Iowa and Nebraska kick off in their annual showdown on Black Friday once again. The Hawkeyes won the game a year ago to complete a 12-0 regular season before they headed to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game.
It's Nebraska that has something to play for in this year's contest. The Huskers can advance to Indianapolis for a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game with a win over the Hawkeyes in combination with Wisconsin falling to Minnesota. To be honest, that's not totally out of the question.
Nebraska is 9-2 with their losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin. Unfortunately for the Huskers, they were not competitive against the Buckeyes but they did give the Badgers all they could handle in Camp Randall Stadium at night. They have since rebounded with victories over Minnesota and Maryland.
Iowa has had an up and down season. They were quite impressive in the first two contests of the year before being tripped up by defending FCS national champion North Dakota State. After securing a narrow victory over Rutgers they fell at home once again, this time to Northwestern making them 3-2 on the year.
Instead of folding at that point, Iowa grinded out a tough win at Minnesota and took care of business as expected against Purdue to move to 5-2. They were competitive but couldn't get the job done at home against Wisconsin and then were pounded by Penn State in their worst performance of the year. Back to 5-4 they went. They've responded once again with a shocking home upset of Michigan and shutting out Illinois on the road.
A win against Nebraska prevents the season from being a total disappointment, so in a way, the Hawkeyes do have something to play for. Aside from better bowl game positioning, they can move to 8-4 and that looks much more respectable than what the outlook once was.
KEYS TO THE GAME
ACHIEVE OFFENSIVE BALANCE - As interesting and neat the past two games have been against Michigan and Illinois, throwing for less than 100 yards for a third consecutive game probably isn't going to work. It's been hard, but Iowa needs to establish some sort of passing game. C.J. Beathard will get George Kittle back, but I believe he is more important in terms of blocking than he is in catching passes. I'm not saying Iowa needs to throw for over 250 yards because that is very unlikely. But I'd like to see it somewhere between 170 and 190. You know the run game is going to be there, just need the pass to follow.
WIN TURNOVER BATTLE - The Hawkeyes won last year's game in Lincoln in large part because they picked Tommy Armstrong off four times. Another big factor was the touchdown scampers by Jordan Canzeri on back to back offensive plays. It's still kind of a mystery as to who will start at quarterback for Nebraska on Friday, but if I had to venture a guess I'd say we see Armstrong. In a game where two teams are so even in terms of talent, whoever wins the turnover battle usually wins the game. Combine some pressure, being in the opposing teams house, and a sore hamstring and I think Armstrong gives it to the Hawks a few times.
PRESSURE THE QUARTERBACK - Whoever starts at quarterback is either going to be hobbled or starting his first game in a Nebraska uniform. Pressuring either Armstrong, Fyfe, or Darlington is going to be huge for Iowa. It not only gets them out of their comfort zone, but once you establish pressure that is when you start seeing the mistakes, especially from Armstrong. He's not going to be himself on his feet if he does play and getting him moving around would be huge for Iowa. I'd like to see Iowa bring a lot of pressure to try and force the Husker QB into some poor decisions.
PRESSURE THE QUARTERBACK - I agree mightily with Dylan on this. If it's Armstrong at quarterback (and I think it will be), his mobility should be severely limited. He's much more dangerous against Iowa if he can run and then you hesitate to bring much of a rush. But if he can't run, get after him because he's a liability passing the ball because he's prone to throwing the ball when he shouldn't.
TURNOVERS - Again, I agree with Dylan on this. I'm not sure the overall talent is that even in this one but turnovers should dictate the game. Iowa has enough struggles as an offense as it is and can't afford additional mistakes. Because there's almost a ceiling of how much Iowa can score, it's all dependent on how much the Huskers can score and how impactful and dominant Iowa's defense can be. Nebraska's offense is certainly capable of scoring enough just as long as they don't give it away.
HESITATE TO THROW - This will go against Dylan's first key tremendously. But only bad things can happen if Iowa decides to throw. In addition to their passing offense being awful, Nebraska has a very opportunistic secondary. Running against stacked fronts all day is boring and seems like you're banging your head against the wall, but at this point that is much more efficient than throwing the ball in any situation. There's at least an 85 percent chance that when Iowa throws the ball it is going to wind up as a sack, bad throw, bad drop, or interception. It probably gets heightened even more against the Husker secondary. The running backs take care of the ball and are their best players. I am more confident in the running backs breaking off enough good runs against a stacked front than I am at Iowa completing a pass against cover zero defense. Let Nebraska make the mistakes and just run the ball and put the game on your offensive line.
HAWK TO ROCK
It seems like Leshun Daniels and Akrum Wadley go back and forth with these. And with the passing game becoming non-existent, it doesn't make sense to pick Beathard or a wide receiver. So, I'll go with Daniels. He gets the start and it's his final home game inside Kinnick Stadium. Daniels will eclipse 100 yards on the day and will find the end zone twice for the Hawkeyes. On defense, give me Jaleel Johnson. He's the senior leader on the defensive line and you can bet he doesn't want to lose to Nebraska on senior day. Johnson gets to the quarterback once and records two tackles for a loss for the Hawkeyes on Friday.
It's impossible for the leader in yards to be anyone but a running back. I think LeShun Daniels is the answer in the backfield against Nebraska. He's also my pick but it'll be dependent on the offensive line winning the battle up front. He'll get the yards and the glory but it'll be because of the offensive line. Defensively, it's going to be a pass rusher or a pass defender because that is the area of the game where the defense has to make the plays and force the Huskers into mistakes. Nebraska would be wise to do what Iowa does on offense and allow their running game to pave the way. But Mike Riley is a passing-minded guy and I don't think he can stay away from that area of the game enough. They'll try to pick on Manny Rugamba some in pass coverage, and him making a play or two, could be the deciding factor. I'll go off the reservation a bit and say Rugamba.
IOWA 24 NEBRASKA 20
IOWA 20 NEBRASKA 17