Opponent: Nebraska Cornhuskers (5-6, 3-4 B1G West, unranked)
Friday, November 27, 2:30 p.m., Memorial Stadium (Lincoln, NE)
Kickoff weather: Mid 30s and gusty, with temperatures falling below freezing during the game.
Axl Rose: Also, there'll be freezing drizzle overnight, but it should clear up before the game, because nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain.
WHEN NEBRASKA HAS THE BALL
Nebraska will ask plenty of Tommy Armstrong on Saturday, and although his arm strength (which c'mon, it's the guy's name) and elusiveness have caused defenders fits all season, he hasn't progressed in any meaningful way under Mike Riley. Armstrong's completion percentage, yardage per pass and TD-INT ratio have all remained effectively static, and his rushing has dipped substantially as Mike Riley opts to keep him in the pocket more than Bo Pelini did. Armstrong's throwing mechanics are at least better than Taylor Martinez, but he's not really a step up from what Martinez became by his last two seasons in Lincoln. So while Iowa's defense should recognize the challenge in front of it with Armstrong, there's also not much to his game that the Hawkeyes haven't encountered from Nebraska before.
Tailback Terrell Newby should be back and healthy for the Huskers after extremely limited action over the last three weeks. He's a complete RB: fast, elusive, strong enough to finish runs and versatile in the passing game. An ankle injury limited him to five total carries in the last two games, but the Huskers' recent bye week is evidently enough to get him back on the field. He's their leading rusher, but thanks to injury he's only at 709 yards on the season. Barring a miracle, this'll be the first season since 2008 where Nebraska doesn't boast a 1,000-yard rusher; Iowa's hoping he won't crack 800 for the year. Senior Imani Cross is an absolute bull as a backup running back, and regardless of how many carries the coaches want Newby to get, Cross will be a healthy part of the attack as well.
Key to Nebraska's ground game getting rolling will be the offensive line's ability to stave off Iowa's front seven. Nebraska has juggled its starting five, but LT Alex Lewis has overcome a rough beginning of the season to be the rock of the lineup, and the matchup between freshman RT Nick Gates and Iowa's Nate Meier will be one of the best of the afternoon. Jaleel Johnson should expect frequent double-teams from this unit, so unless Nathan Bazata has an uncharacteristically disruptive day, Iowa might need to send an extra rusher to crash the line and plug holes before Nebraska's blockers can get to the next level. This isn't a great Nebraska offensive line, and trench play has never been Mike Riley's strong suit, but this group is at least experienced and productive; Nebraska has ceded just 13 sacks here in 2015, and its tailbacks have been tackled for a combined 55 yards lost this season.
Jordan Westerkamp is the leading receiver, and he's like if Iowa leaned on Matt VandeBerg about twice as much (yes I just compared two white wide receivers, come fight me). And though the Hawkeye secondary clearly needs to account for Westerkamp, perhaps the closest thing Nebraska has to a mismatch factory is talented TE Cethan Carter, who's growing into a dangerous target, especially in the red zone. Also, Riley's not afraid to call his wideouts' numbers on fly sweeps and reverses, and Iowa's linebackers and safeties should be prepared for some ambitious pre-snap movement and misdirection. Unless their assignments are sound, the misdirection may prove treacherous.
Axl Rose: It sounds like Nebraska's trying to Use Their Illusion!
Hey, yeah, I remember that album.
Axl Rose: THOSE albums. They put us at the top of the world!
Right, right. Sorry. It was just so long ago, y'know? We can't worship the '90s forever, if you ask me.
Axl Rose: Disagree.
WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL
Conditions should be lousy enough (and the opponent motivated enough) that Friday's game probably won't be a walk in the proverbial park. But man, if ever there was a monster game waiting for Iowa's air attack, it's here, with a porous passing defense waiting and all sorts of history on the line. But although it's tempting to see Nebraska's 300+ passing yards allowed per game and imagine "ball thrown in air = automatic touchdown," one word of warning: Nebraska's pass efficiency defense is merely subpar, a Purdue-esque 80th-best in the nation. Purdue's secondary didn't offer much resistance to Beathard last Saturday, but if the wind persists and swirls this week, it just may bedevil Iowa's aerial attack to the point that Nebraska's secondary looks almost competent. Still: this is a secondary that has faced 40+ passes per game and still can't stop the throw; Ferentz the Elder and Younger shouldn't worry too much about the run game's role in opening up the pass.
Still—and this has been something of a skipping record all season—Iowa's offensive line will face a talented defensive line. DTs Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins terrorized Iowa last season, and while they've fallen off this year (and Iowa's offensive line has improved substantially), they're healthy and finally rounding into form along with the rest of a deep rotation. If Purdue can swarm on Beathard, Nebraska's front four can probably get to him too, and Iowa should be wary of how Nebraska's rotation can keep fresh legs up front through the course of a game.
Behind that line, though, there's not a whole lot. Nate Gerry is the closest thing Nebraska has to a leader in the secondary, and while he's putting together another statistically strong season, he's just not disrupting opposing attacks like he was last season. Fellow safety Byerson Cockrell has been productive but not particularly impressive, and Beathard should be able to test these guys in pass coverage.
Axl Rose: Hey, you know, Guns N Roses still sells out the venues where we play.
One, I don't believe you in the slightest, but two, does that mean you're as good as you were in the 1990s?
Axl Rose: No, but we're still selling out, and isn't that what's important?
Debatable at best. Question for you, Axl. Do you ever get your friends and supporters to buy all the excess tickets in order to keep *technically* selling these venues out?
Axl Rose: Why do you ask?
Oh, no reason.
Nebraska's punter is this guy. His stats are thus irrelevant.
Marshall Koehn has now missed five extra points after biffing one against Purdue and seeing another blocked. None have hurt Iowa yet, obviously, but it has led to Iowa trying to protect a six-point lead in the fourth quarter against Illinois and a couple 13-point margins last week. Ever since The Demon Koehn chokeslammed Pitt with that 58-yard game-winning field goal, he has been perfect in exactly one game: his 5/5 extra-point, 0/0 field goal performance at Indiana. In every other game since Week 3, he has missed either a field goal or an extra point. At least Koehn had the flair for dramatic by missing both kinds of kicks at Northwestern.
And the thing of it is, Koehn is still pretty much money on field goals: 13-for-17, including 7-for-9 from 40+. So do we need to move his extra points back to the 20, or what? 41-for-46 would be disastrous if Iowa hadn't sworn off losing football games. Maybe Desmond King can take over XP duties. He's got a hell of a leg, right? He must.
Iowa catches a bit of a macabre break as DeMornay Pierson-El is out for the year after hurting his knee celebratingsomeone else's touchdown against Purdue. Hawkeye fans expecting a neutered Nebraska return game will be disappointed, though, to know that Stanley Morgan Jr. (a.k.a. The Firm Investment) (because Morgan Stanley is an investment firm, you see) (financial services, whatever) is a more-than-capable kick returner in his own right. He hasn't taken one to the house yet, but he's leading the team at over 25 yards a pop. He's still a freshman and growing into his role as a target at wideout, so odds are good that at some point he will prompt the billions of Iowa fans worldwide to yell at their television some version of "BY GOD, TACKLE HIM!" So yes, coverage will be important.
Axl Rose: I covered Paul McCartney, you know.
Ugh, who hasn't.
Axl Rose: Ringo.
Axl Rose: Him and Father John Misty. That's about it.
Iowa 37, Nebraska 27
Axl Rose: I'll say Iowa 31, Nebraska 13. Also, what's so civil about war, anyway?
No no, the Civil War is out in Oregon. Ducks vs. Beavers. This is the Heroes Game.
Axl Rose: Answer the question.
Actually, how about you please leave.
Axl Rose: Do you validate parking?