Published On: Fri, Nov 25th, 2022

Iowa vs. Nebraska Football Preview

Iowa will lean on its ground game without Sam LaPorta, but can the Hawkeye receivers make enough plays against Nebraska to keep the defense honest?

Iowa is one victory away from the Big Ten Championship, but that win will need to come without two of the Hawkeyes’ most important players. Tight end Sam LaPorta and fullback Monte Pottebaum both suffered injuries in Iowa’s gutty 13-10 victory over Minnesota last week, and Kirk Ferentz does not expect either to be ready to play in Friday’s contest. Iowa, which has had one of the worst offenses in the country with LaPorta and Pottebaum on the field, must now find a way to move the ball without their leading receiver and trusty lead blocker. Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has been heavily criticized this season (and with good reason) but will have to assemble a creative gameplan to prevent the Hawkeye defense and special teams from having to win the game by themselves.

In Nebraska, Iowa will face a program that seems almost pathologically incapable of winning close games, particularly against the Hawks. The Cornhuskers have not beaten the Hawkeyes since 2014 and are on their third head coach since their last victory in Kinnick Stadium, but Iowa has not defeated Nebraska by more than one score in the past four years and had to overcome a 21-6 deficit to win last year’s contest. Iowa has spent the past seven years driving the final nail of disappointment into the coffin of Nebraska’s seasons. The Cornhuskers have nothing left to play for this except a chance to repay the favor against a team that is quickly becoming their biggest rival.

Here are three key factors to watch for in this Friday’s game:

Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Image

1. Can Iowa dominate with its ground game (and pivot successfully if it can’t)?

The loss of Sam LaPorta has deprived Iowa of one of its few offensive mismatches, a tight end who can flex out like a wide receiver, outmuscle defensive backs, and burn any linebackers unfortunate enough to try covering him. Iowa may try to compensate for LaPorta’s absence by leaning on its ground game, which has been shaky at best for most of the season thanks to poor offensive line play. Iowa is saddled with what has statistically been the conference’s worst rushing attack, and the Hawkeyes have mustered the fewest yards per carry (2.85), rushing yards per game (94.82), and rushing touchdowns (11) in the Big Ten. Furthermore, the loss of Monte Pottebaum will deprive Iowa’s backs of a tough and experienced blocker who has excelled at clearing out would-be tacklers in the second level of the defense.

Even with Iowa’s struggles running the ball, Nebraska may still have trouble containing the Hawkeye ground game. During Iowa’s seven-game winning streak against the Huskers, the Hawkeyes have had at least one running back eclipse 100 rushing yards every single year. Nebraska has one of the worst rushing defenses in college football, and the 195 rushing yards they allow per game ranks them 117th in the nation in that statistic. Nebraska’s rush defense is almost the statistical mirror of Northwestern’s, a team Iowa ran for 178 yards and two touchdowns against while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. In a matchup between the conference’s worst rushing offense and worst rushing defense, there is still reason to believe Nebraska may need to load up the box to stop Iowa’s ground game.

Comparing the Big Ten’s Worst Run Defenses

TeamOpponent yards per carryOpponent rushing yards per gameOpponent rushing touchdowns

If Nebraska does commit its safeties to the run, will Iowa be able to punish Nebraska without LaPorta on the field to serve as a security blanket in the passing game? The Huskers are allowing more passing yards per game (232.2) than all but three Big Ten teams, and Nebraska made Northwestern’s Ryan Hilinski, who is basically a “store-brand” version of Spencer Petras, look like Peyton Manning earlier this season (27-38, 314 yards, 2-0 TD:INT ratio).

Should Nebraska succeed in stopping the run by stacking the box, Iowa’s wide receivers need to prove they can beat their defenders and make the Husker defense pay. The Hawkeye wideouts have had a rough season; the team’s most productive wide receiver (Nico Ragaini) has almost half as many receiving yards on the year as LaPorta does (305 compared to 601), and the unit has struggled with drops and failure to create separation. Unless Iowa can coax another big performance from backup tight end Luke Lachey, the Hawks may need the receivers to make at least a FEW plays in the passing game to prevent Nebraska from credibly selling out against the run.

2. Can Iowa’s defense lock down Nebraska’s primary playmakers?

Nearly half of Nebraska’s 3,801 yards of offense this season have come from two players: running back Anthony Grant and wide receiver Trey Palmer. For Iowa’s defense to shut down the Cornhusker scoring attack, they must find a way to take these players out of the equation.

While Iowa’s rushing defense has been stout for most of the year, the Hawkeyes were absolutely gouged last week by Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim, whose 263 rushing yards were the most any player has had against Iowa since 1993. Ibrahim hit every cutback lane, gained yards after contact on nearly every run, and was seemingly indefatigable despite receiving 39 carries. Anthony Grant is not quite on Ibrahim’s level, but has flashed a similar combination of power, agility, and vision at times this season. Grant was largely contained in his past two games against Michigan and Wisconsin (17 carries for 51 yards) but can have a breakout game if Iowa’s defense cannot fix the rushing problems that ailed it last week.

Meanwhile, Palmer is a legitimate deep threat who can stretch the field and beat defenders after the catch, skills which he showed in his record-setting 237-yard performance against Purdue. With the return of Casey Thompson at quarterback, expect Nebraska to target Palmer early and often. However, if Iowa’s defense, which is allowing fewer yards per pass attempt than any team in the nation (5.2) can find a way to mitigate Palmer’s speed in the open field, the Huskers may find it difficult to move the ball through the air against the Hawks.

3. Can Iowa win the turnover battle?

If there is one area where Iowa has consistently had an edge over Nebraska in recent years, it is in the turnover battle. The Hawkeyes hold a 14:5 turnover edge since 2015 and have repeatedly capitalized on Nebraska giveaways to produce points and short-circuit Husker comeback attempts. Nebraska should be similarly concerned about the turnover battle this season; while Iowa has a top 20 turnover margin (+7), Nebraska ranks 108th in that category with a margin of -6. The Huskers’ giveaways also have a habit of coming at the absolute worst times, ending potential scoring drives, blunting the team’s momentum, and creating excellent field position for their opponents.

For Iowa’s opportunistic defense, Nebraska’s turnover-prone nature presents a significant opportunity to take control of the game. If Iowa’s offense struggles without LaPorta and Pottebaum, it may be up to the defense to create short fields or score points outright, something the Hawkeyes have done more than nearly any team in college football over the past two seasons. Unless Nebraska can find a way to solve its turnover woes, the Husker offense could be in for yet another disappointing end to the season as they watch their rival claim the Big Ten West crown once again.

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