Nebraska Football Players Reach for Wisconsin Field Goal Attempt
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Iowa Special Teams Hold Advantage Against Huskers In What Could Be Low-Scoring Affair

November 23, 2021

Iowa’s recent dominance over Nebraska has stretched for six games. It has spanned two Husker head coaches in Mike Riley and now Scott Frost. The last head coach to earn a win over Kirk Ferentz was Bo Pelini, who beat the Hawkeyes on their home field in 2014 and then was fired two days after Thanksgiving.

While Iowa owns the bragging rights in this series, lately it hasn’t been as easy as it once was. In 2015, the Hawkeyes left Lincoln with a 28-20 win. But the Huskers were blown out 40-10 in 2016 and 56-14 in 2017—Riley’s final two seasons. Since Frost got to Lincoln, though, the Huskers have toughened up in the series, falling by just one score in all three meetings. Iowa needed game-winning field goals in the 2018 and 2019 wins.

Give credit where it’s due: Frost’s teams have played Iowa tough.

But the Hawkeyes will notice a difference on Friday. For the first time in three seasons, they’ll be playing a Husker quarterback not named Adrian Martinez. Sure, Noah Vedral and Luke McCaffrey saw some action in backup roles the past two seasons, but for the most part it’s been Martinez at the helm. The fourth-year starter will miss the Iowa game with a shoulder injury suffered at Wisconsin. Backup Logan Smothers will likely make his first-career start. Frost said there may even be some Heinrich Haarberg, too.

Smothers’ full-time presence in the backfield may impact what plays Frost calls. The Alabama native has largely been a run-first quarterback in the five games he’s played in this season––Fordham, Buffalo, Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin. The athletic Smothers has rushed the ball 13 times for 69 yards while throwing 11 passes, nine of which came in garbage time against Fordham and Buffalo.

With Smothers—who Frost has seemed hesitant to throw with as much as he does with Martinez—taking the majority of Nebraska’s snaps, could Nebraska’s offense have more of a run-heavy and clock-eating game plan for the Hawkeyes? Running back Rahmir Johnson is a question mark for Friday according to Frost.

“We’ll see, it’s kind of been day-to-day with him. I would say most likely not, but he’s fighting to get back,” Frost said of Johnson, who didn’t finish the Ohio State game. “Same with quite a few other guys.”

That could leave carries for backs like Markese Stepp, Marvin Scott and Jaquez Yant, as well as quarterback runs from Smothers. If that were the case, there might be a low-scoring, grind-it-out look for both offenses considering how great the defenses have been this year.

Both defenses are suited for stopping the run. Iowa is holding opponents to just 2.97 yards per carry, which is second-best in the Big Ten and eighth in the country. Nebraska’s run defense has been more than respectable this season. It’s had highlight moments, like holding Michigan State’s Heisman candidate running back, Kenneth Walker III, to 61 rushing yards. Or keeping Ohio State to only 90 rushing yards. But it’s seen its share of busts, too, like against Michigan and Wisconsin.

When those types of games pop up, the third phase of football—special teams—seems to play a bigger role. Iowa’s specialists and their defensive coordinator, LeVar Woods, have the edge in this game. If Nebraska wants to break this seemingly one-score losing curse, its specialists need to improve.

The Hawkeyes have one of the best punters in the conference and the nation in Tory Taylor, an Australian. Taylor has downed nearly half (32 of 67 for 47%) his punts inside the 20-yard line and has cranked out 21 punts of 50-plus yards. Nebraska, on the other hand, has had an up and down season punting. William Przystup and Daniel Cerni, another Australian, have combined for 44 punts with just 12 being downed inside the 20 and 10 50-yard punts. The shanks are the ones that stick in fans’ mind, though.

Then there’s return specialist and receiver Charlie Jones, one of best at what he does in the Big Ten. Jones, a former walk-on transfer from Buffalo, is averaging 26.4 yards on 22 returns and just brought one back 100 yards for a touchdown last week against Illinois:

The Huskers’ kickoff coverage unit, which just gave up a return for a touchdown last week against Wisconsin, should be wary of giving Jones and his blockers a chance at a return Friday. In punt returning, the elusive Jones has given his offense an 8.8-average-yard head start with his 33 punt returns, which is better than the 2.7 average Nebraska’s punt return gives its offense.

Jones and his blockers have been key in giving Iowa’s offense good field position. Actually, the Hawkeyes are enjoying the best average starting field position in the country, their own 35-yard line, according to Nebraska’s average starting field position is its own 29, which ranks 67th in the nation.

The third star of Iowa’s specialists is kicker Caleb Shudak, who handles the field goals and kickoffs. Shudak has made 85% (18-of-21) of his field goals and has a 55% touchback rate (33-of-60) on kickoffs. That’s one area where the Huskers have seen marked improvement in, however, thanks to Branden Franke, a transfer from nearby Morningside University and a Gretna High School grad.

Franke has banged through 59% (34-of-57) of his kickoffs. Before Franke, in 2020, the Huskers had Connor Culp doing kickoffs on top of his field goal duties. Culp, more of a field goal kicker than kickoff specialist, only had 30% of his kickoffs go for touchbacks, which lead to more kick-return possibilities.

Nebraska wants to finally knock off Iowa while doing it with a first-time starter at quarterback. To do that, its specialists need to help out. Just like Iowa’s have.

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