Iowa Football

Play Action: Nebraska Cornhuskers at Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa's imbalanced offense will try one more time for that sweet spot

Iowa hosts Nebraska at 11 a.m. Friday at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)
Iowa hosts Nebraska at 11 a.m. Friday at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)

Nebraska (4-7, 3-5 Big Ten) comes to Kinnick Stadium to face the Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-4) on Black Friday.

After dropping their first six games in Scott Frost’s first season as Huskers head coach, Nebraska is 4-1 in its last five games. Iowa isn’t 4-1 in its last five, it’s 2-3.

Nebraska probably doesn’t consider this its bowl game, but it is the finale for 2018. If Iowa wins, it’s likely headed to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Calif., on New Year’s Eve.

Kickoff on Friday is 11 a.m. at Kinnick Stadium. The game is on Fox.

The Huskers Vibe

1. Turning the tables on turnovers — Ball security was a huge problem for the Huskers during their 0-6 start.

In September, Nebraska was minus-6 in turnover margin and was last in the Big Ten. This month, the Huskers have mowed and raked that yard. They’re second in the league behind Michigan with a margin of plus-5.

The Huskers are now 10th at minus-1 and are tied for the Big Ten lead with 11 fumbles, but they’ve definitely trended up here and that’s helped them win games.

2. The offense is flowing — First-year Nebraska head coach Scott Frost struck recruiting gold in quarterback Adrian Martinez. The Fresno, Calif., native is a Rivals 4-star who had 28 offers. He picked Nebraska just before signing day last season.

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Four-star QBs, you want those. Frost really wants those to make his offense go. Martinez runs the option. The Huskers also run some zone blocking. They’ve run for 300-yards plus three times this season. So, Frost’s scheme — born out of his days with Chip Kelly at Oregon — will run you to death if you can’t stop the run.

The Huskers will challenge you with speed in space and running back Devine Ozigbo is a load at 6-0, 235. Better set an edge and rally to the ball.

3. Balance — You read the word “option” and you think about an offense that believes the forward pass is a rumor and possibly illegal.

For this being the first year in this offense, Nebraska is fairly well balanced — 2,368 rushing yards and 2,706 passing.

Martinez has been impressive as a passer, especially for being a true freshman. He’s completed 64.1 percent of his passes. Of course, wide receivers Stanley Morgan and J.D. Spielman have given Martinez a bump. Morgan is third and Spielman is fourth in the Big Ten in receiving. They’re the most potent receiving duo in the Big Ten, combining for 129 receptions, 1,741 yards and 15 TDs.

4. Defense is a work in progress — The Huskers are 12th in the league in total defense (434.8). If you want to move to fancy stat efficiency, it’s not great, either.

One number that sticks out on BCFtoys.com is ball control rate, which is the percentage of opponent offensive drives that last four plays or more. Nebraska is 81st in the country with 68 percent of drives going at least four plays.

Nebraska’s defense has improved throughout the season, but in conference games, it’s still 13th in the Big Ten and allowing 6.18 yards per play.

5. Relevant numbers — Lightning can always strike on special teams, but Nebraska hasn’t been great here. The Huskers are last in the Big Ten in punt coverage (11.5 yards per return and two TDs allowed). BCFtoys.com measures special teams efficiency as “the average value generated per possession by a team’s non-offensive and non-defensive units.” The Huskers are 114th in the nation here.

What’s Happening With The Hawkeyes?

1. Premium on disruption — Iowa’s defense doesn’t shoot gaps, it does occasionally blitz and has thrown in more run blitzes the last few weeks. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s deck shuffle with safety Amani Hooker being used in a rover role between linebacker and safety has paid dividends, but this is a game in which displacing the Huskers’ OL and keeping Nebraska’s option game from hitting the line of scrimmage full speed will likely be a crucial factor.

If the defensive line doesn’t get push early, watch for linebackers and safeties to creep toward the line of scrimmage.

2. Drive time — On BCFtoys.com, the Hawkeyes’ offense rates low in sustained drives. Iowa is 80th in offensive drive success rate (percentage of offensive drives that generate value greater than the starting field position value of the drive) reaching what’s considered successful in just 31 percent of drives.

Iowa is converting third downs through the air at a nationally leading rate, but it’s also seeing too many third downs. Iowa is 34th in the country with 15.6 third downs per game. In contrast, Wisconsin sees just 11.9 third downs a game.

3. Unbalanced — At the heart of the Hawkeyes’ problems on offense is the running game. You’ve heard head coach Kirk Ferentz say the goal is balance. This season, that dart missed the board and went out into the street.

The Hawkeyes have 2,579 passing yards this season and 1,678 rushing. That’s a difference of 901 yards. This is the second consecutive year where the gap between running and passing probably got a little out of hand. Last year, it was 663 yards.

The worst imbalance in recent years came in 2009, when Iowa finished 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl, when passing outran the running game by 1,402 yards. The 2009 defense was disruptive enough to make this hurt a lot less.

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For the most part, when this imbalance is around 1,000 yards, Iowa has had a bad, unsatisfying or mediocre season. In 2010 (8-5 record), it was 1,120. In 2011 (7-6), it was 1,262. The 2012 (4-8) and 2014 (7-6) seasons had deficits that bumped against 1,000 yards. In 2015 (12-2), the deficit was just 318 yards.

This is hardly eureka, but this does explain the left-handedness you’ve seen out of the Hawkeyes’ offense the last two years.

4. Stopping the rush — Iowa’s defensive numbers across the board are brilliant. The total yards have inched up, but it’s not been anything drastic.

Even this month, Iowa is fourth in the league in rushing defense (139.7) and in plays of 10-plus yards allowed (34).

Iowa can put pressure on Martinez to make plays if it can corral the Huskers’ rush. The two times Iowa has lost the running game battle this season (Wisconsin and Northwestern), cracks started showing up down the middle. If the Huskers simply try to get to the edge every rush, that’d be easy to defend. If the Huskers’ OL and Ozigbo and his 235 pounds can find some success between the tackles, this is going to be an interesting game.

5. Relevant numbers — Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s consistency and explosiveness has really helped the Hawkeyes’ offense with field position. Smith-Marsette leads the conference with 31.9 yards on 15 returns. BCFtoys.com measures kick return efficiency simply by field position at the end of the play. Against the rest of the nation, Iowa is fifth here. A lot of that is Smith-Marsette and a kick return unit that has the Hawkeyes leading the Big Ten and third in the nation.

Prediction

Iowa 34, Nebraska 24

There might be a winning number for the Huskers through explosive plays. It probably has to be more than five, weather permitting.

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

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