Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Know The Foe: A Closer Look at Iowa

By Brian Rosenthal

Iowa comes to Lincoln reeling after back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Purdue – that after the Hawkeyes stunned then-No. 3 Ohio State at home.

Did Iowa peak too soon and rest on its laurels?

Frankly, that’s a question Nebraska football players and coaches can’t worry much about heading into the Huskers’ final game of the season.

Nebraska (4-7, 3-5 Big Ten Conference) must defeat Iowa (5-6, 3-5) in Friday’s 3 p.m. game at Memorial Stadium to simply salvage what’s been a disappointing, frustrating 2017 season. To be sure, the Huskers would love to send this senior class out on a winning note.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” Nebraska senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “A coaching change, Sam’s (Foltz) death. But we’ve stayed together, we’ve bonded, and it hasn’t changed how guys have worked each week. That just speaks to the guys that we have, the senior class that we have. I’m proud to know them, I’m proud to play with them.”

The Huskers and Hawkeyes have split six meetings since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, with the visiting team boasting a 2-1 record in the home team’s stadium. Iowa has won two straight in the series, including last year’s 40-10 victory in Iowa City, the most lopsided result of this series in this decade.

Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue are tied for third place in the Big Ten West Division, although five of the Hawkeyes’ eight conference games thus far have come against Top 25 teams. One of those was a stunning 55-24 home victory over Ohio State in Iowa City only three weeks ago. Iowa has since lost at Wisconsin and at home to Purdue.

Nebraska will be playing on the day after Thanksgiving for a 28th consecutive season, with Iowa being the opponent for a seventh straight year. That streak will end in 2020 and 2021, when Minnesota will become Nebraska’s fourth season-ending opponent since 1990, joining Oklahoma, Colorado and Iowa.  

Iowa, meanwhile, will play Wisconsin to close the regular season in 2020 and 2021.

Here’s a closer look at the Hawkeyes, who’ve already gained bowl eligibility despite stumbling to the finish.

Hawkeyes on Offense

Basically, this offense is a carbon copy of what the Iowa offense has looked like over the last 19 years under head coach Kirk Ferentz.

Just ask Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, a former Iowa player, albeit before Ferentz.

“I think that the people of Nebraska will recognize this Iowa team looks like all the other Iowa teams for a long time,” Diaco said. “Big offensive line. Physical offensive line. Big, physical, a large group of tight ends, fullbacks. A couple of backs that they can bring at you. Quarterback that drives it.”

That doesn’t mean the Hawkeyes are an offensive juggernaut. Far from it. Iowa ranks 117th nationally in total offense. The Hawkeyes are 97th nationally on third-down conversions and 112th in red zone offense.

Nebraska needn’t prepare for a large number of plays. But as we’ve learned in past games against Iowa, the Huskers do need to be darned near perfect and fundamentally sound in the short number of plays they do defend. Make one tiny mistake, and the Hawkeyes will pounce.

In fact, it’s part of their game plan – do the same thing over and over until the other team slips, and then capitalize.

“That’s the tale of the tape,” Diaco said. “Not a lot of plays. The plays that they do, they run well. They run really well. They can fit. Part of that is being able to fit what you do into whatever the defense does.

“So you see, as you study and watch different systems or different ways to play, whether it’s four-down or three-down or coverage or pressure. They seem to find the dent or the crack in the crease. At least they have.”

Running back Akrum Wadley needs 138 yards for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, which would make him just the fourth back in Iowa history to hit that mark. In conference games only, as a team, Iowa is averaging 3.37 yards per carry.

After so much production in that offensive explosion against Ohio State, tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson have been held to a combined six catches for 56 yards over Iowa’s last two games. For the season, Fant has 25 receptions and a team-high eight touchdown receptions

Along the offensive line, Tristan Wirfs has started the last six games at right tackle, becoming the first true freshman in Ferentz’s 19 seasons to start at offensive tackle.

Iowa has thrown six interceptions, the fewest of any Big Ten team. However, the Hawkeyes have lost 13 fumbles. Only four FBS teams have more.

 

Hawkeyes on Defense

Cornerback Josh Jackson has simply had an incredible season, and that’s probably an understatement.

A junior, Jackson leads the country in interceptions, with seven, and in passes defended, with 24. Anybody who’s seen the highlight of his one-handed grab for an interception against Ohio State knows how dangerous Jackson can be. That was among his school record three interceptions against the Buckeyes.

Jackson, a former wide receiver, returned two interceptions for touchdowns against Wisconsin (43, 52 yards). He is the first Hawkeye to have two interceptions returned for a touchdown in the same game since B.J. Lowery in 2013. Jackson is the first Hawkeye to do it in a Big Ten game.

Iowa has scored five defensive touchdowns, an impressive stat that ranks fifth nationally. Of the 20 turnovers the Hawkeyes have forced, 16 have been interceptions. Iowa, however, does give up 4.2 yards per carry on rush defense.

“They’ve been a very physical defense every time we’ve faced them since I’ve been here,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “They have very good players, but top to bottom, they fly around the ball. … They’ve been a team that you know plays hard.

“It’s a game that we have to be ready to go. They’ll hit you in the mouth on the first play of the game, and if you’re not ready for it, they can send you back a bit. I think it’s a team that with their physicality, you have to be able to match at the beginning of the game.” 

Linebacker Josey Jewell leads the Big Ten with 11.7 tackles per game.

“He’s got great instincts,” Langsdorf said. “He has his eye on the ball all of the time. Even under pressure, he has a responsibility too that you think he’s going to be in a gap, and he’s flying over the top.

“He avoids blocks very well. He just seems to be around the ball all the time. He will be a guy that we have to cover up and not let him get too involved. He’s a guy we really have our eyes on. He’s a great player. Probably one of the best on their defense."

 

Hawkeyes on Special Teams

Iowa ranks 102nd nationally with an average punt of 39.66 yards.

Colten Rastetter, a sophomore walk-on, ranks 99th at 38.91 yards per punt. Nebraska should be prepared for rugby-style punts from Rastetter that will hit and roll, making it a difficult day, likely, for senior punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El.

The Hawkeyes are sound on kickoff coverage, allowing a mere 17 yards per return, and hold foes to an average of 5.3 yards on punt returns.

Kicker Miguel Recinos is 9-of-11 on field goal attempts this season, with a long make of 48 yards. His two misses have come from 36 and 37 yards.

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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