Published November 20, 2014
The 22nd-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers put the wraps on their first regular season in the Big Ten Conference, as they play host to the Iowa Hawkeyes this Friday. It is the inaugural "Heroes Game", honoring a hero from each state.
Iowa is 7-4 on the year, which includes a 4-3 mark in conference, and the Hawkeyes have split their alternated wins and losses over their last four games. Last week, it was a 31-21 triumph at Purdue, which strange enough was the team's first on the road this season. Iowa is coached by Kirk Ferentz, who is in his 13th year in charge of the Hawkeyes and his teams have logged a 95-64 mark during his tenure.
Nebraska has an 8-3 record to this point in the campaign, and the Cornhuskers have won four of their seven league tilts as well. NU has lost two of its last three games however, and coach Bo Pelini's club took it on the chin in last week's road clash with Michigan, falling to the Wolverines in a 45-17 final. The Huskers are 5-1 at home this season, and a win in this game will give the team nine wins for the third straight year, and for the 38th time in the last 42 seasons overall. Pelini, who was an offensive grad assistant at Iowa back in 1991, is in his fourth season at the helm in Lincoln, and his teams have produced a 38-15 record.
Nebraska owns a 26-12-3 advantage in the all-time series with Iowa, and this is the first meeting between the two since the Huskers won both games of a home-and-home series with the Hawkeyes in 1999-2000. NU is 13-2-1 against Iowa in Lincoln.
While ideally hoping for a balanced effort each time out, Iowa has a very potent passing attack as it is averaging 241.3 ypg though the air, and 23 of the team's 40 TDs have come from the arm of QB James Vandenberg. A 60.9 percent passer, Vandenberg has thrown for more than 2,600 yards and he has been intercepted just five times. WR Marvin McNutt, Jr. has clearly been the Hawkeyes' most dangerous weapon down the field as he has 74 receptions 1,240 yards and 12 TDs. Wideout Keenan Davis has 41 grabs for nearly 600 yards and four scores. As for the UI rushing attack, it too has its own standout performer in RB Marcus Coker, he of 1,297 yards and 14 TDs. Iowa averages 30.6 ppg and is converting 43 percent of its third-down attempts, while scoring points on 84 percent of its trips to the red zone.
The Hawkeye defense is permitting 23.5 ppg, with foes churning out 153.8 ypg on the ground and 234.0 ypg via the pass. The team has given up just 12 rushing scores and opponents come away with points only 71 percent of the time they reach the red zone. LB Christian Kirksey is the team's leading tackler with 93 stops, but nipping at his heels is LB James Morris with 92. DL Mike Daniels has half a dozen sacks to his credit, and fellow lineman Broderick Binns has five. DBs Tanner Miller and Micah Hyde have three INTs apiece.
Vandenberg threw for 273 yards, three TDs and no INTs in last week's win at Purdue, hitting McNutt, Jr. nine times for 151 yards and two scores. Coker rumbled his way to 139 yards and a score on 30 carries, and the Hawkeyes finished with 408 yards of total offense, compared to just 282 for the Boilermakers. Daniels led the UI stand with eight tackles, two of which were sacks, the team logging five sacks on the day. Miller picked off a pair of passes, and the Hawkeyes posted four turnovers in all.
Nebraska Defensive Coordinator Carl Pelini will have his unit prepared for the aerial attack Iowa is going to try and unleash, in particular the job McNutt, Jr. can do if left free to roam the field. "The kid's a great receiver and maybe the best we've faced to this point," Pelini said. "There's ways to attack it, maybe get help over there. But we're always going to have to be aware of where he is."
Nebraska's offense revolves heavily around the rushing exploits of RB Rex Burkhead and QB Taylor Martinez. In helping the team pile up 224.1 ypg and account for 29 rushing TDs, Burkhead is averaging 5.0 ypc in totaling 1,108 yards and reaching the end zone nine times. As for Martinez, he has 817 yards and nine TDs on the ground, proving to be more valuable as a runner than he is as a passer (140-of-250, 1,810 yards, 11 TDs, seven INTs). No receiver has more than 24 grabs, 315 yards and two TDs (Kenny Bell), so it's obvious which mode of attack the Huskers prefer.
The Blackshirts, as the Nebraska defense has been affectionately dubbed, are yielding an average of 24.3 ppg on typical outputs of 168.3 rushing ypg and 189.7 ypg passing. Of the 35 TDs scored against the Huskers, 20 have come on the ground. A lack of big plays on the defensive side of the ball has hampered the team at times, as it has recorded only 16 sacks and 16 turnovers in 11 outings. Still, the NU defense boasts one of the more productive defenders in all of college football, as LB Lavonte David has amassed 114 tackles, including 10 TFL, and he has two INTs and both a forced and recovered fumble as well.
Ferentz is certainly used to the rough waters his team has to navigate week in and week out in the Big Ten, and the addition of Nebraska this year only adds to it, "It's one tough game after another. That's the nature of this conference; that's a great thing. We're all really pleased about Nebraska joining the league. It has made us a stronger league, but with that strength comes more challenge, and this is certainly going to be a challenge for us."