Iowa Football

Iowa football vs. Nebraska breakdown: Pregame analysis, prediction

Hawkeyes look for 6th straight win over Huskers

No. 24 Iowa hosts Nebraska in Big Ten football Friday at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)
No. 24 Iowa hosts Nebraska in Big Ten football Friday at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)

A closer look at Friday afternoon’s Big Ten Conference football game between No. 24 Iowa (3-2) and Nebraska (1-3) at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City (noon, Fox).

Iowa offense

Iowa has scored 125 points during its three-game win streak. That’s 42 a game, and that ain’t bad.

The Hawkeyes running game has been productive, and that’s despite a couple of offensive line starters being out (guard Kyler Schott, tackle Coy Cronk). Schott is expected to get some game action here and Cronk could, so rotations will be interesting. Starting tackle Mark Kallenberger was injured in last week’s Penn State game, and it’s uncertain if he’ll play. If not, Jack Plumb is expected to get the start.

Iowa’s season scoring average has improved to 33 a game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten, just a point per game behind second-place Indiana. Ohio State leads the league far and away at 45.3 points per game.

Mekhi Sargent led Iowa with 101 yards and two rushing touchdowns last week. He averages 6.4 yards per carry this season. Iowa averages 5.0.

Considering Nebraska is next to last in rushing defense, expect Iowa to run, run, run.

Another improvement for the Hawkeyes has come this season in scoring more touchdowns in the red zone, which certainly has helped their point totals. They have scored 18 touchdowns in 25 red-zone trips, a 72-percent rate.

Keith Duncan tried 34 field goals last season in 13 games. This season, he has attempted nine in five games. That’s roughly a field-goal try less per game.

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“It’s great to be able to punch it in like we have,” quarterback Spencer Petras said. “We’ve been really efficient this season. That’s definitely something we want to build on.”

“We want touchdowns instead of field goals,” said tackle Alaric Jackson. “As much as Keith Duncan is a good player, I want to see him on the sideline more than I do on the field.”

Iowa defense

Iowa continued its picky ways last week, intercepting a pair of passes. Both came from defensive linemen, ironically, including Daviyon Nixon’s dynamic return for touchdown. The Hawkeyes have recorded an interception in 12 consecutive games. Iowa had four takeaways last week against Penn State.

The defensive line of Nixon, Chauncey Golston, Jack Heflin and Zach VanValkenburg has been very good the past three games and will be responsible for keeping whomever is Nebraska’s quarterback (Adrian Martinez or Luke McCaffrey) in check from a rushing standpoint. Iowa has the second-most sacks in the Big Ten (16).

Linebacker Nick Niemann had a huge tackle game against Penn State (17), which is another indication the line is doing its job by keeping opposing offensive linemen off the linebackers.

Iowa ranks fourth in the conference in rushing defense and is third in passing defense, total defense and scoring defense.

Nebraska offense

Who will be the quarterback? Will it be junior Adrian Martinez, who started Nebraska’s first two games? Or will it be redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey, who has started Nebraska’s last two games? Will we see both guys?

The duo rank 13th and 14th in the Big Ten in passing, McCaffrey is 13th. They bring way more run to the table right now than pass, obviously. McCaffrey, brother of NFL star running back Christian McCaffrey, had 122 yards rushing and two touchdowns last week against Illinois, running it 26 times. He also threw three interceptions. Martinez threw for a smidge over 2,600 yards as a true freshman in 2018 and a smidge under 2,000 last season. Combined, the duo has two TD passes this season (one each) and six interceptions.

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Wan’Dale Robinson is Nebraska’s leading receiver (21 catches for 152 yards) and third leading rusher, a highly touted sophomore who can play running back and slot receiver. Kade Warner also is one of the Cornhuskers receivers. He’s the son of Cedar Rapids native and NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner.

“I’m sure they’re going to be a determined football team,” said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz. “We’re not sure which quarterback we’ll see. I do know this: they’re both extremely dangerous. That’s going to be a tough, tough preparation for our defensive football team.”

Nebraska defense

Nebraska runs a 3-4 defense, which Ferentz said provides a unique preparation challenge for his offense. Nebraska’s defensive coordinator is Erik Chinander, a former Iowa player.

The Cornhuskers D has not had a good last two weeks, that’s for sure. It gave up over 500 yards two weeks ago to Penn State, though Nebraska was able to hang on to a big halftime lead and win, 30-23. Illinois put up 41 points on it last week in a 41-23 loss, including 285 yards rushing.

Statistically, Nebraska’s run defense is worse than every other team in the Big Ten, sans Maryland. The Huskers allow 223.3 yards per game.

Nebraska lost starting inside linebacker Collin Miller last week with a season-ending neck injury that saw him have to be taken from the field via paramedic stretcher.

Final thoughts

Iowa has won six of the last nine games between these rivals, including the last five. The Hawkeyes had to have last-second field goals to win the last two encounters, though, including Duncan’s memorable 48-yarder with one second left last year at Lincoln, 27-24.

Coach Scott Frost was supposed to turn his alma mater back into a national power again, but, thus far, that hasn’t happened, as he is 10-18 in his third season.

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These teams come on completely opposite ends of the momentum spectrum. Iowa lost two close games to Purdue and Northwestern to begin this truncated season but has rebounded with three impressive wins since, over Michigan State, Minnesota and Penn State. Nebraska lost to Ohio State and Northwestern to start this season, seemed to be on the verge of turning things around with a win over Penn State two weeks ago but took a huge step back last week against Illinois.

The effort from the Cornhuskers undoubtedly will be vastly superior from last week, it’s hard to imagine their leaky defense and uneven offense improving enough to get a win here. Iowa retains the Heroes Trophy.

Prediction — Iowa 38, Nebraska 20

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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