Iowa may have clinched the Big Ten West, but the Hawkeyes still have one game to go before their trip to Indianapolis. Iowa travels to Nebraska for a Black Friday showdown against a program hungry for their first bowl appearance since 2016. This is a matchup that screams “trap game”; one team that has nothing to play for and every incentive in the world to rest its players and deploy and ultra-conservative gameplan ahead of its season-defining game one week later, while the other has everything on the line and a significant chip on its shoulder as it squares off against a rival that has dominated them in recent years. However, all indications are that the Hawkeyes are taking this game seriously. Iowa is not planning to rest any of its players with lingering injuries, and Kirk Ferentz has talked about how special it would be for this team to notch its tenth win of the season and reclaim the Heroes Trophy after seeing their winning streak against Nebraska end next year. For better or worse, expect the Hawkeyes to go all-out this week.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in Friday’s game:
1. Can Iowa shut down the Nebraska run game?
While the 2023 Nebraska squad has very little in common with the Devaney/Osborne powerhouse teams from decades prior, its ability to dominate in the running game is at least reminiscent of some of Bo Pelini’s Husker teams. Nebraska leads the Big Ten in rushing yards per carry (4.57) and per game (186.09), and also ranks first in the league in explosive rushing plays with an impressive seven carries that have gone for 40+ yards. The Husker offensive line has continued to perform well in run blocking despite losing its entire starting left side to injury. While Anthony Grant and Emmett Johnson make a nice 1-2 combination at running back, the Huskers’ quarterback run game is where the team has really made its hay. Nebraska has three quarterbacks who are dynamic playmakers in the run game, including this weeks’ presumptive starter and little brother of former Iowa State quarterback Chubba Purdy, who made this highlight run against Wisconsin last week.
If Nebraska’s running game is so dynamic, it begs the question of why the team is only averaging .2 more points per game than the Hawkeyes are this season (18.7). The Cornhuskers have been stricken with a fatal case of fumblitis. Nebraska has fumbled an absurd 28 times this season, the most of any team in the FBS since 2018 when three teams (including the Huskers) somehow managed to put the ball on the turf as many or more times. Nebraska is not losing the battle to recover these fumbles at an abnormal rate (their 46.43% recovery rate is only slightly worse than the national median), but dropping the ball that many times is enough to disrupt the flow of even the best offenses, which the Huskers are not. Nebraska’s quarterbacks have been the worst offenders, which is why third-stringer Chubba Purdy was forced into action in the first place.
While Iowa has not been prolific at forcing fumbles this season (seven through 11 games), Nebraska’s tendency to put the ball on the ground should prompt Phil Parker to encourage his defense to try for the strip more often than they usually do in this game. Similarly, if Iowa’s linebackers and Ca$h player Sebastian Castro can stay disciplined with their eyes and stick to their assignments in the running game, they should be able to prevent too many big plays in quarterback run game. Iowa performed well against mobile quarterbacks over the past seasons years after years of that player profile being the kryptonite to the Hawkeye defense, and another strong performance in this game could help shut down the Nebraska offense, especially given how poorly the Huskers perform through the air.
2. Can either team get any production from its passing game?
Just how poorly have Nebraska and Iowa been when trying to throw the ball this year? Of the five FBS teams averaging the fewest passing yards per game, three of them are service academy teams that run the triple option, and the other two are the Hawkeyes and Huskers. Both teams are completing just a hair over 50% of their passes this season, and neither team has a single player who has eclipsed 300 receiving yards through 11 games.
However, there are reasons to expect that both teams might be able to make more hay in the passing game than these numbers might suggest. Over the past two games, Iowa quarterback Deacon Hill has completed 39-60 passes for 392 yards and two touchdowns to only one interception. While these numbers don’t exactly describe the second coming of Chuck Long, they are a massive upgrade over Hill’s performances from earlier in the season and reflect a passing game that is slowly approaching respectability thanks to improved quarterback play and the emergence of wide receiver Kaleb Brown. Meanwhile, Purdy’s 169 passing yards against Wisconsin were the second most by any Nebraska quarterback in a game this season, while his 62.5% completion rate against a Badger team that ranks in the top 30 nationally in pass defense shows a team that might be able to do enough through the air to keep Iowa’s defense honest. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes will be without their top cornerback in Cooper DeJean, a scenario which led to Iowa surrendering 278 yards and three touchdowns in the air to the Huskers last year. Nebraska doesn’t have a receiver on their current roster who can stress Iowa’s defense the way Trey Palmer did last year or Illinois’ Isaiah Williams did last week (8 catches for 105 yards), but Iowa’s cornerbacks must still play disciplined to avoid giving up big plays with the defense focused on stopping the run.
When Iowa has the ball, they may need to rely on Hill and the passing game to sustain drives in the face of a stout Nebraska run defense. The Huskers are allowing the sixth fewest rushing yards nationally per attempt (2.86) and per game (86.55), and 330 lb. defensive tackle Nash Hutmacher has emerged as a disruptive force on Nebraska’s interior defense who excels at blowing up opposing running plays. Nebraska is more vulnerable in the air where they are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 60.9% of their passes and have given up the second-most passing plays of 40+ yards in the conference this season with eight. However, Hill will still have to watch out for a potent Cornhusker pass rush led by linebackers Luke Reimer and Jimari Butler that has produced 31 sacks on the season. If Hill reverts back to the poor quarterback play Iowa received from him prior to his past two starts, the Hawkeyes could face major struggles moving the ball.
3. Can Iowa dominate the turnover battle?
Unfortunately for Nebraska fans, their team’s turnover problem is not just limited to fumbles. Nebraska leads the country in turnovers with 28 and trails only Temple for the country’s worst turnover margin with -15 on the season. Nebraska has the dubious honor of leading the Big Ten in interceptions thrown (15) despite having the fewest team-wide passing attempts in the conference (233), which is the kind of statistic that almost seems impossible until you remember this is a snakebitten Nebraska program that has spent the better part of the last decade unable to get out of its own way.
Iowa has surprisingly struggled to force turnovers despite having one of the country’s best defenses this season, producing only 12 takeaways in 2023. However, the Hawkeyes will be blessed with playing a team this week that that not only turns the ball over at an incredible rate, but also has similar struggles in taking the ball away from their opponent and has only generated one more turnover this year than Iowa has. While Iowa failed to produce any takeaways against the turnover-prone Fighting Illini last week, they had several opportunities to do so, including a strip sack in the end zone that was recovered by the offense for a safety and a litany of passes that bounced harmlessly off the hands of Iowa defenders. To return the Heroes Trophy to its rightful place, Iowa will need to prove it can capitalize on Nebraska’s mistakes and recover loose balls (their fumble recovery rate is 23.08%, which is the lowest in the Big Ten) and pick off Chubba Purdy’s passes the way the program used to intercept his brother when he was playing for Iowa State.