It's here! Iowa week. Our conference-appointed rival and accompanying corporate-sponsored trophy means it is "rivalry" week. The Huskers welcome the undefeated Hawkeyes to Memorial Stadium for the final game of Mike Riley's first season. Senior day honors will also take place before the game (more on that tomorrow).
Health and inconsistency have plagued the Huskers all year, but the bye week has been helpful to restore some health. The consistency part....I guess we will find out on Friday.
The Hawkeyes are only grudgingly getting the national respect their record deserves as the playoff committee has them slotted at #4. Vegas is not a Hawkeye fan and Iowa comes into Lincoln as 1 point favorites against a 5-6 team. The best Hawkeye team in their program's history is basically a pick-em against one of the worst [record-wise] Husker teams of recent memory. This is not a rivalry yet, but weekends like this are a good start.
Can this Husker team take down their second undefeated top 10 team of the season?
What a change a few weeks can make. After looking lost and hapless against a bad Purdue team, the Huskers seemingly have "bought in" to their new system and coaches. This appears to be a supremely confident Husker team preparing for the Hawkeyes.
I normally run through a bunch of stats on the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team but Iowa is boring. I am not really even being insulting with that (OK, maybe a little). They play fairly basic, but sound football. They do not make a ton of mistakes. The Hawkeyes run the ball well and they stop the run well. Do those and you will be in most every game you play.
While the Huskers are finally beginning to round into form, any signs of their previous inconsistency will be a fatal flaw against the Hawkeyes.
Some tidbits that stuck out when looking over the numbers:
Iowa is pretty good at grabbing interceptions. They have 13 on the year, which puts them just outside the top 25 in FBS. Nebraska is pretty good at throwing them having 17 on the year - ranking 121st in FBS. Four of those were from Ryker Fyfe but even if you take those away and assume Tommy Armstrong, Jr. would not have been intercepted at all by Purdue (a bad assumption) the Huskers would still be in the 105th range. Taking care of the football will be rather important Friday.
Beathard appears to be getting healthy again after being hobbled by an ankle (I think) injury. In some recent games, he had been staying in the pocket more and not using his mobility. Against Purdue last week, I watched him scramble and pick up some first downs and make throws on the run. Nebraska has not been stellar in defending the QB run game without taking resources away from protecting the vulnerable secondary. Let us hope the improvements we have started to see in the secondary continue.
With Pierson-El out, who will ruin Iowa's day?
De'Mornay Pierson-El almost singlehandedly dragged the Huskers back into the game last year (with an assist from Ferentz continuing to punt to him). His return yardage and special teams touchdown fueled a come-from-behind overtime victory in Iowa City.
My preference would be to see a balanced and well-executed game plan all around rather than needing individual heroics, but we know the Huskers have playmakers all around the field if that is required.
Iowa does not have many vulnerabilities, but special teams return defense seems to be one area where the Huskers can do some damage. The Hawkeye punt return defense is poor (#86 in FBS allowing around 10 yards return) and kickoff return defense is worse (#107 allowing about 24 yards per return). Stanley Morgan is averaging around 25 yards per kickoff return in recent games.
Will the o-line and linebackers have their best game of the season?
I hope so, because I think both units will need to play their best for Nebraska to win.
Choosing the o-line as a critical unit is a no-brainer. Iowa's defense is too solid all around for them to have an off day. The big guys up front have taken a lot of heat in the run game but Tommy is one of the least sacked QBs in the country. Even with a very good day, I still expect the Husker running backs to have to break some tackles to get anywhere.
The linebackers might be the wild card in this game. Lack of depth and injuries have plagued this unit all season. It sounds like they are getting healthy (and I mean "healthy" relative to their medical status throughout the season and not truly healthy).
Why is that important?
We might need the ‘backers to blitz to make up for a lack of pass rush. Banderas was surprisingly effective as a blitzer early this season, before he was injured. They will also have to keep watch on Iowa's fleet of running backs on the ground and through the air (Canzeri has 18 catches for 196 yards). Two of Iowa's tight ends are among their top 5 receiving targets. Adding to the mix is Beathard's mobility. He has netted 280 rush yards so far this season. Iowa is not fancy, but their offense looks like it will stress the Blackshirts right at our most unknown point. I think the LBs are capable of playing at the level needed to win this game, but I am really unsure if the lack of continuity or cohesion could lead to communication problems or if they really are getting healthy enough to play to their full potential. We will find out more on Friday...
What are your questions? Did I miss something? Tell me in the comments!