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Matchup to Watch: Iowa’s Defensive Line vs. Nebraska’s Run Game

The veteran Hawkeyes have their work cut out for them

NCAA Football: Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Thanksgiving!

I’ll share my piece on what I’m thankful for in Hawksgiving but here are some other Hawks I’m thankful for:

Chauncey Golston
A.J. Epenesa
Anthony Nelson
Sam Brincks
Matt Nelson
Parker Hesse

The second half of the bunch will all play their final game in Kinnick Stadium tomorrow and I think I’m actually going to be really sad.

Overall, though, my six very large adult children have put in work this season. All but Brincks has at least one sack (25.5 combined) but my dude one-upped them all with a tremendous touchdown catch:

Parker Hesse, you may forgot, told the world WHAT’S UP, with a casual pick six of everyone’s favorite arm punter: Tommy Armstrong.

But enough memory lane...

Iowa’s in for a pretty big test on Black Friday and I’m not talking about the crowds. Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez has ran the ball about 12 times a game to the tune of 4.5 yards a pop. He’s joined in the backfield by 1000-yard rusher Devine Ozigbo. The senior has had a breakout campaign and is averaging over 7 yards a carry.

A deeper dive into his numbers describe a little feast or famine action, as it pertains to competition. His most prolific game came against Purdue in September, when he got 170 yards on 17 carries. It is closely followed by 162 on 11 rushes against Illinois. His strongest game against a good defense was probably the 159 he tallied against Northwestern’s on 7.2 yards per carry. To Nebraska’s credit, they’ve been able to get him over 4 yards per carry in all but two games so far (Troy and Michigan).

Ozigbo ranks in the top 30 for 10+ yard rushes at 28 on the season. Scott Frost is going to try to get big plays out of the run game and his highlights against the Wildcats really display what he can do:

Despite being 6’0” and 235 pounds, he shows an ability to get to the edge. With measurables like he has, it’s clear he is comfortable between tackles and shows some wiggle in making defenders miss. Even if Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson are able to set the edge, Iowa’s back seven is going to need to be on it to limit his yards after contact. He also shows the ability to be a checkdown for Martinez, as he’s accumulated 20 catches for 184 yards this season.

The read out of the shotgun is crux of Nebraska’s offense and Martinez’s ability to run out of it makes him a weapon similar to Trace McSorley, as Kirk Ferentz mentioned in his time with the media this week. Against Ohio State, Martinez ran the ball the most of his young career. While many were well contained, I still have nightmares of plays like the first one below a la Denard Robinson:

It just seems so smooth when a QB is able to get 10 easy yards on a run like that.

Iowa’s line is well-equipped, though. Golston and Parker Hesse are incredibly adept at protecting against these types of runs and have also shown awareness and explosion when stopping jet sweeps – something Nebraska will also employ.

Though Nebraska rarely, if ever, runs a play with Martinez under center, both ends have shown more than capable setting the edge.

If you play through Martinez’s OSU highlights, it demonstrates the speed with which Nebraska tries to get the ball out of his hands. While it isn’t explicitly a part of the run game, the RPO offer Iowa another layer to worry about the Cornhusker offense. Because of this, it counteracts Iowa’s ability to sack the QB, where they’re tied for second in the conference.

It’s one of those games Iowa should win and they’ve done pretty well in that department this year by my estimation (the toss up games have been where they’ve struggled which is an entirely different column). But Nebraska has been playing their best football of season and coming off a win in weather-aided defensive struggle, they’re proving an ability to play left-handed. Martinez and Ozigbo represent the tip of the spear for the Nebraska offense and anything Iowa can do to dull it will give them a better chance to win.

With the defensive line the Hawkeyes have, they might be able to snap the spear in half. But it’s Black Friday and nothing is guaranteed.