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3 keys, prediction for Iowa football against Nebraska
Huskers’ formula for offensive success has fluctuated throughout season
Iowa has faced Big Ten teams with a mix of offensive styles.
Purdue wins when it throws the ball well. Ohio State relies on its Heisman candidate quarterback C.J. Stroud. Illinois turns to its running back Chase Brown, as does Minnesota with Mohamed Ibrahim.
Nebraska’s formula for success is not quite as clear.
The Huskers relied on running back Anthony Grant in their 38-17 win against North Dakota. Grant rushed for 189 yards while averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
But in Nebraska’s 14-13 win over Rutgers, Grant averaged only 2.5 yards per carry, and quarterback Casey Thompson was doing more of the heavy lifting with 232 passing yards.
Nebraska’s 35-21 win over Indiana featured a mix of both. Grant averaged 4.3 yards per carry, and Thompson threw for 270 yards for a more balanced win.
“I feel like they don’t really have an identity,” Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell said. “But what I feel like they do have is they play hard, they do things well.”
Here are three keys for Iowa as it prepares for Nebraska:
Does Iowa’s defense prevent big plays?
The Huskers have scored a combined 17 points in their last two games, and the lack of big offensive plays has not helped matters.
Nebraska did not have any passing plays of 20-plus yards or 15-plus-yard rushing plays in its 15-14 loss to Wisconsin.
A week earlier, the Huskers had only one passing play of 20-plus yards and no rushing plays of 15-plus yards in their 34-3 loss to Michigan.
Limiting big plays has been a trademark of Phil Parker’s defenses. Another trademark, forcing turnovers, will again be important.
Iowa is 6-1 when winning the turnover margin and 1-3 when tying or losing the turnover margin. Had it not been for Campbell’s forced fumble and interception in the fourth quarter last week, Minnesota likely would have won.
Iowa’s offensive line vs. Nebraska’s edge rushers
Iowa’s offensive line has experienced some ups and downs this season. Quarterback Spencer Petras took six sacks against Wisconsin, but he stayed upright a lot more against Minnesota and only took one sack.
Nebraska’s edge rushers, while not quite at the caliber of Wisconsin’s Nick Herbig or Ohio State’s Zach Harrison, have the potential to cause issues for the Hawkeyes’ young offensive line.
Garrett Nelson is tied for sixth in the Big Ten with 5.5 sacks and tied for 10th in the conference with nine tackles for loss.
On the other side, Caleb Tannor is one of the most experienced players on the Nebraska defense. He’ll be playing in his 56th game as a Husker, which will tie the program record.
Ochaun Mathis has only made one start at Nebraska, but the transfer portal addition was a second-team all-Big 12 honoree in the last two seasons.
Can Iowa avoid third-and-long scenarios?
Iowa ranks 126th out of 131 FBS teams and 65th out of 65 Power Five teams in third down offense, converting only 28.9 percent of the time.
Iowa’s lack of success on third down is partly a consequence of what it has not done on first and second downs. In the Hawkeyes’ 11 third downs against Minnesota, they averaged 7.5 yards to go. Minnesota averaged 3.6 yards to go on its 16 third downs.
In games when Iowa averages fewer than 7.0 yards to go on third downs, the Hawkeyes have outscored opponents, 57-16. When Iowa needs to go 7.0 yards or farther on average, the Hawkeyes’ scoring advantage is a slimmer 135-133.
What’s at stake
The stakes are especially high for the Hawkeyes in Friday’s Heroes Trophy game.
A win would give Iowa its second consecutive Big Ten West title and a trip to the conference championship game. Iowa would surely be the substantial underdog against Ohio State or Michigan, but the Hawkeyes would be one more win away from the Rose Bowl.
A loss would push Iowa to 7-5 — its worst regular-season finish since 2017. It would also hurt Iowa’s postseason bowl possibilities. Many bowl projections have Iowa slotted to the Citrus Bowl or ReliaQuest (formerly Outback) Bowl.
A fifth regular-season loss could be the difference between another trip to Tampa and a trip to the not-as-prestigious Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
Iowa has the talent for a double-digit win, but Nebraska has played these games closer than expected in recent history.
Iowa 26, Nebraska 20