Breaking down the key matchups for Iowa
Nebraska rush offense vs. Iowa rush defense
Iowa’s run defense, allowing 3.04 yards per carry, is every bit as good as Michigan State’s. The Hawkeyes have perhaps the Big Ten’s best defensive line, anchored by defensive ends AJ Epenesa (13.5 tackles for loss) and Anthony Nelson (9) and well-coached, seasoned linebackers. Nebraska’s run offense, prolific as it’s been against bad defenses, has struggled against the league’s best, gaining 39 yards against Michigan, 111 against Wisconsin and 103 against Michigan State. Adrian Martinez may have to be a bigger threat in this game, but he’ll need to watch his ball security. Devine Ozigbo is one of the Big Ten’s best backs, and NU’s offensive line has steadily improved this year. If Nebraska reaches 150 rushing yards, call it a good day.
Nebraska pass offense vs. Iowa pass defense
Scott Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters know how to scheme a pass game, and so long as the weather is decent, they’ll find route combinations and schemes that work against the Hawkeyes’ secondary. Iowa’s front four is so good it doesn’t usually need more than four pass rushers, which helps the secondary. Iowa’s 17 interceptions are second-most in the Big Ten, and if Nebraska doesn’t have slot receiver JD Spielman, the passing game will be more challenging. Iowa’s young cornerbacks are vulnerable. Martinez plays beyond his years as a quarterback.
Iowa rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense
The Hawkeyes run to set up the play-action pass, so they’re not necessarily trying to break big run plays with their zone-based scheme. They want to get linebackers flowing toward the run so Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley can throw over the top or create open routes on bootleg plays. Nebraska has struggled mightily with this scheme the last two seasons, but NU’s new, more aggressive run defense — coupled with Iowa’s lack of a playmaker at running back — should give Nebraska a decent chance to slow down Iowa’s run.
Iowa pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense
The Huskers’ secondary is bordering on pretty dang good at this point. After a half-season of struggles — especially that awful 99-yard touchdown drive at Northwestern — Nebraska’s pass defense has righted the ship and will provide a significant challenge for the strong-armed Stanley, who’s capable of big games and big struggles. That said, Iowa tight ends TJ Hockenson (41 catches) and Noah Fant (38) are two of the nation’s best. Nebraska has neither faced tight ends this good, nor covered tight ends very well throughout the season. Iowa will see that on tape and try to exploit it.
Iowa has the league’s No. 1 kickoff return unit — according to average yards per return — and No. 2 punt return unit. The Hawkeyes also have excellent coverage units. Iowa’s lone struggle — punting — is shared by the Huskers. Special teams remains a work in progress for Nebraska, and if Spielman isn’t returning punts, it could be a tough matchup.
If you watched one quarter of the last two Nebraska-Iowa games, it was clear the Hawkeyes wanted it more and took pleasure in kicking dirt on the Huskers as they won. Iowa sees this game as a rivalry. Is Nebraska ready to admit the same? Husker players seem to embrace it. Frost has been a little cool to the touch for now because when he played, Nebraska had no true peers outside of Oklahoma. But on Friday it needs to matter to Nebraska. Iowa will punch the Huskers in the mouth otherwise.
Key matchup: Adrian Martinez vs. Iowa’s defense and the moment
Iowa is the better team in almost every key stat. The Hawkeyes’ defense is actually more robust, top to bottom, than Michigan State’s. But Nebraska has Martinez, and he’s capable of making runs and throws above and beyond what Iowa has seen this season. The true freshman will be a big part of NU’s attack.. He also has to protect the ball. It’s a tall order.