Hot Reads: Two Things Will Tell You How the Huskers' Defense Is Playing
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Two Things Will Tell You How the Huskers’ Defense Is Playing

November 27, 2019

I don't know how Iowa fans actually feel, but from afar it is easy to wonder if they won't someday look back on this 2017–19 stretch as something of a missed opportunity. Things haven't been bad by any means. The Hawkeyes are 25-12 over that stretch with two games still to go in 2019. That's good.

The talent level, however, was arguably great. Iowa had three players selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, including a center taken in the first 10 picks of the second round. Last year four Hawkeyes were selected, including the tight end tandem in the first round. This year's team has two sure-fire first-rounders, one on offense and one on defense. Iowa has had the same quarterback for all three seasons.

Yet, no division titles, no end-of-the-year ranking better than 25th.

Why? That's a question that requires more than one game preview to answer, but it's hard not to look at the run game as a key factor. Iowa averaged about 4.5 yards per rush in 2015 and 2016. The Hawkeyes haven't been above 4 yards per carry since.

That all sounds like an advantage for the Huskers defense entering Friday's regular-season finale, but proceed with caution. That Hawkeyes' below-average ground game posted season highs in yards per carry in 2017 (6.66) and 2018 (5.91) against Nebraska. Any preview of this game involving Nebraska's defense has to start there.

Here's the full efficiency/explosiveness breakdown involving the Blackshirts and Iowa's offense (for the inverse comparison, see Tuesday's preview):

Success Rate 41.7 (75) 41.9 42.3 (61)
>Rush Success Rate 42.3 (83) 41.9 43.2 (53)
>Pass Success Rate 40.9 (64) 41.6 41.4 (70)
Explosive Play Pct. 15.72 (88) 15.34 14.90 (71)
>Expl. Rush Pct. 17.56 (120) 14.57 12.57 (95)
>Expl. Pass Pct. 13.66 (28) 16.17 17.15 (49)

While Iowa's yards per rush is similar to the past two seasons, the Hawkeyes have made some gains this year. The rushing success rate in 2019 (43.2%) is up nearly 6 percentage points over last year (and nearly 8 over 2017). Freshman running back Tyler Goodson has been a boon to the offense of late, rushing for more than 5 yards per carry against Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota before Illinois held him to 38 yards on 21 carries (1.81).

There's also the matter of how Iowa chooses to run––lot of wide zone/stretch––and Nebraska's history against that attack. The Hawkeyes used it a ton in 2018. Minnesota did too this year and posted a season-high 6.57 yards per carry.

"When everyone gets running sideways," Scott Frost said this week, "[as] defenders it is easier to get a little pushed upfield and if there is any crease that opens up as everything is getting stretched to the sideline, then it opens up a seam for a running back."

Nebraska's front seven has to hold up on Friday. This Iowa run games ranks 92nd nationally in power success rate (one spot behind 2-9 Arkansas), 70th in stuff rate allowed and 92nd in second-level yards. It has been a run game most teams have been able to control, but over the last two years the Hawkeyes haven't run like the Hawkeyes they were coming into the Nebraska game. The Huskers also aren't particularly good in any of those categories mentioned above, ranking 117th, 87th and 114th respectively.

That's the first big hurdle the Huskers have to clear this week. They need to play Iowa to a stalemate, at worst, in the run game. Do that, and there's one more key to Nebraska's defense giving the Huskers a chance to win Friday.

Iowa has been bizarrely inefficient when it comes to finishing drives. The Hawkeyes are averaging 4.06 points per trip inside the 40 against a national average of 4.4. Kicker Keith Duncan has attempted 32 field goals, most in the country, and has nearly as many makes (27) as the guy with the second-most attempts (28).

Nebraska's defense is giving up 5.08 points per trip inside the 40, further from the norm than Iowa's offense.

That, in combination with the run game, makes the Huskers' defensive health check on Friday as plain as you'll see. Are the Hawkeyes able to sustain drives on the ground? Are they scoring touchdowns instead of field goals?

If the answer to either of those is yes, Iowa is getting the better of things.

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