Nebraska travels to Iowa City with no season beyond what kicks off at 3 p.m. The black and yellow nemesis on Friday plays for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game and a potentially premiere bowl game. That leaves the Huskers with the role of spoiler and the weight of a seven-game losing streak to Iowa.
“I know it’s a rival game, so I know they’re going to be up for it,” interim head coach Mickey Joseph said on Tuesday. “They’re gonna be up for it and they’re going to come out and play in full force this game.”
Iowa started inconsistent and bombarded with questions before rattling off its current four-game winning streak. Some of those questions remain unanswered but the Hawkeyes resoundingly answered the biggest one — if they can win tough games. They’ve won seven of their physical games so far with a swarming defense, strong special teams and an upward trending offense. All three phases pose a challenge for Nebraska in Friday’s game.
Iowa’s offense remains a riddle. During Iowa’s current winning streak, quarterback Spencer Petras has thrown for 220, 192, 94 and 221 yards, respectively. However, he’s still only thrown as many touchdowns as interceptions (5) this season. On Friday he’ll be without some key cogs in the offense. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz confirmed tight end Sam LaPorta, the team’s top receiver in 10 of 11 games this year, is out. LaPorta’s caught at least double the amount of passes any other Iowa receiver has this season.
Fullback Monte Pottebaum is also ruled out for Friday’s game. He’s a key blocker for freshman Kaleb Johnson, who ran for 200 yards against Purdue but less than 60 yards in either of Iowa’s last two games. Johnson got banged up against Minnesota but Ferentz said he looks good enough to play. Ferentz also confirmed earlier this week that offensive tackle Beau Stephens will be available but “I don’t know how ready he’ll be.”
Iowa’s offense has hit its stride enough to win games. The issue for Nebraska’s defense is matching physicality and staying alert for all 60 minutes.
“We just know what type of game it is going to be, a really physical fought game,” freshman linebacker Ernest Hausmann said. “We know it is going to be a game that is won at the line of scrimmage so just emphasizing just making sure we are precise and we know what we have to do for each play.”
This is Iowa’s engine. Iowa currently ranks fourth in the country against FBS opponents in stop rate. Out of 122 defensive drives, Iowa’s defense holds opponents scoreless 77% of the time. Opponents average just 1.14 points per drive against them. Only Michigan, Ohio State and Marshall stop opponents from scoring more often. For context, Nebraska’s defense is tied for 101st in stop rate, stopping opponents from scoring 59.7% of the time. Iowa is the top graded defense, according to Pro Football Focus, with a collective 94.2, better than Ohio State and Michigan (both 93.7).
Linebacker Jack Campbell is the standout among the front seven. He is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week following 10 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception against Minnesota last week. He now has 100+ tackles for the second straight year (110 now) after leading the country with 143 last season. Ferentz agreed, calling him a special player earlier this week. The defensive team captain accrued a career-high 14 assisted tackles in last year’s game against Nebraska.
“He does everything well,” Joseph said of Campbell earlier this week. “He plays the run well, plays the pass well. He’s a really good football player, a really good football player.”
Iowa’s secondary is filled with playmakers. Cooper DeJean is the top tackler in the secondary (67), along with seven PBUs and four interceptions this season. Two of those four interceptions went for touchdowns, including his 32-yard return in the second quarter against Wisconsin earlier this month. He’s flanked by Quinn Schulte (63 tackles, six PBUs, an interception), Kaevon Merriweather (45 tackles, three PBUs, three interceptions) and Riley Moss (41 tackles, 10 PBUs and an interception).
Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson anticipates a disciplined defense. While he admitted he’s feeling fresh from the two weeks he sat out with his nerve injury, Friday poses a physical challenge. Iowa’s already sacked quarterbacks 28 times this season.
“They do a good job on the defensive side of the ball,” Thompson said. “That is obviously credit to the coaches and players. Just from watching, they are very physical. They do a good job. They are really involved in the run game and do a good job tackling.”
Punter Tory Taylor is among the nation’s best field flippers despite a snub from the Ray Guy Award committee. Of Taylor’s 69 punts, 22 went over 50 yards, 28 went inside the 20, 17 were fair caught and just 11 have rolled out for touchbacks. The Australian pins opponents back and forces opposing offenses to sustain drives against Iowa’s physical defense. Typically, that’s powered Iowa to win field position and, more often than not, the game.
Drew Stevens handles kicking duties for the Hawkeyes and is 15 of 17 so far. He’s made two beyond 50 yards this season and both of his misses came between 40 and 49 yards.
Kaleb Johnson returns kickoffs, averaging 24.6 yards each time he takes one out. Arland Bruce is the main punt returner, averaging 7.4 yards each return with a long of 25 yards.