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By The Numbers: Iowa vs. Nebraska

Can Iowa cap off their season by ending Nebraska’s?

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen

From the age of 16 until the age of 25, I spent every Black Friday working in retail. It’s a nightmare of a day for most retail employees (especially if you’re unlucky enough to work at a place that has actual deals to offer) and while mine were spent in the relative safety of Hy-Vee and Barnes & Noble, facing a line of customers that had only made a pit-stop for some coffee and warmth while on their way elsewhere, it still sucked. Fortunately, by the time Nebraska joined the B1G in 2011, I was, somewhat, happily employed in a 9-5 office job (though Black Friday was not a company holiday and not working meant wasting a vacation day).

Regardless, when Nebraska and Iowa resumed their 120-year-old rivalry (so what if they had only played 41 times in 120 years) on November 25, 2011, I was firmly ensconced in my parents' basement eating leftover turkey and stuffing, while the Hawkeyes were getting the stuffing knocked out of them in Lincoln. It was not a great day, but it beat the hell out of working. Over the ensuing decade, Iowa dominated the series, until last year when the coach-less Cornhuskers spoiled Iowa’s chance at repeating as B1G West champions. That, too, was not a good day.

Well, it’s a new year, and Nebraska is fresh off a convincing win over Michi... (no, no, that’s not right). Let’s try that again: Nebraska enters the game on the heels of a blowout win against Maryl... (wait, no, still not right). K, last time, I swear: Iowa heads to Lincoln to face a Nebraska team that just put the screws to Wisc... (dammit, I did it again). Oh, wait, I’ve got it: Nebraska welcomes an Iowa team that sealed the B1G West championship last weekend with a win over Illinois in Iowa City. How strange, Nebraska fans kept saying in the offseason that with Matt Rhule taking over they would be the team to beat in the West, and yet, Nebraska doesn’t seem to be leading the B1G West. Nebraska fans are generally so realistic in their expectations that I figured that their estimations of this year’s squad would be right on the money.

One thing is for sure, the Iowa Hawkeyes are the Champions of the West(ern division of the B1G Conference) and the Huskers are sitting at 3-5 in B1G play (3-3 in the West) and at risk of seeing their season come to an end on 11/24 (instead of a few weeks later in a cold-weather city, playing in the <Insert Company You’ve Never Heard Of> Nobody’s Watching Bowl, but hey, two extra weeks of practice). Iowa, on the other hand, will have at least three extra weeks of practice and a game somewhere warm for Iowa fans to ring in the new year. Yeah, they have to spend a week in Indy first, but hey, extra practice.

Nebraska is playing for their season and Iowa is playing for their 10th win, a trophy, and bragging rights over who’s corn is superior (as if that were actually a question). Vegas is expecting a real shootout in this one (3 touchdowns and 2 field goals is a lot of offense around these parts), so let’s see what the numbers have to say.

Iowa - 245.4 ypg, 18.5 ppg
Nebraska - 317.2 ypg, 18.7 ppg

Yes, in a year where Iowa has routinely faced B1G opponents with bad offenses, there is none worse than Nebraska’s (well, except for Iowa’s). As it turns out, Iowa has only faced two offenses in the top half of College Football this season (Penn State and Utah State). That being said, every team Nebraska has played this season has a better offense than Iowa, so...

Nebraska is on their third QB of the year after benching opening day starter Jeff Sims and then QB2 Heinrich Haarberg (what a name) after discovering that they were both, well, slightly turnover prone. Last week all eyes were on QB3 Preston “Chubba” Purdy, and well, he had a pretty solid game. Chubba went 15-24 for 169 yards. 1 TD, 1 INT passing and 14 carries for 105 yards, 1 TD and no fumbles, but that was against Wisconsin’s relatively porous defense (at least relative to Iowa’s defense).

On the ground Nebraska is led by RBs Anthony Grant (who was an Iowa recruiting target that originally signed with FSU before transferring) and Emmett Johnson. Combined they are averaging a little over 4.4 yards per carry and have a total of 5 TDs between them. Purdy is probably a bigher threat to run the ball as either of them and is averaging just north of 8 ypc (on 17 carries).

Iowa is coming off of 2 of its better offensive performances (hard to believe, but true) against Rutgers and Illinois and does seem to have found some semblance of a passing attack. Deacon Hill is a combined 39-60 for 400 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT over the last two weeks (for a QB rating of 128.6), adding on a QB sneak for a TD against Rutgers and seems to be developing some rhythm with TE Addison Ostrenga and WRs Nico Ragaini and Kaleb Brown, especially on intermediate routes. I wouldn’t expect fireworks, but if Deacon can continue this upward trajectory, it would go a long way toward an Iowa win.

Meanwhile, the Logan Jones experiment is over (at least for the time being) and the Iowa ground game has looked much crisper with Tyler Elsbury at the Center position (also, there haven’t been any snap issues the last couple of weeks). Iowa didn’t put up a ton of yards against Illinois, but they did break the 100 yard mark for the 3rd straight week and will look to continue that success against a stout Nebraska front 7. Let’s hope the improving passing game can coax a few more defenders out of the box this week.

Advantage - Push (these offenses are both bad, but improving)

Iowa - 281.4 ypg (4.0 ypp), 12.4 ppg
Nebraska - 307.7 ypg (4.7 ypp), 18.7 ppg

Credit where credit is due, Matt Rhule and his DC Tony White have resurrected the Blackshirts. In their first year in Lincoln, Rhule and White have the Nebraska defense back in the top 15 nationally (during the Scott Frost era they hovered in the high-60’s to low-80’s, peaking at 36th in 2022). Led by LBs Jimari Butler (5.5 sacks, 8.5 TFLs), Luke Reiner (4.0 sacks, 7.5 TFLs), and DB Isaac Gifford (75 tackles, 6.5 TFLs), this is a stout defense that is giving up just 86.5 yds on the ground (2.8 ypc) and averaging at least one forced turnover per game. While they haven’t forced a turnover in 2 of their last 3, they made up for it with 3 TOs forced in their game against Maryland. They’ve also posted 31 sacks this season, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Iowa is not exactly immune to the pass rush. If Iowa can’t slow down Nebraska’s front 7, Deacon could get very well acquainted with the Memorial Stadium turf.

Given Nebraska’s lack of talent at the skill positions, it’s going to be tough sledding against an Iowa front 7 that is giving up just 3.1 ypc on the ground and a secondary coming off a game with 13 PBUs against a 6th year Quarterback in John Paddock. Yes, the threat of Cooper DeJean is no longer there, but DeShaun Lee and Jermari HARRIS (the transporter issue has been reversed) were very solid against a very good group of receivers for Illinois and Nebraska has no Isaiah Williams, Casey Washington, or Pat Bryan to replace Trey Palmer (thank you Jeebus). Nebraska has also given up 27 sacks this season, and while Iowa’s sack totals are a little down this season, they’ve got 10 sacks in their last 4 games and I’d guess Joe Evans would like to add a couple more before his time in the Black & Gold comes to an end.

Advantage - Iowa

Special Teams
Iowa - 48.2 ypp, 73.9% FGM, 23.3 ypkr, 9.5 yppr
Nebraska - 40.8 ypp, 61.5% FGM, 22.3 ypkr, 3 yppr

Nebraska’s freshman placekicker, Tristan Alvano, has struggled a bit in his first year playing American football. While he has yet to miss an XP, he’s only 8-13 on FGs, so Iowa has a clear advantage, even if Drew Stevens hasn’t been as automatic over the last few weeks as he was in the first half of the season.

In terms of punting, Iowa has Tory Taylor, who leads the universe in all things punting. Nebraska has Brian Buschini, who is fine.

In the return game, Kaden Wetjen has had a pretty good year on kickoff duty and had a couple of decent punt returns against the Illini, but he also badly mishandled a free kick after a safety and cost Iowa pretty good starting field position on their second drive. Wetjen definitely has the wheels to be a weapon on special teams, but he’s nowhere near the threat to take every kick to the house that Cooper DeJean is/was/will be again.

Nebraska has a couple of kick returners with solid track records, but their listed starters at the KR position do not include either of them going into this week. Given Drew’s penchant for bombing kicks through the endzone, it probably won’t matter who they put back there if they’re just going to watch the ball sail over their heads.

Advantage - Iowa

Nebraska has lost three straight games, and 4 of their last 7. Conversely, Iowa is riding a 3-game winning streak and has won 6 of their last 7 (and let’s be honest, PJ knows he lost that game). These are two teams that are frighteningly similar and heading in completely different directions. Whereas Iowa seems to regularly find a way to grind out wins, Nebraska cannot seem to get out of its own way. One last thing to note, Nebraska does lead the nation in two offensive statistics: fumbles per game, and total turnovers per game (they’re also in the top 10 for INTs thrown per game). Iowa’s defense has not been turning over their opponents at a high rate this year, but they’ve certainly let some opponents off the hook (and had some bad luck with bounces, in the end zone, twice). Hopefully this is the week where we see some of those bounces go our way.

Numbers to Watch

2 & 3 - Iowa’s 2 Kalebs (Brown and Johnson) have been the catalyst to two consecutive wins the last two weeks (three if you account for Brown’s 23 yard grab to setup the game winner against NW). KJ2 looked like he was back to form late against Rutgers and his 30 yard scamper to seal the win on Saturday was vintage Superman. Meanwhile, Kaleb Brown had 7 catches for 71 yards against the Illini, including a long catch and run across the middle where he looked very dangerous. If either Kaleb can get loose in the Nebraska secondary, expect good things.

12 - Chubba Purdy may only be a sophomore, and he may be making just his second start for the Huskers, but he’s definitely got the toolset to be a B1G QB. He’s also every bit as mobile as the two QBs that are among Nebraska’s top 5 rushers on the season. He ran for 105 yards against Wisconsin and did not look at all hindered by the groin injury that kept him on the sideline earlier this year.

21 - Nebraska lost its top two RBs (Gabe Ervin Jr. and Rahmir Johnson) to injuries early in the season. Over the last 5 games Emmet Johnson has gotten the bulk of the carries for the Huskers and has the speed to turn a broken tackle into a long TD run. He’s not a power back, but if he gets outside, he can make you pay.

Iowa heads to Lincoln as a 1.5 point underdog at the time of writing, and the Huskers are playing for bowl eligibility. Iowa has got the Western Championship locked up, but will not be resting players ahead of their impending matchup with the winner of “The Game” in Indianapolis on Dec. 2nd. There are a lot of seniors on this Iowa team and I’d wager a guess that they didn’t like watching the Huskers take the Heroes trophy home last year. If Nebraska thinks the Hawkeyes are going to look past this one, they are sorely mistaken.

As always, GO HAWKS!!!