Nebraska's front seven is startlingly young. If senior defensive tackle Thad Randle (knee) can't go this week, he didn't play last week at Penn State, will have just one senior (DE Jason Ankrah) in its front seven. Twelve of the 15 players listed on Nebraska's two deeps for the D-line and linebacker are sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen. The Cornhuskers also have played seven different combinations at linebacker and five on the D-line.
DE Randy Gregory (6-6, 255) is a force and is steaming toward all-Big Ten with a league-high 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss (No. 2 in the league to OSU's Ryan Shazier). The Huskers are athletic, but will be fighting against time. This group is young and, thus, hasn't been through the weight room as much as Iowa's O-line, which features two seniors and LT Brandon Scherff, who climbs everyone's pretend NFL drafts every week.
Running backs Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock had some life in their legs after taking the week off prior to Michigan. Nebraska will stack the line of scrimmage, and its secondary will be very aggressive against the run and is creative in blitzing on passing downs.
Nebraska’s secondary has crazy size and is a veteran group. The Huskers have allowed opposing QBs to complete just 54.2 percent of their passes and the 14 TD passes allowed is third lowest in the league. At 6-3, 220, senior corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a giant at corner and he knows what he's doing with seven career interceptions. Corner Ciante Evans is third on the team with three sacks to go with his four interceptions this season. Iowa should expect Nebraska to sit back in a cover 1 and play maybe one defender more than 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Nebraska will test sophomore QB Jake Rudock, who was hit and miss against the blitz last week. Rudock has strung together back-to-back games of 60-plus percent on pass completions (60.0 and 63.3) and well-above average yards per attempt (9.6 and 8.0). Iowa has seven receivers with double digit receptions. That's the most since 2009 and that's how it's going to be today and in the bowl, no one receiver will stand out, kind of morphing into a Swiss Army knife that Rudock can pull out when he needs something done in traffic or down field.
Nebraska's multiple, run-first offense is triggered by junior Ameer Abdullah. He leads the Big Ten with 1,483 yards on 231 carries (also tops in the Big Ten). Big Ten running back accolades have run the gamut this season. The Wisconsin duo of Melvin Gordon and James White were the greatest ever. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford emerged as a workhorse. Abdullah has been there all along and, now that we're at the end of the race, he's risen to the top.
Imani Cross is a finisher with 10 TDs, including eight in the red zone. The Huskers have done this with despite having five different combos start on what is a highly experienced O-line (even without senior Spencer Long, who's out for the season after suffering a torn MCL). Tackles Brent Qvale (6-7, 315) and Jeremiah Sirles (6-6, 315) and guard Andrew Rodriguez (6-6, 330) have helped drive a rush offense that's third in the Big Ten with 233.7 yards a game.
Iowa's rush defense had a rough run against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northwestern, allowing 200-plus in each of those three games. That is, however, the Nos. 1 and 2 (Ohio State and Wisconsin, respectively) rushing teams in the conference and NU QB Kain Colter, who owned Iowa during his career. The last two weeks, Iowa has returned to form, holding Purdue and Michigan to 113 rushing yards.
This week, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz compared junior defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat to former Iowa DT Matt Kroul, who started 50 games and and who was known for slugging it out. Ferentz didn't have a reference point for DT Carl Davis. Then again, Iowa hasn't had a 6-5, 315-pounder who's this athletic and powerful. Nebraska will attack the perimeter and DEs Drew Ott and Mike Hardy will need to have their best games.
Ron Kellogg III started the season as the No. 3 quarterback. He's still the son of Ron Kellogg Jr., a former all-conference basketball player for Kansas. He walked on from Omaha Westside High School, redshirted in 2009 and was named scout team MVP. The senior didn't appear in a game until last year, when he threw all of nine pass attempts. He wasn't put on scholarship until August.
And then he threw the 49-yard prayer that was tipped to WR Jordan Westerkamp for a TD on the final play against Northwestern, giving the Huskers a 27-24 victory and breathing life into their season. Now, he's president of Nebraska. OK, he's not. He is, however, expected to start this week while freshman QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. attempts to recover from an ankle injury sustained in the first quarter last week at Penn State.
Armstrong will likely be the starter next season, but right now, Kellogg might be the QB the Huskers need. His passing numbers are better than Armstrong's across the board. Quincy Enunwa (6-2, 225) provides Nebraska with a big target, while Kenny Bell is a shifty speedster.
Iowa corners B.J. Lowery and Desmond King have combined for 21 pass breakups. The Hawkeyes have recorded a sack in six of their last seven games. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been creative and aggressive in blitz packages and, last week against Michigan, that was enough for the Hawkeyes to stay alive on passing downs.
One pretty horrible matchup looms for Iowa in Nebraska kick returner Kenny Bell. He leads the Big Ten 29.53 on 17 returns. Walk-on kicker Pat Smith won the Big Ten special teams player of the week after his effort against Penn State, making all three of his FG attempts including the game-winner from 42 yards. Smith has made 10 of his 11 field goals, and his .909 field goal percentage ranks 13th nationally among kickers with at least 10 made field goals.
But maybe Bell should've won the Big Ten special teams honor. His 99-yard kick return in the third quarter last week turned momentum the Huskers' way. Penn State had just taken a 13-7 lead.
Iowa's kick coverage has come into form the last three games, allowing just 21.2 yards on five returns last week against Michigan. WR Kevonte Martin-Manley was knocked off the conference lead in punt return, but he's no fluke back there. In the last four games, he's averaged 6.6 yards on nine returns.
1) Bearing down for Bo — Nebraska's chancellor and athletics director have declined to comment on growing speculation around coach Bo Pelini's job status, which came up Monday in Lincoln and then again Tuesday on the Big Ten teleconference. "I think you guys are creating more speculation than anything else,” Pelini said. You have to give credit to the Huskers staff and the players. They're on the cusp of nine wins despite this headline gaining momentum.
2) 'Like in decades' — Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz had to have been trying to push his team's buttons this week. Several times during Tuesday's meeting with the media, Ferentz referenced Iowa's dismal history against NU, saying Iowa hasn't beaten the Huskers "in like decades." (It's true, 1981 was Iowa last win over NU.) He pointed out that most of it wasn't recent history, but Iowa is 0-2 against the Huskers since they joined the Big Ten in 2011. Forget rivalry talk, Iowa has yet to score more than one TD in a game against the Big Ten Nebraska.
3) Health factor — Iowa has had its troubles with injuries, but Nebraska is the Walking Dead. OK, they're not zombies, they're very much alive, but Pelini did say Monday that he's never coached a team this "beat up." NU's injury list includes QB Tommy Armstrong, who's questionable with an ankle injury. Guard Mike Moudy (shoulder) is doubtful. Offensive linemen Cole Pensick (knee), Jeremiah Sirles (knee), Brent Qvale and Jake Cotton (knee) and wide receiver Jamal Turner (calf) will likely be termed "game-time" decisions. Iowa, meanwhile, might have DE Dominic Alvis (back) available. Fullback Macon Plewa (undisclosed) also could play. Other than QB Jake Rudock's sprained knee, which now has had four weeks to get right, that's about it.
The passing game can complement the running game. Iowa should be able to run the ball. The Hawkeyes' O-line came up big in stretches against Michigan in the fourth quarter last week. Rudock eventually settled down, but he did throw three interceptions and had a difficult time adjusting to UM's ever-shifting blitz packages. Nebraska will bring pressure.
The Huskers go "manball." Nebraska has an established O-line and a great running back. It might be able to simply drop the hammer on the Hawkeyes. It'll be a stretch if NU's front seven is able to do the same, but if it can, look for another sleepy 20-7 Huskers victory on Black Friday.
PREDICTION: Iowa 27, Nebraska 24