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2-Minute Drill - Nebraska Cornhuskers

Both want and need this, but the Hawkeyes find spark at Kinnick

This was the Nebraska logo from 1969 to 1986. It lasted that long.
This was the Nebraska logo from 1969 to 1986. It lasted that long.

Iowa rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

With a traditional 4-3 defense and little variation, the Cornhuskers are built to stop the run, yet the results belie their philosophy. The Cornhuskers rank 10th among Big Ten teams in rush defense at nearly 180 yards a game and 4.9 yards per carry. However that number soars in league play to an average of 216 yards and 5.4 yards a carry.

In their games against ranked Big Ten opponents Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Cornhuskers allowed 188, 581 and 281 yards on the ground, respectively. Nebraska is physical up front, especially in the interior with sophomore defensive tackles Maliek Collins (6-2, 300) and Vincent Valentine (6-3, 325). Collins is a load inside. He’s active and athletic and already one of the league’s best. The interior gets good penetration in the running game and usually fills the correct gaps. Defensive end Greg McMullen (6-3, 280) also is stout against the run. But Minnesota often ran at defensive end Randy Gregory (6-6, 245), who struggled to get off blocks at the point of attack.

Nebraska struggles in two primary areas against the run. It “sort of” contains opponents running zone. The edge players provide decent technique but fail to widen out against the quarterback keeper. Mitch Leidner consistently broke contain on the weak side defensive end. The worst area resides with its back seven, which often lets down its front wall in the running game. Against Wisconsin, both the linebackers and secondary repeatedly took bad angles. Perhaps even worse, they were in position to make tackles, yet applied poor technique. Nebraska has good hitters among its back seven players, but not enough good tacklers, save for weak side linebacker Zaire Anderson (5-11, 220), who leads the club in tackles (81, 11 TFLs) and safety Corey Cooper (6-1, 215).

If Iowa could change one element of its season, it might be the running game. It just never came together. Iowa will finish around eighth in the Big Ten with 157.6 rushing yards a game. That’s workable, but less so without a dominant element, on offense or defense.

The inside of the O-line has been in flux either through injury or performance the last five weeks. Freshman Sean Welsh started at right guard over junior Jordan Walsh last week. That’s not a make-or-break move for an O-line, but Welsh or Walsh and Austin Blythe from center to guard and fifth-year senior Tommy Gaul into the lineup at center has stretched the cohesiveness the zone blocking scheme takes to really click.

In its four losses, Iowa has rushed for 129 (ISU), 116 (Maryland), 84 (Minnesota) and 101 (Wisconsin). It’s a common thread and why Iowa’s offense hasn’t seemed “Iowa” this season.

It’s not all the O-line. Running back has had some flux. Senior Mark Weisman’s production has followed a similar flow in Iowa losses. Junior Jordan Canzeri has been hurt since camp. Last week, third-down back Damon Bullock was in and out with an ankle injury. Freshmen Jonathan Parker and Akrum Wadley haven’t been consistent and just haven’t been considered for go-to roles.

Iowa’s run game wasn’t great against the Huskers last season (44 carries for 155 yards, 3.56 yards per carry). It worked because Iowa’s defense held Nebraska to 288 yards total offense.

This is something that doesn’t find light at the end of the tunnel in game 13. Iowa will struggle to find a winning number here.

Advantage: Nebraska

Iowa pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Nebraska ranks fifth in the Big Ten in pass defense at 193.2 yards per game. The Cornhuskers are No. 1, however in completion percentage at 47.3 and second in average yards per attempt at 5.8 and pass efficiency. It’s the best pass defense Iowa has faced this year and Nebraska’s strength is its front four pass rush and tight coverage in the secondary.

The Cornhuskers use junior defensive end Randy Gregory liberally. The 6-6, 245-pound freakish athlete lines up anywhere across the line of scrimmage, not just over the left tackle. He ranks fourth in the Big Ten with seven sacks. He has 17.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in his career. He’s disruptive (16 quarterback hurries), but he’s not the only threat, however, as powerful defensive end Greg McMullen has 3.5 sacks, including one against Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner last week. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins is a force up the middle with 13 QB hurries and 2.5 sacks. Nebraska primarily rushes four down linemen, but does offer up blitzes off the edge with cornerback Josh Mitchell or with linebackers.

Nebraska has aggressive cornerbacks in Josh Mitchell and Daniel Davie, who have enough speed to play tight man coverage and lock down opponents on the outside. Mitchell (5-11, 160) makes up for his smallish frame with good coverage skills and is an effective blitzer with two sacks. He’s tied for fourth among Big Ten players in pass breakups with 11. Davie (6-1, 190) is more physical and has good ball skills. Sophomore safety Nate Gerry (6-2, 205) is everywhere on defense. He ranks third in the Big Ten with four interceptions, he’s tied for fourth in forced fumbles (two) and he’s second on the team in tackles with 59. Senior Corey Cooper (6-1, 215) is the unit’s leader and steady both against the run and pass.

Can Iowa totally swing into a “bombs away” outfit? It looked really pretty against Wisconsin. Quarterback Jake Rudock’s numbers are the obvious “wow” coming out of that, going 20 of 30 for 311 yards and two TDs. The departure from gameplan in the second half vs. the Badgers is noteworthy. Wisconsin dropped into more zone than the aggressive man coverage it played in the first half, and Rudock and receivers attacked. But the passing game has been inching ahead in this last third of the season. In three of Iowa’s last four games, Rudock’s yards per attempt has been in the double digits. That kind of number only loses if you 1) don’t field a defense or 2) play against a running back/playmaker the caliber of Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon.

It hasn’t all been Rudock. Tight end Jake Duzey has caught seven passes for 182 yards and a TD in Iowa’s last two games. Wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley has caught six passes for 99 yards in the last two weeks. Since Indiana on Oct. 11, junior wide receiver Tevaun Smtih has caught four, four, four, three, three and four passes in games. He’s basically had his career in the last six weeks.

Iowa’s passing game is trending up. Watch for the health of Bullock. As the third-down back, he’s become an important element as a receiver, catching 32 passes. Canzeri is a nice option coming out of the backfield (four catches for 93 yards this season, 23.2 yards per catch), but Bullock has a feel here and can find open space fairly quickly.

Advantage: Push

Iowa rush defense vs. Nebraska rush offense

Nebraska’s formations are among the most varied in the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers rank sixth in league games with 214.6 yards per game, but is tied for the second-most rushing touchdowns with 22. Nebraska bases everything off the zone read and will run from twins to both sides or three-receiver triangle sets. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong lines up in the pistol formation on virtually every down, but the personnel groupings and formation range from one back (usually Abdullah) in an offset pistol, to a pistol-I behind Armstrong or with one or even two fullbacks beside the quarterback. Motion and false movement is is a big part of the offense but there are times when Nebraska will go two tight ends and pound downhill or run power.

The Huskers have three talented runners beginning with I-back Ameer Abdullah (5-9, 200), one of the best to play at Nebraska. He ranks second in Big Ten history with 6,798 all-purpose yards. He’s instinctive, quick, fast and deceptively strong. Abdullah (128 yards per game, 10th nationally) runs hard but lacks the explosiveness and lateral movements he displayed before a knee injury against Purdue on Nov. 1. He rushed for 69 and 98 yards against Wisconsin and Minnesota, respectively, after averaging 156 rushing yards per game in his first eight. Imani Cross (6-1, 230) is a strong and capable backup who has carried for 370 yards and five scores this year. Armstrong is a legitimate dual threat, running for 633 yards and five scores. He runs with more power than most running quarterbacks and doesn’t hesitate to keep the ball when the read is there.

Nebraska can play any way it wants up front. Four of its five starting linemen weigh more than 300 pounds, with left guard Jake Cotton (6-6, 305) a bona fide pro. Center Mark Pelini left Saturday’s game against Minnesota early in the first quarter with a high ankle sprain and is questionable against Iowa.

Iowa has struggled against pistol formations this season. It started at Maryland with QB C.J. Brown directing a rush attack that gouged Iowa for 216 yards. Here’s how out-of-whack that number is: The only other defense that the Terrapins hit for 200-plus rushing was James Madison. Against Power 5 schools, the Terps have averaged just 98.3 yards. Last week against Wisconsin, Badgers QB Tanner McEvoy, the running option, lined up in a pistol formation with Gordon behind him and wide receivers to each side. The Badgers blocked the play beautifully and McEvoy went 45 yards untouched for a TD. The Badgers stretched Iowa’s defense and Wisconsin’s O-line punched holes in Iowa’s defensive front.

Abdullah isn’t 100 percent, but he still is a bundle of energy and strength. Here’s how Iowa has fared against premier backs: Gordon 200 yards on 31 carries, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman 219 yards and three TDs on 15 carries, Pitt’s James Conner 155 yards and a TD on 29 carries and let’s throw in UNI’s David Johnson who had five catches for 203 yards and a TD.

Everyone knew Iowa’s linebacker play wouldn’t be what it was in 2013, when the Hawkeyes graduated NFL-caliber linebackers Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris. It’s game 12 and it’s time for some growth and impact from Quinton Alston, Josey Jewell and Bo Bower. They would be the first ones to say that.

One injury watch is defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat. He suffered an elbow injury last week and left the game. He returned and finished, but when asked this week about his status, coach Kirk Ferentz said he hoped Trinca-Pasat could play.

Advantage: Nebraska

Iowa pass defense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s inconsistency can be maddening. Few quarterbacks boast his arm strength yet his accuracy and tendencies prevent him and the Huskers’ passing game from reaching its potential. In Big Ten play, Nebraska has thrown for seven touchdowns and seven interceptions, completing just 50.8 percent of its passes. The Cornhuskers average 178.7 yards per Big Ten game, ranking 10th in the league.

Like many quarterbacks with big arms, Armstrong likes to show it off by throwing deep. He’s got three talented receivers in Nebraska’s school record-holder Kenny Bell (37 catches, 664 yards, three TDs), Jordan Westerkamp (39 catches, 653 yards, four TDs) and versatile De’Mornay Pierson-El (15 catches, 213 yards, three TDs). They all average between 15.2 and 17.9 yards per reception, so they’re big-play threats. Bell is questionable after a head injury last week against Minnesota. But as often as he hits on big plays, Armstrong overthrows his targets.

Armstrong’s best passes are dig or post routes between the hash marks or up the right sidelines. When he passes to his left, he telegraphs it from the snap. He sometimes gets away with it because of his arm strength. He often throws on the run but is much more accurate passing while running right than left. He will throw to his receivers’ back shoulder, especially against man coverage. Armstrong also has receiving ability, hauling in a touchdown pass from Pierson-El on a reverse against Northwestern.

Running back Ameer Abdullah (14-195-2) remains a threat for screens and as a safety outlet. Abdullah saved the Cornhuskers from a potentially embarrassing loss against McNeese State with an incredible 58-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 20 seconds left. Since his knee injury against Purdue, Abdullah has been a liability when picking up blitzers. Twice he gave up sacks to edge rushers against Wisconsin. Against Minnesota, he stepped into the path of linebacker Damien Wilson and barely touched him while attemping a cut block to allow another sack. In Big Ten play, Nebraska ranks eighth in sacks allowed with 16.

Iowa’s back seven seemed to have fixed the edge rushing problems that were so apparent at Minnesota. This group held up for the most part against Gordon. Yes, Gordon had 200 yards, but Iowa held him in check except for an 88-yard run that broke between tackle and end. McEvoy’s run also broke between end and tackle. OK, so anyway you cut it, Iowa does need to keep Abdullah and/or Armstrong from breaking a long run and focus on minimizing the damage.

One thing that edges toward the back seven is turnovers. Iowa now has gone 14 quarters without causing/recovering a turnover. The last was a fumble in the second quarter against Northwestern. Safety John Lowdermilk pulled a fumble out of Gordon last week, but the Hawkeyes failed to recover. Iowa has gone four games without an interception, the Hawkeyes’ longest streak in the last seven seasons.

Iowa’s prime directive against Wisconsin was to put hits on Gordon. Safeties Lowdermilk and Jordan Lomax did that with vigor. That has to happen again this week.

Iowa has played more aggressive press coverage this season. Reserve defensive backs Sean Draper, Maurice Fleming and Anthony Gair have seen time in nickel defenses. You could probably see more “raider” blitz package on third down this week than the last two. The Hawkeyes will want to try to keep Armstrong guessing in what should be a hostile environment.

Advantage: Iowa

Special teams

The Cornhuskers feature one of the nation’s best punt returners in De’Mornay Pierson-El, who leads the Big Ten with 15.2 yards per return (fourth nationally) and two touchdowns. He returned a punt 86 yards for a score against Fresno State and another 62 yards against Michigan State, leading to a near epic comeback win. Against Minnesota, 6-foot-6 Randy Gregory lined up over the snapper, blocked a field-goal attempt and safety Nate Gerry returned it 85 yards for a touchdown. Gregory has two blocked kicks this year and ranks sixth nationally in that category.

Punter Sam Foltz has boomed 15 of his 51 punts at least 50 yards and 22 have landed inside the 20. Freshman kicker Drew Brown, brother of former Husker and NFL kicker Kris Brown, has suffered through some inconsistency. Brown has made just 11 of 16 field goals with a long of 44.

It’s game 12 and you have to ask if Iowa has settled on a punter? It seems as though junior Dillon Kidd is the plus-50 punter and junior Connor Kornbrath is the punter inside the opponent’s 50. It’s been discombobulated all season, and, perhaps, that should’ve been expected with two scholarship punters fighting for one gig and no knockout winner coming out of camp. The best number here is that Kornbrath has downed seven of his 16 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

Canzeri has replaced Parker on kick return. Parker led the Big Ten with nearly 30 yards a return and then just got the yips at Minnesota and again at Illinois. Canzeri replaced him in the second half and has been the guy since. Wide receiver Matt VandeBerg has taken over for sophomore receiver Riley McCarron on punt return and has performed what is a thankless job (for Iowa) just fine.

Here’s why the Huskers get the check: Pierson-El has 455 punt return yards; Iowa has 74. The door is open for Nebraska here.

Advantage: Nebraska

Intangibles

1. Defend Kinnick — Iowa is 16-11 at Kinnick Stadium since the 2011 season. In the last 20 home games, the Hawkeyes are 10-10 with two losses to rivals Iowa State and Wisconsin. This is part of the reason why you might’ve found Iowa football an unsatisfactory experience. It’s not good enough and no one Iowa is saying it is. Kinnick crackled with electricity last weekend against the Badgers. If Nebraska kicks Iowa in the mouthguard right off the bat, you’ll keep your hands in your pockets for warmth factor. If the Hawkeyes give you something to get nutty about, a few of you will be shirtless by the third quarter. You expect better at Kinnick. They expect better at Kinnick. This is the last chance to show progress here until kickoff 2015 (Sept. 5 against Illinois State, which is a whole other bunch of words in and of itself).

2. Defend coach — It’s November in Nebraska and so it’s time to speculate about Bo Pelini’s future employment. Pelini took over in 2008 and has won 9 or 10 games every season. He has a chance this year to again reach those marks. That might not be good enough. Nebraska tasted the high life for so long under former coach Tom Osborne, who won three national titles and lost just 49 games in 25 seasons (!!!!!). That high life is intoxicating. Take “Nebraska” out of the equation and replace it with “Iowa.” If Iowa parked at that golden trough (five national titles since 1970 going back to Bob Devaney), you’d be screaming for heads with nine and 10 wins, too. It seems out of line. It is out of line with how the college football world has tilted to the south and with how recruiting (in Nebraska’s case, particularly the “prop 48” rule and how that changed in the Big 12 with a push from Texas) has changed. That doesn’t matter, not to generations of fans who simply know winning.

3. Feeling Black Friday — If you think about it, Iowa did a really cool thing agreeing to the Black Friday game. This is a tradition that Nebraska carried into the conference. If Iowa wanted to close the season against the Huskers, it would have to agree to a Friday game. This is Nebraska’s 25th consecutive season with a game the day after Thanksgiving. Nebraska and Iowa are scheduled to conclude the season against each other on the day after Thanksgiving until at least 2019.

It will take time for Iowa fans to embrace it. For the program, it’s upside. It’s a national TV slot on ABC. It’s a chance for a measure of tangible progress. It’s another rivalry, albiet in the infant stages.

Ferentz said this week he’s into it.

“In the early part of the season, you need nine days to get ready for a game and they don’t give you that,” Ferentz said. “That’s how it feels. Later in the year, if you’re doing things efficiently, it probably forces you to be more efficient. That’s a good thing.

“The other part is you get to watch everybody sweat on Saturday sitting there with your feet up. Not a bad deal.”

Predictions

Iowa will win if . . .

The Hawkeyes cling to any semblance of a balanced offense. But that wonderful passing game from last week? Just think how it would work if Iowa can keep a run threat in the equation.

Nebraska will win if . . .

The Huskers play “black shirt” defense. Nebraska defenders earn the “black shirt,” bowing to a long-standing tradition. According to reports, there were 15 black shirts at the beginning of the season. After losing 59-24 and allowing Gordon 408 rushing yards, that number dipped to seven. Three more were subtracted this week after a 28-24 home loss to Minnesota. Pride is being tested at this point.

Predictions

Iowa 27, Nebraska 24 — Scott Dochterman

Iowa 27, Nebraska 23 — Marc Morehouse

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