When the Hawkeyes have the ball
Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini’s unit has been working through injury issues and too many mistakes, but it also should be one of the most formidable the Hawkeyes have faced this season, probably a notch behind Michigan State and Penn State.
The Cornhuskers began the season with three legitimate all-American candidates — tackle Jared Crick, weak-side linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Crick, who recorded 9½ sacks in each of the last two seasons, suffered a torn pectoral muscle in early October and was lost for the season.
David, 6-1 and 225, is a ball of speed and tenacity. He leads the team in tackles with 114, an average of 10.36 per game. David set a school record with 152 tackles last season, his first at Nebraska after transferring from Fort Knox (Kan.) Community College.
Dennard, who Bo Pelini said he wouldn’t trade for any corner in the country, missed the first three games after suffering a quadriceps injury in camp. Even when he returned, he said it was easy to lapse into thinking about the injury. In the Huskers’ 24-3 victory over Michigan State, Dennard held wide receiver B.J. Cunningham without a catch for the first time in 41 games.
Nebraska usually has an outstanding rush end, and junior Cameron Meredith, who generally plays right end, has risen to that level throughout the season. He has five sacks. Sophomore Jason Ankrah, the left end, has one sack and two tackles for loss in his first season as starter.
If UNL’s front four can’t pressure Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg, the junior from Keokuk will have a chance against a talented secondary, which is boosted by Dennard and safety Daimion Stafford, who has the range to be a pest.
The Huskers’ first season in the Big Ten has been a lesson in north-south football. Nebraska is on its way to allowing its highest yards per carry since 5.24 yards during a dismal 5-7 campaign in 2007. The 20 rushing TDs UNL has allowed is eighth in the Big Ten (Iowa has allowed 12) and most against the Huskers since 2008.
Iowa can dictate tempo with an offensive line that made dramatic improvement for Michigan State to Purdue and running back Marcus Coker, who’s on pace for a top three season in yards (1,297), attempts (263) and TDs (14). Coker has fine-tuned several facets of his game. He’s running low and no longer trying to make himself skinny to fit through a lane or dodge a lunging linebacker. He’s thinking less and reacting to his reads more quickly. He’s running through first contact. And he’s hanging on to the football.
Wide receiver Marvin McNutt has faced two sure NFL corners so far this season. Iowa State’s Leonard Johnson held McNutt to four receptions for 61 yards, his lowest output of the season. Last week at Purdue, McNutt rung up nine catches for 151 yards and two TDs against a secondary that included sophomore Ricardo Allen.
Nebraska has to make rattling Vandenberg a priority. If he sets his feet, he has the accuracy to pick apart a Cover 2 defense. He made two throws last week — hitting tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz to convert a third down in the third quarter and the 51-yard TD pass with a Purdue rusher nearly on top of him — that showed pocket presence and superior accuracy.
When the Huskers have the ball
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez became “T-Magic” because of his sprinter speed and long, flashy TD runs. And that was great, it struck fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators and made fans happy. Then, there was the Wisconsin game, when Martinez was asked to navigate the quarterback part of being a quarterback.
The sophomore went 11 of 22 for 176 yards and three interceptions. So, there was work to do. Give Martinez credit, the thinking part of the game is coming. Since Camp Randall, he’s thrown seven TD passes to just two interceptions. His pass efficiency has been a respectable 128.57. He’s going through progressions, making reads and seems to have eliminated the bad throw.
But also since Wisconsin, he’s carrying the ball less, with just one rushing TD since that game. He also has three 100-yard games compared to five last season. Perhaps that’s the difference between the Big 12 and the Big Ten, preserve your quarterback. Remember, the Big Ten is a north-south conference, much more so than the Big 12. The Big Ten’s elite running backs — Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, Iowa’s Marcus Coker and Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead — have been banged up at different times this season. Martinez is a sturdy 6-1, 200 pounds, but Denard Robinson has shown the sustainability of a running QB in the Big Ten is iffy.
Now, the Huskers struggled down the stretch last season and so Bo Pelini made a change, elevating running backs coach Tim Beck to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. Under Beck, the offense has a little of everything. Martinez can line up under center, in the pistol or in the shotgun. Junior I-back Burkhead, who’s fourth in the Big Ten with 1,108 rushing yards, can run the wildcat formation.
The option has been a part of it, and there is some debate in Lincoln along the lines of quarterback preservation and decision-making, but Nebraska also has introduced the diamond formation, with Martinez in the shotgun flanked by a triangle of running backs. This formation produced two TDs in the Huskers’ historic comeback victory over Ohio State.
Last week at Purdue, Iowa’s defense put up mayhem numbers that it hadn’t reached this season. Led by tackle Mike Daniels, who’s battling ankle issues, the Hawkeyes piled up season highs of nine tackles for loss and five sacks. Daniels accounted for five TFLs and three sacks, a Big Ten defensive player of the week performance but he wasn’t awarded the third sack until Monday because of a mistake in the stat keeping.
Linebackers Tyler Nielsen (neck) and James Morris (ankle) left the game at different parts, but returned and finished. Sophomore Anthony Hitchens saw his first Big Ten minutes and came up with three tackles, but more than that, he might’ve filled the trust vault with coaches and he could be seen again. He was active from sideline-to-sideline, which could be needed against Nebraska’s option.
Iowa’s defense flushed a failure against Michigan State and put up its best performance of the season against Purdue, which is ninth in the Big Ten in total offense. Iowa’s DEs Broderick Binns and Steve Bigach/Lebron Daniel will be in the crosshairs against Nebraska’s zone read. But with Burkhead, who’s been nursing an ankle injury the last few weeks, Iowa will have to be solid in gap control, too.
Iowa made Michigan and Denard Robinson one-dimensional. That will be more difficult against the Huskers.
Nebraska has two outstanding specialists in freshman return specialist Ameer Abdullah and junior kicker/punter Brett Maher. Abdullah leads the Big Ten with 29.96 yards a kick return, which includes a 100-yard TD return against Fresno State. He’s also fourth in the league with 7.93 yards a punt return. Containing Abdullah won’t be easy, particularly considering the kickoff struggles of Iowa’s Mike Meyer, who has just three touchbacks this season.
Maher could potentially be all-Big Ten as punter and kicker. He leads the conference with 45.45 yards a punt. He’s also dropped 20 punts inside the opponent’s 20. Maher also is 17 of 20 on field goals, including 3 of 6 from 50-plus. He’s made 9 of his last 10 attempts. Maher limped off the field against Michigan last week, but he returned and booted a 69-yard punt.
The Huskers did have a punted blocked and two fumbles on special teams in last week’s loss at Michigan. They also had a roughing the punter penalty.
Iowa kicker Mike Meyer has made 2 of his last six field goal attempts after starting the season 12 of 14. He missed a 34-yarder in the second quarter last week, but rebounded with a 38-yarder later. He needed that one.
Iowa can’t afford a rupture on kick coverage. The unit has improved incrementally, but it’s still prone to waves of inconsistency. Abdullah can make them pay, so, once again, it’s red alert.
The mood in Lincoln isn’t great. Expectations weren’t met this season. Last week at the Big House raised ire. Bo Pelini promised a highly motivated team will show up today. Nebraska’s no-huddle could give the Hawkeyes problems, but Burkhead’s ankle could give the Huskers problems. The attrition level has been epic for both teams. If Iowa can prevent any major ruptures on defense, the game will come down the fourth quarter. That usually favors the home team.
Nebraska 27, Iowa 24
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