SPORTS

2-Minute Drill: Iowa Hawkeyes vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers

This is game is all about hamstrings, ankles, fortitude, survival, all of those big ideas


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It’s hard to gauge whether or not this "Black Friday" thing has taken hold in Iowa.

In 2012, Iowa squirmed through the final throes of a 4-8 season. With a generous helping of Nebraska fans, Kinnick Stadium fell just a few hundred from capacity. In 2014, Kinnick was close to 3,000 short of capacity.

Iowa students are home for Thanksgiving, so there’s that. Nebraska also has had a huge head start on this. This will be Nebraska’s 27th consecutive Black Friday game. This is Iowa’s sixth.

The Black Friday game, however, isn’t going away. Iowa knows Black Friday is good TV. Even with that 4-8 clunker in 2012, Iowa-Nebraska drew 2,969,000 households. It was the best rating for an ABC Black Friday game since 2008.

With the Hawkeyes on a quest for 12-0 last season at Memorial Stadium, the Heroes Trophy game scored a 3.5 overnight rating on ABC, which was up 52 percent from Stanford/UCLA last year (2.3), up 150 percent from Miami/Pittsburgh in 2013 (1.4), and the network’s highest Black Friday overnight in nine years — since Texas A&M/Texas in 2006 (3.9).

The Hawkeyes’ win scored the second-highest college football overnight of the weekend on ABC (five telecasts), trailing only Ohio State/Michigan the following afternoon (6.8).

It doesn’t matter if Kinnick is full. TVs are on. Increasingly, that’s how Iowa, and the Big Ten for that matter, is going to get paid.

By the way, Friday's game kicks off at 2:36 p.m. and is on ABC.

 

NEBRASKA RUSH DEFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH OFFENSE

The struggle here for Iowa will be trying to convince the Huskers that it might actually try to pass the ball.

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If the Hawkeyes aren’t convincing, and there hasn’t been recent evidence to show they will be, Nebraska will be able to play with “heavier” personnel. Iowa has leaned on two-tight end sets the last two games, trying to gain a size advantage on quick-hitting outside zone plays with TEs blocking safeties. It’s worked. Iowa’s running game is the offense’s last stronghold.

The Hawkeyes probably will see more of strongside linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey than safety Aaron Williams, who sees a ton of action against spread offenses as a nickel safety. Nebraska’s safeties Nathan Gerry and Kieron Williams have held up well against the run (Gerry is No. 2 in Nebraska history with 267 tackles as a defensive back).

The Huskers don’t have a ton of experience up front, with two sophomore starters and redshirt freshmen mixing in, but Iowa’s season-long battle with injuries on the O-line continues going into Friday. Junior offensive tackle Ike Boettger (ankle) and senior tight end George Kittle (ankle) will play, but Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said this week he didn’t know how effective they would be.

If Iowa can launch, senior LeShun Daniels and the cumulative pounding that he brings, it can win. The Huskers are a tough out. Maryland went into its game last week with Nebraska averaging 213.7 yards a game. The Huskers held it to 11 yards.

Advantage: Push

NEBRASKA PASS DEFENSE VS. IOWA PASS OFFENSE

This one is all Nebraska. The Huskers have picked off 16 passes (eighth in the nation). After allowing 290.5 passing yards last season, Nebraska has cut that to 215.5. Five Huskers have at least one interception, with Williams and Gerry combining for nine.

Here’s a number that will get your attention, Iowa people. The Huskers have limited six opponents to less than 200 passing yards. You probably can recite the number of times Iowa’s passing offense has reached 200 yards this season. Yeah, you know it. It’s three times and that’s if you count the garbage time at Penn State, when Iowa put some numbers up late and finished with 204 yards.

Iowa is stuck here. In the last three games, Iowa has averaged 116.7 yards (let’s cut slack for the 40 mph wind gusts last week at Illinois). That’s 13th in the Big Ten during that stretch. The only team that’s less productive? Rutgers.

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It’s not suddenly going to happen for Iowa’s passing offense, and it’s especially not going to happen against this unit.

What can you reasonably expect from the passing game? Iowa has moved the ball some off shallow crossing routes recently. Can protection hold up for that (the Huskers have 24.0 sacks this year, tied for sixth in the B1G). Sophomore Jerminic Smith has caught nine passes in the last three games, that’s the most productive stretch of his career. If Kittle’s ankle allows him to return to something close to form, that wouldn’t be bad.

Advantage: Nebraska

NEBRASKA RUSH OFFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH DEFENSE

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong missed last week’s game after suffering a hamstring injury against Minnesota. The senior practiced Tuesday with his calf wrapped up to his hamstring. He said he’s ready, but we’re talking hamstring and a short week. Yes, he didn’t play last week, but he’s also the Huskers’ No. 3 rusher with 499 yards and eight TDs.

 
Armstrong has helped UNL bridge the gap between the spread offense that Bo Pelini had going before his ouster in 2014 and the prostyle head coach Mike Riley brought to Lincoln.

Armstrong has the legs to run a credible read option. He also can fake inside zone and quick release a pass to a bubble screen. The Huskers also lineup in the I formation and punch the ball up the field. The Huskers’ time of possession number, 32:58 and fourth in the B1G, shows that their running game is effective.

Beyond Armstrong, senior Terrell Newby leads UNL with 825 yards (4.82 a carry). The Huskers O-line has battled injuries through October. Four sophomores are listed as starters in the two deep this week.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley has unintentionally provided motivation for Iowa’s defense. After the Nittany Lions star helped roll up 359 yards against the Hawkeyes, he said it looked like Iowa’s defense didn’t want to be out there after a while.

“We heard that a little bit,” linebacker Josey Jewell said. “I think that helped some people understand that if that’s what someone is saying, maybe we should kick it up a little more.”

Advantage: Iowa

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NEBRASKA PASS OFFENSE VS. IOWA PASS DEFENSE

So, here we are again talking about Armstrong. Probably Armstrong, anyway. Senior Ryker Fyfe replaced him for Maryland and he suffered a broken left wrist. Both QBs practiced on Tuesday, so they should be available. Much like Iowa’s injured, it’s difficult to gauge their effectiveness.

The Huskers have a core of “name” players at the receiver positions. Senior Jordan Westerkamp (34 receptions, 476 yards and five TDs this year) is a top five receiver in Huskers history across the board. Johnny Rodgers’ TD receptions and 100-yard game records are in reach. Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly average more than 18 yards a reception. Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El have made plays. Tight end Cethan Carter tagged the Hawkeyes last season with a career-high 76 receiving yards.

With QB health in question, it’s hard to say this will be the biggest test Iowa’s reshaped secondary has faced this season. True freshman cornerback Manny Rugamba replaced Greg Mabin against Michigan and won Big Ten freshman of the week. Senior safety Anthony Gair entered the lineup early against the Wolverines after starter Miles Taylor suffered a concussion. Gair had a career-high seven tackles.

Taylor is healthy and ready to play. How will this group hold up? Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson has been devastating in the last two games, climbing to fourth in the B1G with 7.5 sacks. Even after piling up 20 QB hurries in the last two games, Iowa will be hard pressed to put consistent pressure on UNL’s QB. The Huskers O-line has allowed just 10 sacks all season.

Advantage: Push

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Drew Brown has made 10 of 12 field goals, including 7-of-8 in the past four games. His streak of 13 straight made field goals ended against Illinois when he was just short on a career-long 56-yard attempt. The 13 straight field goals was the third-longest streak in NU history. He was a second-team all-Big Ten pick as a sophomore.

Pierson-El tormented Iowa in 2014, returning three punts for 134 yards and a TD. After missing last season with a knee injury, Pierson-El sits third in the league with 8.0 yards per punt return. The Huskers’ coverage units rank 10th (kick) and 11th (punt) in the league, while Iowa is last in the B1G in punt coverage (12.1 yards on just seven returns) and eighth in kick coverage.

In the Hawkeyes’ two-game winning streak, special teams have come through across the board, from kicker Keith Duncan’s last-second field goal against Michigan to punter Ron Coluzzi’s clutch efforts to wide receiver Riley McCarron’s 55-yard punt return last week at Illinois.

There’s a swing here waiting to happen for one of these teams.

Advantage: Push

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INTANGIBLES

1. Clutchness — It’s not good that the Huskers needed it, but they did put together a 10:42 drive that spanned the third and fourth quarters and led to their victory at Illinois. They put together a fourth-quarter drive that was 15 plays and took 7:45 off the clock to beat Indiana, 27-22. On Nov. 12 at Minnesota, the Huskers drove 91 yards for the winning score in the fourth quarter.

This is going and getting it when you need it. The Huskers have outscored opponents 115-27 in the fourth quarter.

2. The yin and yang of senior day — It’s such a twist of emotions. It’s their last walk down the Kinnick tunnel. They’ll greet their moms and dads, the people who were there from day 1 and fed their passion for the game. Oh and then they’ll have to go out and trade punches with the No. 16 team in the country, which would love nothing more than to spoil the party.

Every team has a senior day every year. Still, it’s a first time for all of these guys and managing the emotions is paramount.

3. 8 > 7 — Beyond the fact that eight wins are better than seven in Iowa’s case, this also happens to be a trophy game. The Hawkeyes are 2-1 so far this season. There’s also the fact that neither side seems to have consensus on whether or not this is a rivalry, with Nebraska’s past glory holding sway. Iowa also hasn’t beaten the Huskers at Kinnick since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011. So, maybe a little respect on the line for Iowa.

NEBRASKA WILL WIN IF ... The Huskers rush for 200 yards. That would take the pressure off whomever plays QB. Also, Riley is 8-0 at Nebraska when the Huskers rush for 200 or more, including 4-0 this season.

IOWA WILL WIN IF ... The Hawkeyes rush more than 40 times. Iowa rushed 41 times against Northwestern, but the defense collapsed and so that’s the “1” in Iowa’s 3-1 record this season when it rushes 40-plus times. Ferentz teams rush 40-plus and the win percentages shoot to 95-plus percent.

PREDICTION: Iowa 20, Nebraska 14

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