Go Gophers! Ski-U-Mah!
Heading into the final week of the 2021 regular season, Iowa football fans find themselves in a strange position of rooting for their rival Minnesota in hopes of reaching the Big Ten Championship. If the Gophers can defeat Wisconsin on Friday, it will leave Iowa in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten West…assuming the Hawkeyes can take care of business against Nebraska on Black Friday.
On one hand, the Hawkeyes should have no reason to fear a competitive game from the Cornhuskers. Nebraska is 3-8 on the season, has only one win against a Big Ten opponent (Northwestern, who is also terrible), and has not beaten the Hawkeyes since Bo Pelini was still the head coach. However, Nebraska has proven to be a tough out for every team that has defeated them this year. Nebraska’s average margin of defeat is only 6.125 points, seven of their eight defeats were by one score, and the Huskers’ nine-point loss to Ohio State marks the closest any Big Ten team has gotten to knocking off the Buckeyes this year. Throw in the fact that all of Nebraska coach Scott Frost’s losses to the Hawkeyes have come in one-score games, and Iowa has every reason to prepare itself for a hard-fought game on the road in Lincoln.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in Friday’s game:
1. Can Iowa rattle Nebraska’s backup QB?
For better or worse, Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez has been the sole source of the Cornhuskers’ offense in 2021. The senior quarterback is Nebraska’s leading passer and rusher through 11 games, accounting for 3,379 yards and 27 touchdowns despite having played much of the season with a broken jaw and an injured ankle. The repeated beatings Martinez has taken this year seem to have caught up to him, which is why he is being held out of the Black Friday game in favor of…Smithers?!
(Checks notes) Sorry, I meant Smothers, Logan Smothers. The redshirt freshman is mostly an unknown commodity having completed 7-11 passes for 119 yards in addition to running 13 times for 69 yards with the majority of his snaps coming in blowout wins. Spring game film shows a willing and explosive runner and a somewhat inconsistent passer, but one can only judge a player so much based on mop-up duty and practice film—it’s what they do in a real game with real stakes that counts.
Iowa’s defense will likely look to key in on the run and keep Smothers in the pocket to force the young quarterback to beat the Hawkeye defense with his arm. This could be a challenging proposition for the rookie Husker signal caller; not only does Iowa lead the nation in interceptions with 21, but Nebraska has been vulnerable to the pass rush this season, surrendering 27 sacks despite having a mobile quarterback. With Nebraska’s starting running back Rahmir Johnson nursing an injury, the Huskers may also find it difficult to run the ball against Iowa with any consistency. If Iowa’s defensive front can force Nebraska to throw and generate pressure without creating lanes for Smothers to escape the pocket, it could be a long day for the Huskers.
Still, there is reason for concern for Hawkeye fans. Smothers will have dynamic weapons at his disposal when he chooses to pass, including explosive wide receiver Samori Toure and a gigantic target in 6’9” tight end Austin Allen. Furthermore, Iowa’s secondary is somewhat depleted even with the return of safety Jack Koerner, with Matt Hankins expected to miss the game due to injury and fellow cornerback Terry Roberts still “iffy” to play. Finally, the loss of Martinez may ultimately prove to be addition by subtraction since, for all his explosiveness and playmaking, the Husker quarterback has thrown 10 interceptions and fumbled seven times this year. If Smothers can play within the system and replicate most of Martinez’s production without committing turnovers, the Husker offense could prove difficult to stop.
2. Can Iowa build off last week’s strong running performance?
Iowa’s running game has been dormant for much of the season but has seen a resurgence of late, with Tyler Goodson topping 100 yards on the ground in two of the past three games and freshman Gavin Williams emerging as a capable backup. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s run defense may be more depleted now than it has been all year. Star linebacker JoJo Domann and talented edge rusher Pheldarius Payne will both miss Friday’s game due to injury, nose tackle Damion Daniels and linebacker Caleb Tannor are hurt and barely played against Wisconsin, and the Huskers have been without hard-hitting safety Deontai Williams since the Minnesota game. These injuries hampered Nebraska in its loss to Wisconsin, as poor tackling and the lack of consistent push up front saw the Huskers surrender 252 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
Can Iowa’s rushing attack take advantage of this potential weakness? The Hawkeyes have increasingly phased out their trademarked outside zone running play in favor of pounding the rock between the tackles where the Iowa line is at its strongest, which could be a particularly effective strategy if Daniels misses the game or plays below full strength. Nebraska is surrendering an average of 143.36 yards on ground at a rate of 4.07 yards per carry and has allowed seven runs of 30+ yards this season, the third-most in the Big Ten (Iowa, by comparison, has yet to allow one such run). Iowa has had at least one running back rush for 100+ yards every year during Iowa’s six-game winning streak, a streak which the Hawkeyes should be able to expand if they can replicate that feat on Friday.
3. Can Iowa create greater consistency in its passing game?
While Iowa fans hoped that Alex Padilla would be the cure for team’s inconsistent passing game, the Hawkeyes’ win over Illinois showed that the problems run deeper than the starting quarterback. Iowa had as many dropped passes as it had completions against the Illini (six), with many drops coming on third down. While Padilla’s 6-17 stat line would look better without the drops, he still had some questionable throws during the game, none worse than the interception he threw into double coverage late in the 4th quarter.
Padilla’s accuracy problems have been an issue all season, as the quarterback has completed only 47% of his passes on the year. However, Nebraska is allowing completions on 65.8% of throws from opposing quarterbacks, the second highest rate in the Big Ten. Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt has developed into a solid player in coverage, but the Cornhusker defense is certainly vulnerable to being attacked through the air, particularly if Deontai Williams and his team-high four interceptions are unable to play. If Padilla can tighten up his accuracy and the Hawkeye receivers can avoid dropping 1/3 of the passes thrown their way, Iowa should be able to throw the ball well enough to exploit Nebraska’s vulnerabilities in pass coverage, or at least manage to keep the defense honest and prevent the Cornhuskers from selling out against the run.
Iowa can’t control what happens in the game between Minnesota and Wisconsin but can determine whether it wins its tenth game this season based on its performance in Lincoln. If Iowa plays up to its potential, it should leave Memorial Stadium with both its conference championship hopes and its winning streak against Nebraska alive and well.