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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Nebraska

Happy Thanksgiving Hawkeye fans, and remember to be thankful that your football program isn’t being run into the ground by a Landry Clarke lookalike while your athletic director desperately searches for a way to make it 1997 again :) But all jokes aside, be thankful for more Iowa football on Black Friday.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

For millions of Americans, Thanksgiving in 2020 is not at all what they imagined it would be. With concerns about the spread of coronavirus limiting the size of Thanksgiving gatherings and in some cases canceling them altogether, many of the traditions Americans most associate with this holiday will go unobserved this year.

At least one Thanksgiving tradition will continue in 2020, however, as Iowa football fans will fortunately see their annual rivalry with Nebraska played one last time on Black Friday before it is replaced on the schedule with the Iowa-Wisconsin series for the next few years. Hawkeye fans have had plenty to be grateful for lately when it comes to the Heroes Game, as Iowa has won the last five meetings, including two classics decided by game-winning field goals in 2018 and 2019.

The Hawkeyes and Huskers appear to be headed in radically different directions entering this year’s matchups, with Iowa riding a three-game winning streak and Nebraska smarting after a 41-23 home loss to Illinois dropped their record to 1-3. However, as the past two Heroes Games have shown, Nebraska is capable of elevating its play against Iowa, as those contests were far more competitive than the two teams’ records might suggest. If history is any indicator, Iowa fans could be in for another wild Black Friday.

Here are few key factors to watch for in Friday’s game:

1. Can Iowa exploit Nebraska’s vulnerability in the running game?

To say Iowa’s rushing offense has found its stride over the past three games would be an understatement. The Hawkeyes have compiled 633 rushing yards and a whopping twelve rushing touchdowns during their winning streak, jumpstarting an Iowa offense that appeared mired in inconsistency in the earliest phase of the season. Now, this high-powered rushing attack led by a dynamic duo of running backs and one of the best offensive lines in the country is set to face a Cornhusker team that allows more rushing yards per game (223.25) than any Big Ten school except Maryland. It has been FAR too easy for opposing players to get to the edge against the Huskers, a prospect which must have Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent salivating.

Iowa’s ability to run the ball successfully against Nebraska is hardly a new feature in this series, as the Hawkeyes have featured a 100-yard rusher in each of their last five wins against the Cornhuskers, two of whom will take the field for Iowa tomorrow. While Nebraska may not have to worry about the quarterback run game that has repeatedly flummoxed its defense at critical points this season when facing Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras, Iowa may look to deploy the Wildcat look with Tyler Goodson to help keep the Huskers on their toes. Iowa’s Wildcat package, which features three dangerous running backs lined up in the backfield, forces defenses to account for each back as a credible runner, which could put immense pressure on a Nebraska linebacking corps that has been inconsistent so far in 2020. Iowa’s ability to hand the ball off out of the Wildcat…

or to have Goodson keep the ball on what is essentially a QB Power play…

has been a fascinating addition to Iowa’s offense this season and could be an interesting wrinkle for the Hawkeyes to run turn to throughout the game. And wouldn’t it be ironic to watch Nebraska’s defense repeatedly buckle under the weight of the very read option play they have leaned so heavily on over the years?

2. Can Iowa neutralize Nebraska’s quarterback runs?

Speaking of irony, Nebraska’s own running game has been particularly reliant on quarterback runs in 2020. Luke McCaffery and Adrian Martinez have been abysmal passing the ball this season (the two have thrown six combined interceptions to only two touchdown passes), but have been the engine of the Husker offense using their feet, as the two quarterbacks are leading their team in rushing yards, account for 2/3 of their team’s rushing touchdowns, and are averaging an impressive 5.7 and 7.0 yards per carry respectively.

Fortunately, the Hawkeye run defense has been stout thus far in 2020 and has been particularly effective at preventing big gains on the ground. Iowa has given up fewer runs of 20+ yards than any team in the conference (13) and is surrendering a conference-low of 2.64 yards per carry, the fifth-lowest total allowed in the nation. If Iowa can eliminate Nebraska’s big plays and force them to go on long drives filled with QB runs in order to score, they can exploit one of the biggest weakness to the Huskers’ QB-heavy rushing game: fumbles, of which Nebraska has committed nine this year in only four games.

Yet much as Iowa could work in the Wildcat throughout the game, Nebraska also has a unique flavor they could add to their rushing attack against the Hawkeyes, one which has mysteriously been absent since it was deployed effectively at the beginning of the season. With the Huskers struggling to coax production from their running backs, don’t be shocked to see Scott Frost put both McCaffery and Martinez on the field at once, which could create an added layer of versatility to the Nebraska offense given the potential for both players to run or pass on any given play. The Huskers produced a big play against Ohio State by shifting McCaffery into the running back slot and handing him the ball, and given the challenges Nebraska’s offense may face against a stingy Hawkeye defense, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Frost dip into this bag of tricks once again.

3. Can Iowa’s offense consistently win on third downs?

Nebraska’s defense is not devoid of talent but has really struggled to get opposing offenses of the field this season. The Blackshirts are allowing opponents to convert a whopping 53.97% of their third down attempts, a percentage worse than only six other teams in Division I college football. Several times this season, Nebraska’s defense has made plays to force opponents into 3rd and medium/long situations only to surrender big plays like this:

Can Iowa’s offense capitalize on Nebraska’s 3rd down defense deficiencies? The Hawkeyes can stay ahead of the curve by converting on early downs or forcing 3rd and short situations in which they can lean on their power running game, but 3rd down has hardly been a productive scenario for the Iowa offense this season. The Hawkeyes are converting only 37.31% of their 3rd down attempts this season and Spencer Petras is completing only 48.7% of his passes on such opportunities. In a rivalry game that will likely be too close for comfort, the team that can best solve its 3rd down deficiencies could have a serious edge in the battle for the Heroes Trophy.