A funny thing happened five years ago. The perception around Husker nation at that time was that Nebraska football was in the business of playing for championships while Iowa was the program muddling through to merely become bowl eligible. And when Nebraska seemed to be falling short of that goal in the Big Ten’s west division, change was in order.
Funny thing about change: Sometimes you make things better.
Sometimes you make things worse.
Prior to that coaching change, Nebraska was 3-1 against Iowa with the sole loss coming when the Huskers were forced to start their third-string quarterback due to injuries.
Now Iowa has won the last four games in this series; it’s the Hawkeyes who have played for championships. And the Huskers have had losing records in three out of the last four years.
On second thought, this thing isn’t funny at all. While Husker fans are hopeful that their football program is heading in the right direction again after making that awful “right turn at Albuquerque” five years ago, it’s also important to note that Iowa isn’t exactly the same program it was earlier this decade. Iowa had two players drafted in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft; early projections that two more Hawkeyes could go in the first round of the 2020 draft. So even with only ten returning starters, Iowa is still considered a leading candidate to win the Big Ten’s west division in 2019.
Senior Nathan Stanley (6’4” 242 lbs) has started every game the last two seasons, putting up solid, though not spectacular numbers. He completed 59% of his passes for 2,852 yards and 26 touchdowns and ten interceptions. He’ll be the first three year starting quarterback for Iowa since cult favorite Ricky Stanzi in 2008-10. Iowa’s backup quarterbacks don’t usually see a lot of snaps; sophomore Peyton Mansell (6’2” 210 lbs.) completed five of eight passes last year. Redshirt freshman Spencer Petras (6’5” 227 lbs.) might be the long term solution after Stanley’s no longer playing for Iowa.
Iowa’s running game was a litle less potent last season, though at the end of the season, Mekhi Sargent (5’9” 210 lbs.) rushed for 294 yards in the last two regular season games, with 179 coming against Nebraska. The junior rushed for 745 yards and nine touchdowns last season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Junior Toren Young (5’11” 220 lbs.) split many of the carries, rushing for 637 yards and five touchdowns for the same average. Junior Ivor Kelly-Martin (5’10” 200 lbs.) started six of 13 games last year, but only rushed for 341 yards with a 3.5 yards per carry average. Not your typical Iowa rushing attack, but with all three back, it should be better in 2019, especially with the way Sargent finished last season.
Stanley will have to build familiarity with a whole new cast of receivers, as Iowa has to replace not one, but two first round NFL Draft picks who topped the Iowa receiving stats. Everybody (other than Nebraska’s previous coaching staff) knew how good Omaha South graduate Noah Fant could be, but last year, he was surpassed by TJ Hockensen on the depth chart. Also departing is leading wide receiver Nick Easley, which means that Iowa has to replace the hands that accounted for 18 of 26 passing touchdowns and 1,773 of 2,935 yards last season. Junior receivers Brandon Smith (6’2” 219 lbs.) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6’1” 175 lbs.) each totaled 361 yards receiving last year and combined for five touchdowns. Smith-Marsette has had an impressive preseason according to his coaches. Also potentially available is Michigan transfer Oliver Martin (6’1” 210 lbs.), if he’s cleared to play immediately by the NCAA. (For Martin’s sake, hopefully Kirk Ferentz assigned someone other than the people who botched the Drew Ott appeal to gain NCAA clearance.) Martin caught 11 passes for 125 yards last season. Since tight end is such an important part of the Iowa offense, expect either senior Nate Wieting (6’4” 250 lbs.) or Shaun Beyer (6’5” 240 lbs.) to produce much more than they have so far.
Three starters return up front on the always dependable Iowa offensive line. Junior left tackle Alaric Jackson (6’6” 320 lbs) was a third-team all Big Ten honoree last season, but it’s his counterpart on the other side that’s drawing all of the attention from NFL draft analysts. Junior right tackle Tristan Wirfs (6’5” 320 lbs.) has been showing up on many top ten draft preview lists as their top offensive tackle in college football. Junior right guard Cole Banwart (6’4” 300 lbs.) started seven games last year, but with needing to replace two linemen who got mentions on the all Big Ten honoree lists, a slight step-back on the line might be in the cards
With only four returning starters, it looks like a rebuilding year for Iowa’s defense. Up front, all four starters need to be replaced. Junior rush end AJ Epenesa (6’6” 277 lbs.) is going to be expected to contribute on every down and not be just a pass rushing specialist. Epenesa was pretty good at that his first two years, earning all Big Ten honors last season despite never starting a game in college. His 10.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries led the Hawkeyes; NFL draft experts are expecting those numbers to jump as he becomes a full-time contributor. He’s another Hawkeye that some think will be a top ten draft pick next spring. (Mel Kiper Jr. suggests top five!) Junior defensive end Chauncey Golston (6’5” 265 lbs.) also put up good numbers (35 tackles, with nine for a loss) as a reserve, so it’s not like Iowa is starting over on the defensive line.
Iowa’s base defense is a nickel, with sophomore weakside linebacker Djimon Colbert (6’1” 234 lbs.) back as Iowa’s leading returning tackler with 52 last year. Senior Kristian Welch (6’3” 238 lbs.) was right behind with 49 last season as a spot starter at middle linebacker. The Hawkeyes should actually be better at linebacker with more returning experience this year.
That inexperience in the front six means three returning starters in the secondary. Senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia (6’1” 200 lbs.) is Iowa’s best cover guy; injuries hampered him last year until he showed up late against the Huskers. His fourth quarter interception of an Adrian Martinez pass thwarted Nebraska’s comeback attempt. Junior Matt Hankins (6’0” 185 lbs.) is third in tackles amongst returning players despite missing the month of October. Junior strong safety Geno Stone (5’10” 209 lbs.) led the Hawkeyes with four interceptions last season; Pro Football Focus mentioned him on their preseason All-American list as an honorable mention honoree.
Iowa has become a bit of a trendy pick as of late to win the Big Ten’s west division, as they seem to always have players in the pipeline to be consistent. That consistent, however, is usually a seven or eight win season. Last year, with two NFL first round picks they won nine games. But with only ten returning starters, regression to the mean seems to be in order. And in a competitive division like the Big Ten west, any regression could be the difference between a trip to Indianapolis and fighting for bowl eligibility.
What’s your prediction for Black Friday?
This poll is closed
Iowa makes it five in a row, much to the horror of Husker fans everywhere.
Iowa will battle, but Nebraska finally breaks the Hawkeyes winning streak over the Big Red.
Enough is enough. It’s a statement win for the Huskers that resets the narrative that developed in recent years.