No. 17 NEBRASKA (9-2, 6-1) at IOWA (4-7, 2-5)
IOWA RUSH OFFENSE VS. NEBRASKA RUSH DEFENSE
For the most part, Nebraska’s rush defense (171.45, 9th in Big Ten) is terrific when it matches up against pro-style offenses. The outlier is Michigan State and Le’Veon Bell, who hit the Huskers with 238 yards. Penn State had a decent showing with 151 yards, but Nebraska bottled up Wisconsin (56) and Minnesota (87). Senior end Eric Martin (6-2, 250) is among Big Ten leaders with 13 tackles for loss and seven sacks. End Cameron Meredith and tackle Baker Steinkuhler combine for 13 tackles for loss. After his defense allowed 344 rush yards in a loss at UCLA, first-year coordinator John Papuchis has pulled this group together nicely. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has said since sophomore Mark Weisman emerged at running back in week 3 that the walk-on would go on scholarship in January. That might’ve factored in Iowa’s decision to pull a scholarship offer this week from RB prospect Berkley Edwards. Either way, Weisman saw his first extensive action last week after fighting through ankle/groin injuries and gained 63 yards on 16 carries and had three catches for 11 yards and a TD. Sophomore Damon Bullock (bruised back) is possibly out this week, according to coach Kirk Ferentz. Still, don’t expect Iowa’s running game to break this thing. The Hawkeyes are last in the Big Ten at 124.36 yards a game and have logged one 100-yard game in their last five. Advantage: Nebraska
IOWA PASS OFFENSE VS. NEBRASKA PASS DEFENSE
Iowa’s pass offense has been muddled all season and today sets up for ugliness. The Cornhuskers get after the quarterback (28 sacks, second in the Big Ten) and use press coverage against receivers. Fourteen players have at least one sack, with Martin’s 7.5 leading the way. Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg was sacked twice last week and the Hawkeyes have allowed 21 sacks this season (7th B1G). The Cornhuskers likely will test Vandenberg with blitzes, but the player the Hawkeyes have to block is Martin, who also leads UNL with 11 QB hurries. He lines up on both ends, so tackles Matt Tobin and Brett Van Sloten will have to be aware. Look for the Huskers to get physical with Iowa’s wide receivers. They’ve used that strategy to limit teams to a 45.5 percent completion rate (leads the nation) and an average of 5.3 yards per attempt (No. 2 in the nation). Vandenberg did have his first multiple TD-pass effort of the season last week at Michigan, but the Wolverines erased Iowa’s WRs from the offense, holding that group to two catches for 7 yards and nine targets. Senior WR Keenan Davis was held without a reception for the first time in 24 games. Michigan left single coverage on the tight ends early in the game and junior C.J. Fiedorowicz had a career day with eight catches for 99 yards. Redshirt freshman TE Henry Krieger-Coble caught the first three passes of his career including a TD. Iowa pass offense is 7th in B1G with 196.1 yards a game. This could be the first time since 2008 that Iowa average less than 200 passing yards a game. Advantage: Nebraska
NEBRASKA RUSH OFFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH DEFENSE
Senior I-back Rex Burkhead is nursing a knee injury that has kept him in and out of the lineup all season. He didn’t play against Minnesota last week and likely, and probably wisely, will be held out today. The Huskers have four other rushers who average more than 5 yards a carry, including sophomore Ameer Abdullah (5-9, 185). Abdullah broke the 1,000-yard mark last week (1,076) and will lead the Big Ten’s No. 1 (eighth nationally) rush offense (256.9) against a rush D that has allowed more than 200 rush yards in three of the last five games (Michigan fell a yard short last week with 199). Ten of the 15 rushing TDs Iowa has allowed this season have come during the current five-game losing streak. Freshman Imani Cross (52-289-5.6-6 TDs) and sophomore Braylon Heard (41-269-6.6-2 TDs) work in, but the Cornhuskers’ option attack is still triggered by junior QB Taylor Martinez, who’s No. 2 on the team with 792 yards and is tied for the team lead with eight rushing TDs. This will be the last time Iowa’s D-line will be referenced as “young and inexperienced.” Most of this group will be back next season (7th B1G in rush D with 158.64) along with all of the starting linebackers. Middle linebacker James Morris didn’t start last week because of injury. Weakside linebacker Anthony Hitchens was held out because of illness. Ferentz said they should play today. Advantage: Nebraska
NEBRASKA PASS OFFENSE VS. IOWA PASS DEFENSE
Martinez has grown his skills more than maybe any other player in the Big Ten. Last season, he finished with a completion rate of 56.2 percent with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He enters the season finale with 63.6 percent on completions (No. 1 in the Big Ten) to go with 21 TD passes (No. 2 B1G) and just eight interceptions. With 308 yards last week against Minnesota, Martinez, who has lost six fumbles, pushed his career passing total to 6,140 yards, passing Zac Taylor’s 5,850 yards (2005-06). Martinez also has what is perhaps the best receiving corps in school history at his disposal. Sophomore Kenny Bell (6-1, 185) is the leader, with 44 grabs for 789 yards and eight TDs. He’s coming off career highs of nine receptions for 136 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota. Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner combine for 57 receptions. Tight ends Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton combine for 33 receptions and four TDs. The explosive Huskers lead the Big Ten in total offense (478.9 ypg), which is 43 yards more than No. 2 Indiana. Michigan exploded for seven plays of 20-plus yards against the Hawkeyes, including pass plays for 29, 31, 31, 37 and 51. Iowa’s pass rush, absent all season, was in contain mode while Iowa’s secondary had noticeable communication problems that led to dropped coverages and huge breakdowns. Iowa allows 7.6 yards a pass attempt (84th nationally), which shows that it pays to pass against the Hawkeyes. Advantage: Nebraska
Brett Maher won all-Big Ten honors as a punter and kicker last season. This season, he’s made 16 of 22 field goals (trailing only Iowa’s Mike Meyer in number of FGs made). He averages 41. 6 yards a punt (fourth in the B1G) and has dropped 14 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Iowa has the Big Ten’s top kick returner in junior Jordan Cotton (28.21 yards per return with a TD), but Maher has booted an outstanding 45 touchbacks, far and away the lead in the conference. Bell (22.7-yard average on kickoff returns) and Abdullah (13.93 on punt returns with a TD) could test Iowa’s coverage units. The Huskers’ coverage units lag with the punt coverage unit 11th in the league (10.6 yards per return) and kickoffs at 21.76 with a TD allowed. After early struggles, Iowa’s kick coverage is No. 3 in the B1G and punt coverage is No. 4 with 4.85 yards a return. Iowa has to get this game to a point where a big special teams play might make a difference. Meyer ended last season with a 70.0 percent field goal percentage (14 of 20). This season, he’s at 85 percent (17 of 20), which is No. 3 in the conference. Again, Iowa has to get to the point where that might matter. Advantage: Nebraska
1) Win and in — If the Huskers take care of business, they’ll celebrate the Legends Division trophy — probably in the confines of Iowa’s pink lockerrooms — and claim a berth in the Big Ten championship game opposite Wisconsin on Dec. 1. Nebraska controls its destiny here holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over Michigan. 2) Best for last — In its six Big Ten wins, Nebraska has owned the fourth quarter, completing comebacks against Northwestern and Michigan State and holding off Penn State. The Huskers have outscored the six Big Ten opponents 49-28 in the fourth. 3) Senior day blues — Lots of emotion go into senior days. They are the culmination of four or five years of joys and struggles. Sometimes, that emotion flows and a victory falls into place. Sometimes, it gets a little twisted. And sometimes, you just play a really good team. The Hawkeyes have lost their last two senior day games (37-21 No. 11 Michigan State last season and 17-10 No. 5 Ohio State in ’10). Nebraska is ranked No. 17 and is a really good team. Advantage: Nebraska
IOWA WILL WIN IF . . .
Who knows? This is a difficult notion to entertain given the five-game losing streak and the free-fall the Hawkeyes find themselves in. Within 30 seconds after the clock runs out today, win or lose, Iowa has to get into fixing this. A winning effort today would give the Hawkeyes some bounce, but there hasn’t been enough consistency in any phase to figure out the “if” here.
NEBRASKA WILL WIN IF . . .
It puts Iowa in a headlock and squeezes. The Huskers were the dominant team when the two met last season in Lincoln, rushing for 222 yards on 61 carries. That’s a slow, physical death and one that doesn’t invite risk. Nebraska again should be able to take it right at Iowa and leave nothing to risk.
PREDICTION: Nebraska 42, Iowa 20