Nebraska opens fall camp soon, and as the clock ticks closer to the 2021 season, we’re giving brief looks at each opponent on the schedule for the Huskers. Already covered: Illinois, Buffalo, Oklahoma, Michigan State, Northwestern, Michigan, Minnesota, Purdue, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Iowa closes things out.
The Boring Info
Time: Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. CT on Friday, Nov. 26. The game is scheduled for coverage on BTN.
Line: No Vegas line yet. FPI gives the Huskers a 42.4% chance of winning. Using Bill Connelly’s SP+ model, the line would fall at Iowa -5.7.
Record: The Hawkeyes went 6-2 last season. They started incredibly slow, with a 24-20 loss to Purdue and a 21-20 loss to Northwestern, before ripping off six straight wins to end the year.
Series history: Nebraska owns the all-time series 29-19-3, but Iowa has dominated of late. The Hawkeyes have won six straight games.
What This One Means
If Nebraska lost 11 games in a season and only beat Iowa would Husker fans be OK with the lone win? Probably not, but it’s an interesting question and really the only team on the schedule you could conceivably ask that about.
The Black Friday turkey trot on turf means a tremendous amount to Nebraska. Husker head coach Scott Frost has his usual talking points when rivalry games arrive that every game matters and none are more important than another, but this border war is one Frost needs a win in. If only so that Iowa’s social media team can stop dunking on the Huskers’.
Bo Pelini beat Iowa 37-34 on the road in 2014 and that was the last time the Huskers won in this series. After firing Pelini, former AD Shawn Eichorst said “in the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was,” and ever since, Iowa has been firmly above the Huskers with a foot on the throat.
In 2016 and 2017 the games were lopsided and embarrassing for the Big Red, with losses by 30 and 42 points. In Frost’s first year, 2018, Nebraska lost on a field goal on the road. In 2019, Nebraska lost by a field goal at home. In 2020, Nebraska lost by six on the road.
Whether Nebraska has “closed the gap” with Iowa is a conversation for another time; the record book and Big Ten table would suggest that answer is no, but regardless, Frost has had his team ready to fight tooth and nail with the Hawkeyes each meeting.
In 2020, it was self-inflicted wounds that did the Huskers in. There was a muffed punt that led to Iowa points, a clock-management error late, and a fumble on the Huskers’ final drive seeking the go-ahead score.
Iowa capitalized. In the win, it took away Nebraska’s strengths and punished Nebraska’s weaknesses.
Might the 2021 game be flipped?
Of all the Big Ten West teams this upcoming season, Iowa’s identity feels the most intact. The Hawkeyes want to run and play defense, similar to Wisconsin. Where those two programs differ is in the passing game.
Iowa, behind Spencer Petras, doesn’t have the pure talent at quarterback that Wisconsin does—or the wideout talent after Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith departed this offseason—but for the most part it neutralizes that gap.
In its six wins last year, Iowa averaged 26 pass attempts. In its two losses to open the year, Petras threw it 90 times. Once running back Tyler Goodson got rolling and Iowa settled in, the Hawkeyes Hawkeyed their way to wins.
Goodson and center Tyler Linderbaum, a Rimington Trophy finalist last year, provide the reasons for optimism on offense going into 2021. A converted defensive lineman, Linderbaum has developed into one of college football’s best offensive linemen. Had he jumped to the NFL this offseason, he likely would have been the first center taken.
As for Goodson, he was strong in his second year with the program. The Georgia native played right away as a freshman in 2019, leading the team in rushing and attempts with 134 carries for 638 yards and five touchdowns, but he wasn’t the featured starter. He was in 2020, and he responded with seven scores in eight games and a 5.3 yards-per-carry average. He topped 100 yards rushing in four of his last six games.
Iowa’s offensive numbers don’t jump off the page, but it was good at protecting the quarterback and efficient enough moving the ball down the field. In scoring opportunities, it did well to capitalize (36th in points per scoring opp.). In the red zone, it came away with points (tied for 10th nationally in red zone score percentage).
Under head coach Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have won at least 60% of their games every year since 2015. Ferentz seems to have the necessary pieces to keep that train rolling.
How well the defense plays, and what more development Petras can show, will have a say in determining the ceiling.
In Connelly’s SP+ system, the defense projects as the best unit in college football for 2021 after finishing last season ranked No. 2 nationally. Hitting that projection, though, will take a bit of development after losing key pieces in the offseason.
Iowa returns 76% of its defensive production (48th nationally) but that’ll be felt nowhere more than on the defensive line. Daviyon Nixon was named the Big Ten’s defensive lineman of the year last season after his 13.5 tackles for loss led the conference. He’s gone. Chauncey Golston, who had 8.5 tackles for loss last year and earned a spot on the All-Big Ten First Team, is also gone.
Three starters in total need replacing up front. Second-team All-Big Ten end Zach VanValkenburg returns, which will help, but Iowa needs to either maintain its defensive output or get more from Petras to contend for the West.
Mostly, the Hawkeye defense made you grind. It ranked seventh nationally in yards per point allowed (19.6). Everything had to be earned and you couldn’t get in behind the secondary, which ranked fourth nationally in explosive pass play rate allowed (6.6%). The Hawkeyes also led the conference in rushing defense, allowing just 2.8 yards per carry (fifth nationally).
With the entire secondary returning, the hope is that defensive coordinator Phil Parker can work some magic and keep his 4-2-5 scheme punishing opponents. If so, Iowa’s got the pieces to keep on keeping on.
The Guy to Know
Stopping Iowa means stopping the run, so the guy to care most about is Goodson. Against the Huskers last season he had 111 yards rushing and two catches for another 21 yards. In the second half, he had 87 yards alone and helped salt away nearly four minutes of game clock on a late fourth-quarter drive.
The Number to Know
Iowa ranked 99th last season in passing downs success rate and 107th in third-down conversion rate. Putting Petras in passing situations seemed beneficial for the opposing defense.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.