When the Iowa Hawkeye defense takes the field Friday, 40 days will have passed since it last held an opposing offense under 400 total yards. Nebraska doesn’t give a lot of hope to that streak ending before August 2013.
The Cornhuskers lead the Big Ten in yards per game, netting 478.9. At the head of that offense is junior quarterback Taylor Martinez.
“Probably, the biggest difference is I think, their quarterback is playing at a higher level than he was playing a year ago (and) he was playing well last year,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Martinez alone totaled 407 yards against Northwestern. The only team Martinez didn’t eclipse 200 total yards was Idaho State. It wasn’t due to a lack of offense, but a lack of opportunities. Nebraska won 73-7.
During Big Ten play, the dual-threat Martinez averages 306 yards a game. Three times in conference play (Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State), he threw and rushed for more than 100 yards.
“That’s a challenge for us as a defense,” linebacker James Morris said. “I think what you’ve gotta do is just try to limit the big plays that they can get and really keep the ball as controlled as possible.”
With Martinez chewing up yards on the ground and through the air, only Michigan held Nebraska to fewer than 400 yards total offense. Four times this year Nebraska finished a game with more than 500 total yards.
During Iowa’s five-game losing streak, it’s allowed opponents to gain 469 yards. Michigan and Penn State both finished with more than 500. In its last two losses at Kinnick Stadium, the Hawkeyes surrendered 994 total yards.
“It’s just the mental errors. Just the little mistakes that we’re making,” defensive senior captain Micah Hyde said. “I’m speaking for the secondary obviously, the miscommunication on some plays and a lot of missed tackles. So I think that’s what it comes down to.”
No offense, but…
Through three quarters against Michigan’s starters the Iowa offense gained 164 total yards. In the final 15 minutes, lining up against a lot of Wolverine reserves, the Hawkeyes more than doubled that number to finish with 364 total yards.
Friday, the Iowa offense will see a defense very similar to that of Michigan’s starters. The Wolverines lead the nation in pass defense, allowing 152 per game. Right behind Michigan sits Nebraska, No. 2 in that category.
“You’ve got to be balanced against them because, similar to Michigan, you can’t get 3rd-and-long against these guys and expect to have a lot of success,” quarterback James Vandenberg said. “You’ve gotta keep those third downs manageable.”
Through three quarters against Michigan, Iowa went 2 for 8 on third down, including five 3-and-outs.
One area the Cornhuskers’ defense tops that of the Wolverines is pass efficiency defense. The Cornhuskers rank second in the nation at 96.18, behind only Florida. But even the Gators allow quarterback to compete passes at a 51.06 percent clip. Nebraska leads the country and is one of only two teams holding QBs under a 50 percent completion rate at 45.45. Florida State is the other, barely, at 49.87.
“You always feel responsibility to open things up in the passing game,” Running back Mark Weisman said. “The running game has to work. If the running game doesn’t work, it’s hard for the passing game to work, especially against such a good defense like them.”
There may be some room to run. Nebraska ranks ninth in the Big Ten, allowing 171.5 rushing yards a game.
While two of Iowa’s four wins came as a result of second-half rallies, Nebraska boasts a more historic number. According to STATS LLC, the Cornhuskers are one of four teams since 1996 to post four double-digit second-half comebacks.
“They’re resilient,” Kirk Ferentz said. “So whatever the circumstance, they’ve handled it pretty well outside of a couple of early season things.”
Two of the four rank in the top five in the program’s history. Nebraska erased a 14-point halftime deficit to beat Penn State to win 32-23. The Cornhuskers trailed by 11 in the fourth quarter as well. They trailed Wisconsin by 17 with 10:29 left in the third quarter. The 30-27 win over the Badgers is the second biggest comeback in Nebraska’s record books.
Even the largest turnaround in the program’s history came last year. Nebraska overcame a 21-point deficit to beat Ohio State 34-27.
The Heroes Game makes its debut in Iowa City on Friday in the second ever trophy game between Nebraska and Iowa. The Cornhuskers took possession of the Heroes Game Trophy last season with a 20-7 win in the inauguration of the rivalry.
The two teams have history, but not much of it favors Iowa. Nebraska played Iowa 42 times entering Friday, second most of any Big Ten team. The Cornhuskers possess a stranglehold on the series at 27-12-3.
The last six meetings are scattered over the past 22 years but heavily favor Nenbraska. The most points Iowa scored was 13 and averaged 7.3. The Cornhuskers are 5-1 in those games with an average margin of victory of 27.7 points.
“The reality is we played late games in the late ’70s, early ’80s, late ’90s, 2000, this will be the second of two,” Kirk Ferentz said. “So it’s really in its infant stages, I think. But all the makings are there for this to be a really good series.”