There is a longstanding Thanksgiving tradition in my family’s home in which each everyone at the dinner table is asked to name something they are thankful for. It’s been five years since Nebraska last defeated Iowa in a football game, and Hawkeye fans have had plenty to be thankful for during that period of time, including three bowl wins, berths to both the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl, and multiple memorable victories, including many over their rival to the west.
Meanwhile, the once-proud Cornhuskers have fallen on hard times. In the time since they last defeated Iowa, Nebraska has had fewer winning seasons than they have head football coaches. As much as Iowa fans enjoy complaining (often justifiably) about the predictability of the Kirk Ferentz regime, one glance to the west should be enough to remind the Hawkeye faithful just how lucky we have it.
Nebraska and Iowa enter their annual Black Friday matchups in very different places. While the Hawkeyes trying to lock down their second-consecutive nine-win season while improving their bowl stock, Nebraska is attempting to claw its way to bowl eligibility while Husker fans pray their team can earn a December trip to balmy Detroit to play in the Quick Lane Bowl. Still, the Hawkeyes cannot afford to take Nebraska lightly. Second-year coach Scott Frost has recruited well and has plenty of talent on his roster, and the Huskers certainly looked like a team that has finally turned a corner after its decisive 54-7 win over Maryland. Nebraska’s senior class is hungry for a shot to finally earn a victory over the Hawkeyes, and Iowa will have to play a disciplined brand of football if it wants to leave Lincoln having earned a fifth-straight win over the Huskers.
Here are a few key factors to watch for heading into this Friday’s game:
1. Will Adrian Martinez be Nebraska’s X-factor or its Achilles’ heel?
Nebraska has generated more offensive plays of 40+ yards than any team in the Big Ten, and quarterback Adrian Martinez is a big reason why. Martinez is one of the most dangerous players in the country when he is performing well, a fact Iowa fans are all too familiar with. As a freshman, Martinez confounded the Hawkeye defense, throwing for 260 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 76 yards and one more score on the ground. Martinez is a dangerous runner on designed plays
but is at this most deadly when he is able to improvise in the pocket and use is athleticism to extend plays, creating opportunities for offense seemingly out of thin air.
At his best, Adrian Martinez is a dual-threat weapon capable of stressing the defense at virtually every pressure point. At his worst, however, Martinez is an extremely mistake-prone quarterback prone to sustained bouts of inaccuracy and serious ball security problems. Martinez has thrown eight interceptions to only ten touchdowns, has more fumbles (eight) than rushing touchdowns (7) this season, and had an absolutely dreadful performance at home against Ohio State, completing 8-17 passes for only 47 yards. For every beautiful touch pass Martinez throws downfield to JD Spielman, he has one wildly errant throw to an uncovered running back in the flat that makes viewers wonder what happened to the young talent that showed so much promise last season.
Iowa’s defense struggled to account for Brandon Peters keeping on zone read plays against Illinois, giving up 76 yards to a quarterback who only has 145 rushing yards on the season. Still, Peters’ success on the ground had more to do with Iowa’s surprise at his willingness to keep than it did an inherent inability to contain mobile quarterbacks, one area where Iowa has actually been pretty solid on the year (Penn State’s Sean Clifford is the only other QB to rush for 50 or more yards against the Hawkeyes). Middle Linebacker Kristian Welch, who has been playing the best football of his career since returning from injury, will play an important roll in stopping Martinez, and will need to stop Martinez from powering up the middle on designed QB keepers or from gaining significant yardage by escaping a collapsing pocket when Iowa’s defensive linemen inevitably make their way into the Nebraska backfield.
If the Hawkeyes can keep Martinez in the pocket, force him to make plays with his arm, and make him uncomfortable with only a four man rush (this should be doable- Nebraska has allowed 26 sacks this season and Iowa’s defense is really hitting its stride of late), Martinez will be far less likely to dominate the game and far more likely to give it away.
2. Can Iowa’s ground game recover after a poor showing against Illinois?
Another week, another layer of mystery is added to the Iowa running game. One week after Tyler Goodson seemingly injected new life into the Hawkeye ground attack, Iowa was held to only 2.5 yards on the ground by a below-average Illinois defense, and it was pocket-passer extraordinaire Nate Stanley, not Goodson, who was Iowa’s most effective vehicle for moving the ball on the ground. One can understand why Iowa’s running attack might struggle against elite rush defenses such as Penn State and Wisconsin, but to see them fail to run the ball against an Illinois team that gives up an average of 185 rushing yards per game was cause for concern.
Iowa SHOULD be able to run the ball against Nebraska. The Huskers have allowed 23 rushing touchdowns this season (the third most in the Big Ten), allow opponents to run for 4.65 yards per carry against them, and have surrendered an alarming 72 run plays of ten yards or more, more than double the 34 runs of such length that Iowa has allowed. The Hawkeyes also had their strongest rushing performance of the season against the Huskers last year, as Mekhi Sargent gashed the Blackshirts for a career-high 173 rushing yards while Toren Young rumbled for 83 of his own.
Iowa’s running backs performed well in their on right last year, but the Hawkeye linemen also had their best game of the season run blocking against Nebraska. The interior of Iowa’s offensive line has gotten a lot of criticism this year, but a repeat performance against a Nebraska defense that has proven susceptible to big plays in the running game could help erase some of the painful memories of Iowa’s anemic running game in 2019.
3. Can Nate Stanley and the passing game click on a consistent basis?
The strength of the Nebraska defense is its ability to defend the pass, specially the deep ball. Nebraska is one of the best teams in the country at limiting deep throws and has given up only nine passing plays of thirty yards or more. The deep ball has been the most consistent source of explosive plays on an otherwise pedestrian Iowa offense, but Nate Stanley may struggle to find many opportunities to go deep against Nebraska and their star defensive back Lamar Jackson, who leads the conference with fifteen passes defended this season.
Instead, it’s more likely that Stanley will have to move the ball downfield using the short and intermediate passing game, something which has occasionally been a source of struggle for the Iowa offense. Part of this problem lies with Stanley’s bouts of inaccuracy, but Iowa’s receivers have often struggled with dropping catchable passes this season; Pro Football Focus counted 20 drops by Hawkeye receivers through ten games, and this problem persisted against Illinois as well.
Stanley has one of the strongest arms and some of the best downfield threats in the Big Ten, so it’s entirely possible that the Hawkeyes will be able to connect on the deep ball a few times this Friday. But if the Huskers continue to take away the downfield passing game, Stanley and his receivers will need to do their part to help the offense sustain long drives to put points on the board and keep Adrian Martinez on the sidelines. If Stanley can come up big in the final conference game of his career and give the Hawkeyes their fifth consecutive win over Nebraska, Hawkeye fans will really have something to be thankful for.