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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Nebraska

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Can Kirk best a first-year coach?

Iowa v Nebraska
LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 24: Players from the Iowa Hawkeyes hold aloft the Heroes Game Trophy after the win against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium on November 24, 2017 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Fresh off its overwhelming victory over the University of Illinois, the Iowa Hawkeyes are set to conclude their Big Ten schedule by taking on the hated Nebraska Cornhuskers. While Nebraska found initial success in this rivalry upon joining the conference, the Hawkeyes have gained the edge in their annual Black Friday matchup by winning three straight games by a combined eighty points. A three-game winning streak is hardly unusual in college football, but the landscape of the sport and fortunes of each team have changed dramatically since the Huskers last raised the Heroes Trophy in victory. The last time Nebraska beat Iowa:

· Jake Rudock was starting at quarterback for the Hawkeyes over CJ Beathard

· Senior Jack Hockaday, who is about to play his final game in Kinnick Stadium, was enrolled in Maroa-Forsyth high school

· Mike Riley had yet to be hired, let alone fired, by the Cornhuskers

· Current Husker head coach Scott Frost was the offensive coordinator for the University of Oregon, a school which has had three different head coaches since his departure

· There had not yet been a single officially-sanctioned playoff game played in the FBS

Nebraska fired then-head coach Bo Pelini in the immediate aftermath of the Huskers’ victory over the Hawkeyes in 2014, prompting Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst to comment that he, “had to evaluate where Iowa was,” in determining whether a win over a stagnant Iowa program was sufficient to save Pelini’s job. Even thirteen years removed from being a title contender, Nebraska viewed wins over the Hawkeyes as a given.

Now it is the Cornhuskers, led by a hungry young coach and coming off an upset victory over Michigan State, who are looking to upset the established balance of power and play spoiler to a team that has become accustomed to beating its rival. While Scott Frost has underperformed expectations during his first season in Lincoln, his team has rallied around him in recent weeks and has made remarkable improvements since the beginning of the season. The Huskers will be highly motivated to end their season on a high note, and the Hawkeyes will have to avoid complacency to ensure the senior class one final victory in Kinnick Stadium.

Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:

1. Can Iowa’s defense limit Nebraska’s explosive plays?

Nebraska’s offense has been a major bright spot for their team this year. Excluding its abysmal offensive performances against both Michigan and Michigan State, the Huskers have averaged nearly 35 points on the season despite starting a true freshman at quarterback in Adrian Martinez. A major secret to Nebraska’s offensive success has been its penchant for generating big plays on offense. The Huskers have generated 68 plays from scrimmage that have gone for 20 yards or more, a statistic in which they lead the conference.

The Huskers have a number of offensive weapons capable to generating explosive plays on every touch. Not only is Martinez a dual threat quarterback with an ability to hit the deep ball, but he has two excellent receivers capable of stretching the defense in Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman (the latter is questionable for Friday’s game). Meanwhile, running back Devine Ozigbo boasts surprising speed behind his 235-pound frame, and has averaged over seven yards-per-carry on the season.

Fortunately, the Hawkeye defense has been absolutely elite at preventing opposing offenses from generating big plays (the Purdue game notwithstanding). Iowa has surrendered the second fewest 20+ yard plays in college football, and its bend-don’t-break defense has forced teams to sustain long drives in order to score. Furthermore, while Nebraska does take vertical shots downfield, the Husker aerial attack has relied heavily on screens and short passes designed to get the ball to Morgan and Spielman in space. This bodes well for Iowa’s cornerbacks who, despite their occasional struggles in covering the deep ball, have proven to be very sure tacklers and are surprisingly physical for their position.

Hawkeye defenders will frequently be put in positions in which only one defender will have a shot to tackle the ballcarrier in space to prevent a big gain. The more of these matchups the Hawkeyes can win, the more pressure they can put on Nebraska’s young quarterback, who will likely find himself very uncomfortable as he tries to weather the ferocious Iowa pass rush.

2. Can Iowa’s offense continue its rhythm against Nebraska?

Iowa rebounded from its abysmal offensive performance against Northwestern in a big way last week, scoring 63 points against an overmatched Illini squad. While some of those points can be attributed to the excellent play of Iowa’s defense and special teams, the Hawkeye offense also deserves a great deal of credit for this ridiculous scoring output. Iowa displayed an ability to run and pass the ball effectively, something which it has rarely done in a single game this season, but which transformed the offense from a middling run-first unit seemingly unaware that it should be relying more heavily on the pass into a balanced attack that can keep a defense on its heels.

Illinois’ atrocious defense makes it a poor measuring stick of the success of an opposing offense, but Nebraska’s defense has been only slightly better than that of the Illini. The Cornhuskers rank 89th in scoring defense, 91st in rushing defense, 92nd in pass defense, and 96th in pass defense. While Nebraska did hold Michigan State to six points last week, this is more of an indictment of the Spartan offense than a sign of genuine growth from the Husker team that surrendered 35 points to Illinois only two weeks ago.

One player particularly suited to exploit Nebraska’s defensive woes in Noah Fant, who torched the Huskers for 116 yards and two touchdowns a year ago. An Omaha native, Fant’s seemingly reveled in making the Husker defense look silly on plays like these:

Iowa’s tight ends are at their most dangerous when the running game is working well, as an effective ground attack forces defenses to leave more defenders in the box and decreases the chances of either tight end seeing double coverage. Achieving offensive balance and finding success in both the running and the passing games will prevent Nebraska from selling out to stop either one and will allow the Hawkeyes the exploit the vulnerable Husker defense.

3. Can Iowa capitalize on Nebraska’s mental errors

At its best, Iowa is a team that forces its opponents to play a fundamentally sound, mistake-free game in order to win. The Hawkeyes pride themselves on ball security, clock management, mental discipline, and assignment football, and are generally a penalty and turnover-averse team.

Nebraska has struggled mightily in these areas. The Huskers commit a whopping eight penalties a game, have committed 21 turnovers to Iowa’s 16, and have repeatedly had their mental discipline publicly questioned by their own coaching staff. While the Huskers have made strides in recent weeks, the Spartans still forced four fumbles last week, an area in which the Huskers have particularly struggled this year. Penalties can help create the third-and-long situations in which Iowa’s pass rush has excelled all season, while turnovers manufacture points by creating short fields for a Hawkeye offense which has occasionally struggled to mount long drives. If Iowa can force and adequately capitalize on mistakes by Nebraska, it should be able to extend its winning streak over the Huskers to four games.