It’s Iowa week, and the Nebraska Cornhuskers are looking to snap a streak of six straight Hawkeye wins in this rivalry series.
Nebraska will be playing without its fourth-year starting quarterback and heartbeat of the team in Adrian Martinez, who injured a shoulder in the loss at Wisconsin. Head coach Scott Frost said on Monday that backup Logan Smothers will likely get the start, and there may even be a Heinrich Haarberg sighting as well.
Smothers is a second-year freshman and has played in five games this season, mostly in garbage time against Fordham, Buffalo and Northwestern. He did play meaningful snaps in the first half at Michigan State when Martinez had to miss a bit of time with a different injury. Haarberg, a true freshman from Kearney Catholic, hasn’t played in a game yet this season as he learns the playbook and develops physically.
Whoever ends up under center for Nebraska will be going up against one of the best defenses in not only the Big Ten, but the nation. Iowa is holding opponents to 16.9 points per game, which ranks fourth in the conference and ninth in the country. The Hawkeyes are excellent at creating turnovers—they’re tied for third nationally in turnover margin at plus-12 and have a nation-leading 21 interceptions.
Iowa’s offense, on the other hand, hasn’t been good. The Hawkeyes are averaging just 25.5 points per game, which ranks 10th in the Big Ten. Its 3.12 yards-per-carry average is 123rd in the nation, right behind Florida International (1-10).
There’s been change at the quarterback position as well, as backup Spencer Petras lost his starting job after going down with an injury against Wisconsin and later Northwestern where it lingered. Alex Padilla came in to finish both games and wound up starting against Minnesota and Illinois—all wins. Petras is healthy now, but will be in a backup role on Friday.
The 6-foot-1, 197-pound Padilla, a native of Colorado, has completed 47% (39-of-83) of his throws this season for 522 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Brian Ferentz, the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator and son of head coach Kirk Ferentz, likes to use Padilla’s legs. He’s not the fastest quarterback in the world and won’t be asked to run, but Padilla does look comfortable throwing on the move.
On the example above, Padilla had just entered the game against Northwestern for the hurt Petras. Iowa comes out in 20 personnel (two backs, zero tight ends) and wants to run a play-action pass off an outside-zone run look. The Northwestern defense bites on the run fake, and Padilla delivers an accurate pass to freshman receiver Arland Bruce IV (#10).
On the next example above, a week later against Minnesota, Iowa comes out in 21 personnel and sends Padilla on a sprint out to the field, or long side of the field. The Hawkeyes look to catch the Gophers’ defense in a cover-3 look, and outside linebacker Braelen Oliver (#14) gets sucked up toward the line of scrimmage off the action in the backfield. That leaves room for Bruce to run his out route from the slot, and it’s an easy pitch and catch.
On this third example above, Iowa is in 21 personnel again. This time, the Hawkeyes give the look of a counter run by pulling the right guard and leading with the fullback, but Padilla keeps the ball and rolls out to the field. Tight end Sam LaPorta (#84) blocks or a couple seconds trying to sell the fake, then takes off to the flat. LaPorta wins his one-on-one with Oliver for the first down. Again, Padilla displays nice accuracy on these throws on the run.
The last example above is a common concept in the red zone. Iowa comes out in 12 personnel and runs a three-man route concept that floods the field side. Bruce (#10) comes in motion and continues into his route at the snap while Bellevue West product Keagan Johnson runs a pigtail, or whip route, from the slot and works his way to the sideline, moving as Padilla moves. There’s a third option on this play in LaPorta, the tight end, who is working his over route to the end zone. Padilla attempts a pass to Johnson, who is trying to find some open green in between Illinois’ zone, but the Fighting Illini play it well for the pass breakup.
Iowa’s outside zone
It’s no secret that Iowa loves to get its offensive linemen and the opposing defensive front on the run with zone blocking. The Hawkeyes have been using zone blocking against the Huskers for a while now, and that’s likely not going to change Friday.
Last week against Illinois was a good example of what Iowa’s run game will look like:
On the example above, Iowa comes out in 12 personnel and goes with a zone run to the right. Watch how the linemen get moving to their right and carry the defenders with them. The running back’s job is to stick his foot in the turf and get north-south as soon as an ally opens up. The center, Tyler Linderbaum, and left guard, Kyler Schott, make this first-down run happen with a great double team on Illinois’ 0 technique, which is the defender who lines head-up on the center. Linderbaum (#65) and Schott (#64) created the hole that backup running back Gavin Williams runs through.
On the next example above, Iowa technically comes out in 11 personnel—fullback Monte Pottebaum is in the game, but lines up as the tight end to the boundary, or short side of the field—but has the look of 12. It’s the same run as the example before this one, except this time it’s zone left, with the linemen all taking their first steps to the left, or field side.
Running back Tyler Goodson (#15) straightens his path early in the play and gets about 5 yards. Goodson is Iowa’s top back and has 945 rushing yards and six touchdowns this season.
Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander knows where the game will be won or lost on Friday.
“The guys up front need to do a really good job—they have to take the game over for us,” Chinander said. “As a group, we have to tackle the ball carrier better. We have to leverage the ball better and we have to do a better job of getting the ball on the ground.”
Here’s a third and final example of Iowa’s zone run. The line gets lateral movement down the line of scrimmage and Goodson runs right behind his All-American center Linderbaum (#65):