There are problems that won’t get fixed this year, but approach is one thing they can control.

Prediction: Iowa 24, Nebraska 20

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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