SPORTS

2-Minute Drill: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Immovable object vs. Unstoppable force with perfection and a trophy in the balance

IOWA RUSH OFFENSE VS. NEBRASKA RUSH DEFENSE

Wisconsin, Northwestern and the run defense Nebraska will throw in front of the Hawkeyes this week will be the Iowa offensive line’s biggest tests of the season. Although, if you ask Iowa’s actual O-linemen, the answer you get — and you get it rather quickly — is Nebraska (fourth in the B1G with 109.8 rushing yards allowed per game).

There’s a lot to like here. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins (6-2, 300) is a force. He wears No. 7. When you’re a 300-pound defensive tackle and you wear No. 7, you probably have pretty great feet and some quickness. Collins does. Collins is at the center of what might be the Big Ten’s deepest defensive line. End Freedom Akinmoladun (6-4, 255), who leads the Huskers in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (6.0), didn’t play at Rutgers before Nebraska’s bye week. Beyond Akinmoladun, the Huskers were two-deep at the D-line position. End Jack Gangwish (6-2, 265) won battles against Brandon Scherff last season. Tackle Vincent Valentine (6-3, 320) also is a veteran.

The Huskers are under new management this year. First-year defensive coordinator Mark Banker junked the two-gap D-lineman ideals that held under Bo Pelini (which, coincidentally, is Iowa’s D-line technique). He wants his defensive linemen firing up field and making plays in the backfield.

The Hawkeyes four-headed running back animal came out of the Purdue game with some limps. Junior LeShun Daniels carried just two times for 7 yards in the second half and looked to be slowed by an ankle injury. Sophomore Akrum Wadley, who suffered an ankle injury at Indiana on Nov. 7, carried once for 10 yards in the second half last week.

Iowa’s O-line and fullbacks have been Iowa’s best, most consistent punch on offense and will need to come through this week (Iowa’s 33 rush TDs are fifth in the nation). Since 2008, when an Iowa O-line helped produce Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, Iowa has had at least one game a season where it was held to less than 100 rushing yards. So far this season, Iowa has hit 100 yards in every game (the low was 105 vs. Pitt).

Advantage: Push

IOWA PASS OFFENSE VS. NEBRASKA PASS DEFENSE

In seven of 11 games this season, the Huskers secondary has allowed 300-plus passing yards. Nebraska’s pass defense is porous, allowing 305.5 yards per game, 13th in the Big Ten. That is 90.6 yards more than Iowa, No. 8 in the league, and 142.6 more than Michigan, No. 1 in the league. Even against Rutgers (11th in the league in passing), receivers too often are running free in the secondary.

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Big, clutch pass plays led to Huskers’ defeats against BYU (42-yard TD pass with 1 second left in the game) and Illinois (50-yard completion on final drive that allowed the Illini to score the winning TD).

Banker favors a quarters coverage (Cover 4), which allows defensive backs to jump in and help in run defense. This defense often allows safeties to jump toward the line of scrimmage. Against Iowa, don’t be surprised if you see nine Huskers reading run on any given down (this is week 12 and Iowa is Iowa). Safety Nate Gerry (6-2, 205) leads Nebraska with 72 tackles. Sophomore cornerback Joshua Kalu is No. 2 with 61, and safety Byerson Cockrell (6-0, 185) is No. 3 with 59.

The Huskers have caused just 12 turnovers this season (eight interceptions), which is No. 13 in the league. Nebraska has allowed 46 third downs through the air this season, worst in the league.

Iowa QB C.J. Beathard hasn’t bent under the weight of growing expectations yet this season, Against NU, he’s probably going to need to make a few more throws and he’s most likely going to take a few more hits (the good news there is he came out of Purdue healthy and has climbed the ladder with his groin/hip injuries).

Iowa’s pass offense is bottom half of the Big Ten as far as yards per game go (210.0), but Beathard and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg have offered up the fewest interceptions in the league (three apiece). With the Hawkeyes, it hasn’t been how much, but how efficient and well-timed they’ve been throwing the ball. Iowa’s 7.9 yards per attempt is No. 2 in the league and the 61.1 percent completion rate is No. 3. Iowa’s 293 pass attempts are second fewest in the B1G behind only Ohio State. These numbers support the “QB mechanic” theory with Beathard, especially if you add his timing, feel and success rate when scrambling (Beathard is third among Big Ten QBs in rushing with 280 yards on 79 carries).

Advantage: Iowa

IOWA RUSH DEFENSE VS. NEBRASKA RUSH OFFENSE

Head coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have spent the season trying to mesh players recruited to run a spread system with a pro-style scheme. This seems to have tested the Huskers’ running game. Since it joined the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska has never finished lower than fourth in the league in rushing. Last season, the Huskers averaged 240.2 yards a game. This year, it’s 170.6, a drop of nearly 70 yards.

Injuries have been a factor. Junior Terrell Newby (5-10, 200), who leads the way with 64.4 per game, has been slowed by a foot/ankle injury. He didn’t play against Rutgers, but should be back this week. Senior Imani Cross (6-1, 230) stepped in and gained 98 yards on 18 carries in the Huskers’ 39-38 upset of Michigan State. He had 90 yards on 20 carries against Rutgers. Freshman Devine Ozigbo sparked the running game, but has had just two carries (both against Rutgers) in the last four games.

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The Huskers made a conscious effort to get quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. into the running game vs. Rutgers. He has 278 yards (3.5 yards per carry) and six rushing TDs. This puts Armstrong fourth among Big Ten QBs (same number of carries as Beathard).

The Huskers start three seniors and a junior on the O-line. Left tackle Alex Lewis (6-6, 290) is the best of the bunch. Freshman right tackle Nick Gates and Iowa DE Nate Meier should be a featured matchup. Despite numbers being down in a transitional season, the Huskers remain in the upper half of the B1G as far as explosive rushing plays go, with 63 plays of 10-plus yards and 17 20-plus plays.

The question came up last week on how much gas Iowa’s D-line has left in the tank. Tackle Jaleel Johnson has played around 80 percent of Iowa’s defensive snaps. Meier in the 90 percent range. Last week against Purdue, defensive end Matt Nelson played a season-high 33 snaps. Defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie saw 25.

“I feel pretty good right now,” Johnson said. “We have to be smart. It’s taken a toll, but we all still feel good. You have to push through the fatigue.”

In the middle of Iowa’s defense is the indefatigable linebacker Josey Jewell. He probably won’t make any all-Big Ten first-team votes, but he should. Jewell is No. 4 in the league with 102 tackles. He brings a toughness and energy that has lifted Iowa’s defense more than any stat can show.

Advantage: Iowa

IOWA PASS DEFENSE VS. NEBRASKA PASS OFFENSE

There is no question that Armstrong (6-1, 220) is one of the Big Ten’s better passers. He’s No. 2 in the league with 256.0 yards a game. His 21 TD passes are tied with Michigan State’s Connor Cook for the B1G lead. Still, he’s had inconsistent streaks and simply has thrown too many interceptions.

In the last three games, Armstrong (he missed Purdue with an injury) has six TD passes and six interceptions. He loves to roll out of the pocket and throw on the run. Against Rutgers, these went all or interception, with three TDs and three interceptions, one of which turned into a TD. What’s the metric on decision making for a QB? Armstrong has thrown 12 interceptions, which is tied for the most in the B1G. His 54.7 completion percentage is 11th in the league. His efficiency number is 131.7. He tore apart Minnesota (261 yards, three TDs), but struggled against Wisconsin (11 of 28 for 129 yards).

Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp remains the No. 1 target, with 61 catches for 833 yards and 7 touchdowns. Wind was a huge factor at Illinois, but Fighting Illini cornerback V’Angelo Bentley held Westerkamp in check with one reception for minus-1 yard. That was a factor in a game decided by one point.

Against Iowa and depending on the situation and call, Westerkamp probably is looking at a matchup with cornerback Desmond King.

Asked this week if he’ll draw Westerkamp, King said, “Nine times out of 10, yes.”

How do you win that matchup? “Just knowing what type of receiver he is,” King said. “When I watch film, I have to focus on what type of release he uses, what types of routes he runs and what type of player he is.”

Iowa’s pass rush hasn’t moved QBs off their spots the last two weeks (just two sacks), and that has translated to big passing days against the Hawkeyes from offenses (Minnesota, which is eighth in the B1G in passing, and Purdue, sixth in the league) that aren’t exactly throwing machines. The numbers read 46 of 74 (62 percent) for 567 yards, three TDs and no interceptions (139.90 efficiency).

“It’s the mental errors and the communication on the back end,” King said. “We’ve had misunderstandings on the back end. We’ve had people running two different coverages. One side would be in one thing and the other would be in a whole different coverage, and that really messes up the whole defense.”

Advantage: Nebraska

SPECIAL TEAMS

Nebraska is strong at punter (Sam Foltz) and kicker (Drew Brown).

Foltz was named the Big Ten special teams player of the week after the loss to Illinois. He averaged 46.9 yards with five punts of 50 yards or more. He leads the B1G with an average of 44.35, but only 14 of his 48 punts have been placed inside the opponents’ 20 and the Cornhuskers allow 10.9 yards per return.

Brown has made 18 of 24 field goals. He’s made his last eight attempts, all of which have been from 40-plus yards.

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The Huskers have felt the loss of return specialist De’Mornay Pierson-El, who was lost for the season with a knee injury in the Huskers’ loss at Purdue. Nebraska is seventh in the league with 10.6 yards a punt return and last in kick returns (17.7 yards).

King said last week he’s undecided on a return for his senior season. He’s certainly done enough as a cornerback (eight interceptions leads the Big Ten) and he’s probably earned some looks with what he’s done in the return game this season (12.7 yards a punt return; 25.6 a kick return, which is No. 2 in the Big Ten).

Iowa hasn’t been bitten by a missed PAT this season. For various reasons, some not of his own doing, senior Marshall Koehn has missed five PATs this season; that’s the most in the Big Ten (89.1 on PATs is second-to-last). Iowa hasn’t been bitten by this, not yet, but it also hasn’t been bitten by a rattlesnake. It’s avoided disaster, but it probably doesn’t want to pet this rattlesnake again.

Advantage: Push

INTANGIBLES

1. It always seems like there’s some sort of history for Nebraska — Yes, the Huskers have now trudged through an average season under a first-year head coach. Everyone kind of saw struggles coming, but with four of five losses by less than a TD, frustration mounted before a pretty great 39-38 upset over previously undefeated Michigan State on Nov. 7 at Memorial Stadium.

And therein lies the history (it’s actually a pretty good bit of history). The Huskers will try for just the second time to defeat two undefeated opponents in the same month. The last time was 1995. It’s not the rallying cry that Husker nation signed up for with Mike Riley, but spoiling a border rival’s perfect season would make that trip to the Music City Bowl all the more palatable.

2. High spoiler alert — Loved this quote from Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, “Going 12-0, that’s big,” he said. “If we could do that, that’s great. I don’t think it’s ever happened here at Iowa. Going 11-0 is great, but if we go 12-0, that’s perfect.

“I don’t think I’ve been 12-0 ever ... in anything.”

There is the wonder of the moment, but, after last season’s bitter loss to Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa isn’t sliding into this one with stars in its eyes.

3. Bye week vs. short week — Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz wasn’t happy with the fact that the Huskers had last week off, while the Hawkeyes jumped into a short preparation for Friday’s game.

You know how you can tell he wasn’t happy about it?

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“I think in the future, hopefully both teams have the same opportunity, whenever it may be,” he said, “but to have something to do with the lunar eclipse and all that other stuff, it’s just one of those freak things.”

Yep, that was sarcasm right there.

IOWA WILL WIN IF ... The Hawkeyes maintain efficiency numbers on first down. Iowa’s offense has averaged 4.9 yards on first-down carries and has completed 62.9 percent of its first-down passes. On the road and with an offense that will need to be conscious of keeping a defense that has piled up monumental snap counts this season, Iowa will need that efficiency comfort zone it’s enjoyed this season.

NEBRASKA WILL WIN IF ... The Huskers pile up negative-yardage plays. Iowa’s best move here is its offensive line. Nebraska counters with its best unit. Whichever team wins this, wins the game.

PREDICTION: Iowa 27, Nebraska 24

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

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