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5 Things: Iowa vs. Nebraska

Hawkeyes host Huskers amid Nebraska's uncertain quarterback situation

Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Quinton Alston (52) and Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Josey Jewell (43) pursue Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (4) during the 4th quarter of a Big Ten football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Friday, November 28, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Quinton Alston (52) and Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Josey Jewell (43) pursue Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (4) during the 4th quarter of a Big Ten football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Friday, November 28, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Not sure about all of you, but this season seems to have both lasted forever and gone by in a blink all at the same time. Here we are, Week 12 and Iowa is closing its regular season with the annual Heroes Game against Nebraska.

Who’s going to be the Huskers quarterback Friday? No one is sure. Can the Hawkeyes win back to back against the Huskers for the first time? Vegas thinks so. Nebraska still has a shot at the Big Ten title game, so Saturday has more than a trophy on the line.

Let’s look at 5 Things: Iowa vs. Nebraska.

1. Certainly uncertain

Quarterback competition or Price is Right? Nebraska football practice will be something this week. Quarterback A, B & C, come on down.

Tommy Armstrong is a dynamic quarterback, and for much of this season, was the engine that powered the Nebraska offense. But he’s been sidelined with a concussion, ankle and hamstring injuries this season. The latter pair of injuries both came against Minnesota, but it was the hamstring that held him out last week against Maryland. In came Ryker Fyfe, who subsequently broke a bone in his left hand, requiring surgery to insert a pin in his non-throwing hand.

So Coach Mike Riley and Co. are faced with a wholly uncertain situation headed into Friday’s game at Kinnick Stadium. Riley is going to split reps, when guys are ready, between Armstrong (2,055 pass yards, 13 TDs, eight INTs; 499 rush yards, 7 TDs), Fyfe (313 pass yards, two TDs, one INT) and Zach Darlington, who currently is listed as a wide receiver on the Huskers’ roster.

He doesn’t want to burn Patrick O’Brien’s redshirt for one game. The words “emergency quarterback” were even thrown around Monday by Riley. Any time “emergency quarterback” gets thrown around, the situation isn’t great.

Riley got to injuries in his opening statement Monday, and was asked and (sort of) answered all the questions he was expecting from media in attendance. He said Armstrong is getting better, but won’t know what that means fully until he sees him in practice. He said Fyfe will have some sort of brace and should be able to throw, but doesn’t know if he’ll be able to fully execute the offense.

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For the quarterback situation’s theme, three words were enough for Riley: “I don’t know.”

“We have a good feeling that Tommy is going to be able to do something. We have a feeling that Ryker is going to be able to do something,” Riley said. “We’re going to have to assess (Monday night), get the offense installed, let both of them take some turns and at the same time give Zach turns. This will be the biggest juggling act to start a week. I really believe when we come out of it, we’ll know more (Monday night). We’ll know a lot more after (Tuesday’s) practice.”

2. Husker history

Friday will mark the sixth installment of the Heroes Game between Iowa and Nebraska, since the latter’s move from the Big 12 to Big Ten in 2011. The all-time series, though, goes all the way back to 1891, and the two programs have played 46 times, with the Huskers holding a 29-14-3 edge.

Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz has been involved in the last nine of those as both an assistant and head coach. Ferentz is 2-5 as a head coach and 1-1 as an assistant against Nebraska. Let’s run down those games:

1981: Ferentz, in his first season coaching the Hawkeyes offensive line, was a part of a Rose Bowl-bound team that beat No. 7 Nebraska, 10-7, in the season opener. Gordy Bohannon, father of current Hawkeye point guard Jordan Bohannon, was quarterback for that team. Nebraska won the Big Eight that season and lost in the Orange Bowl.

1982: The following year was … not as good. And though it would be 17 years until the next meeting between the two border rivals, the 42-7 victory by the No. 3 Huskers served as foreshadowing for the next several Iowa-Nebraska games.

1999-2000, 2011-12: In Ferentz’s first two seasons — the mostly forgettable 1999 and 2000 campaigns — Nebraska and Iowa opened their schedules against each other. The Huskers — ranked No. 5 in 1999 and No. 1 in 2000 — won those two games by a combined score of 84-20. Then, the first two years of the Heroes Game, ranked Nebraska teams won much closer contests.

2013-2015: Iowa has won two of the last three against Nebraska, with the overtime loss two years ago at Kinnick the setback. That game got one of the two head coaches fired.

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Speaking of that …

3. The Iowa effect

The last two editions of the Heroes Game have been revelatory for Nebraska. The Huskers got a 37-34 overtime win at Kinnick Stadium and finished the season 9-3. Despite that, a third-place finish in the Big Ten West was enough to get then-coach Bo Pelini fired.

That game had an existential effect on the Husker program, apparently. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst — inadvertently or not — took a veiled shot at Iowa when he said, “We weren’t good enough in the games that mattered. I didn’t see that changing at the end of the day.”

Then, last year, Nebraska again learned where it was and where it wanted to be thanks that time to a loss to the Hawkeyes. Riley didn’t get fired, but seeing four interceptions and his team outgain Iowa 433-250 and still lose was enough for a second round of reassessment.

“It really did tell us exactly where we had to go,” Riley said. “The turnovers were so big. That was a game I think we outgained them by a pretty big margin, but lost by a couple scores. You look at turnovers, you look at penalties; you look at explosive plays. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out it’s got to change if we want to win games.

“The losses like Iowa, why they occurred, what you have to examine, how you’re going to try to make it better (all) kind of kick-started us into preparation for the bowl game. That all ended up being good for us.”

4. Double disdain

Iowa and Iowa State fans agree on very little. Both fan bases like beer. Both like corn. Both appreciate farmers. Both universally hated the corn family on that ill-fated Cy-Hawk trophy.

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But they both also seriously dislike (OK, hate might be fair here) Nebraska. Iowa State fans have the long Big Six/Eight/12 history that was highlighted by many years of football domination.

Now, it’s not as if ISU fans will be cheering for the Hawkeyes on Friday. But not rooting against the Hawkeyes is something. Iowa fans have developed a new but ever-increasing rivalry with Nebraska, and a trophy game helps that.

“It seems like a really great natural rivalry that will do nothing but grow,” Riley said. “I just think it’s a perfect fit that way. I think our players — I don’t know what they think of the rivalry aspect — but I know they see this as a constant competitor for the western division. I think the rivalry part of it will be great for all the fans and become more and more real.”

5. Leave the lockers alone

Michigan made a big deal about plastering the opposing locker room at Kinnick Stadium with Wolverines paraphernalia. They covered the famously pink walls and published a pair of videos about it.

It didn’t work.

Coach Jim Harbaugh, Michigan and Co. tool a 14-13 loss and, presumably, had to clean off the locker room walls it spent significant time covering before they left Kinnick Stadium.

So is Nebraska going to try something different?

“I heard about that,” Riley said. “I don’t think that worked out so well for Michigan, so we’re just going to go in there and play. Unless someone comes up with a real good idea for me, I’m not going to think about it too much.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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