Leistikow's Iowa-Nebraska prediction: The Hawkeyes' recipe to a Kinnick Stadium party
IOWA CITY − Iowa’s short week of preparation for its annual Black Friday game against Nebraska became even more compressed after the Hawkeyes had plane troubles returning from Minneapolis following their 13-10 Saturday win. That made for a short night and getting right back at it Sunday with meetings and film study for the Nebraska matchup.
While Iowa players know this routine by now, that doesn’t make it any easier to get ready for what could become one of the most memorable games of their lives: a win-and-in opportunity on their home field to reach the Dec. 3 Big Ten championship game.
“So far, so good,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday. “I think our guys are focused right now, focused on the right things.”
While the players may be weary, there is at least one intangible that should work in their favor: the home crowd. A hungry fan base that bought every ticket in Kinnick Stadium a month before the season started will arrive hopeful of celebrating a Big Ten West title under the lights against a border rival. Recall, Iowa and Nebraska haven’t met with fans in the Kinnick stands since a 2018 thriller won by Miguel Recinos’ walk-off field goal. This type of party at home is long overdue.
If the game is tight, we’ve seen Iowa’s crowd take over meaningful games. (See: Penn State 2021.)
“Hopefully this Friday will be a full stadium instead of the cardboard cutouts like last time we played Nebraska in Kinnick,” Ferentz said. “Looking forward to that.”
Speaking of fans, it’s time for this week’s Iowa-Nebraska preview inspired by three questions from my text-message group (free for subscribers).
Did Minnesota expose leaks in Iowa’s rushing defense? On the flip side, can Iowa get its run game going?
The Hawkeyes allowed 312 rushing yards at Minnesota, which was rather startling considering they had allowed a combined 222 in their previous four games (a stretch that included Ohio State and Wisconsin). More than being exposed, I would say that Iowa has struggled against bigger offensive lines with great centers – Michigan and Minnesota fit that bill and often dominated the Hawkeyes’ undersized defensive line.
“We had some assignment issues. Credit to Minnesota and (Mo) Ibrahim, great running back and great vision,” said sophomore defensive lineman Lukas Van Ness on Tuesday. “As a unit, we’re upset with how many yards we let up. That’s a goal for us to have a better rush defense and try to get after them a little more this week.”
Good news for Iowa: Nebraska’s offensive line hasn’t been as imposing, with a run game that averages 3.7 yards per carry.
On the other side, the Hawkeyes have had back-to-back weeks with dismal rushing numbers. Historically in the Brian Ferentz offense, running backs have had big days against the Cornhuskers (Akrum Wadley, 159 yards in 2017; Mekhi Sargent, 173 in 2018; Tyler Goodson, 156 last season). Iowa has a good feel for how to attack Nebraska, and it could be a good day to get Kaleb Johnson (30 carries, 100 yards combined the last two weeks) back on track. Nebraska ranks 117th nationally in rushing defense.
This is Nebraska's bowl game and has little to lose. How will Iowa prepare for the unexpected?
That was a topic that Butkus Award finalist Jack Campbell spoke about Tuesday, noting that the Cornhuskers’ lack of an offensive identity can make them tough to prepare for. Also, with Mark Whipple as offensive coordinator and Scott Frost gone, that adds another less-familiar element. Plus, as the text-grouper said, this would be a great time to pull out some wrinkles. Why not?
“Last game (for them), I feel they can throw whatever they want at us because it doesn’t really matter,” Campbell said. “So, we’ll have to be disciplined on our assignment keys. If you get your eyes in the wrong spot, they can deviate them and make you pay.”
The importance of on-field communication is critical, and Campbell and Seth Benson are excellent at setting the defensive front while letting a terrific secondary make plays.
To adjust that question a little bit, it feels like Iowa is overdue for a few wrinkles of its own. Brian Ferentz is 5-0 as a coordinator against the Cornhuskers and probably has some gadget plays on his call sheet that he’d like to use before the season is done.
Will the offense have that breakout game for the seniors' goodbye to Kinnick?
The weather looks good, for once. Iowa has experienced five challenging and unenjoyable weather games out of 11 (Iowa State, Nevada, Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota), including each of the last three. With temperatures expected in the 40s, it could be a really nice day for the offense to bust out.
“We know sooner or later, it’ll push through to where we want it to be,” said right tackle Jack Plumb. “… Coming out and winning games, you build a little confidence and show that we can be solid up front. We’ve been practicing good. And practice habits lead to game habits.”
Lost in the weeds of a low-scoring game in Minneapolis was that Iowa’s offense averaged a solid 5.4 yards per play. Take away two botched snaps and a kneel-down, that average goes up to 6.2 (which would be Iowa's second-best of the season).
In other words, yes, offensive improvement has been brewing. If Spencer Petras can continue to limit turnovers and throw as accurately as he has during this four-game winning streak (even in bad weather), he’ll have a senior day to remember.
Nebraska (3-8, 2-6 Big Ten) at Iowa (7-4, 5-3)
Time, TV, Tipico Sportsbook line: 3 p.m. CT Friday, BTN, Iowa by 10½ points
Where Nebraska has the edge: The return of Casey Thompson at quarterback gives Nebraska a chance to better utilize Trey Palmer, who has proven to be a dynamic receiver (seven catches, 237 yards in a 43-37 loss at Purdue). The Huskers have been playing hard under interim head coach Mickey Joseph and would take great joy out of ruining Iowa's season (and offseason).
Where Iowa has the edge: Turnovers. Iowa has committed just one giveaway in 16 quarters during its four-game win streak, while Nebraska ranks 109th nationally in turnover margin (minus 6). The Hawkeyes' defense, which has held eight of 11 opponents to 10 points or fewer, is an evergreen edge.
Prediction: Iowa 24, Nebraska 17. Nebraska will put up a fight, but a balanced offense plus a big play on special teams (Cooper DeJean punt return?) is enough to deliver a second straight West Division championship.
Saturday's Big Ten games
(All times CT, lines from Tipico Sportsbook)
Last week: 5-2 vs. the spread (Season: 47-41)
No. 3 Michigan (11-0, 8-0) at No. 2 Ohio State (11-0, 8-0)
Time, TV, line: 11 a.m.., Fox, Ohio State by 7½
Prediction: If Iowa beats Nebraska, the Hawkeyes will be mentioned a lot during "The Game," which could draw 15 million viewers. With Michigan star running back Blake Corum possibly out and quarterback J.J. McCarthy looking pretty average of late, Ohio State should be ready to pounce. The Buckeyes have been pointing to this one for a year. They've got the better quarterback, better receivers, a stellar defense, the home crowd and tons of motivation. Ohio State 34, Michigan 20
Rutgers (4-7, 1-7) at Maryland (6-5, 3-5)
Time, TV, line: 11 a.m.., BTN, Maryland by 14½
Prediction: After pushing Ohio State to the limits last week, does Maryland build off that momentum, or has it run out of gas? Rutgers' defense has fallen apart, a disappointing development to finish Year 3 under Greg Schiano. Maryland 31, Rutgers 14
Illinois (7-4, 4-4) at Northwestern (1-10, 1-7)
Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., network TBD, Illinois by 14
Prediction: Although a three-game losing streak to squander the Big Ten West is a major disappointment, the fight Illinois showed in a last-minute loss at Michigan was impressive. Illinois' Chase Brown (1,582 yards) holds a 58-yard edge on Minnesota's Mohamed Ibrahim (1,524) for the nation's rushing lead. Northwestern's rush defense ranks 116th in FBS. Illinois 35, Northwestern 7
Minnesota (7-4, 4-4) at Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4)
Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., ESPN, Wisconsin by 3
Prediction: Even though both teams lost West Division title hopes with losses to Iowa, the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe should be heated. Each team wants to pound the ball on the ground and each team has a top-11 rush defense nationally. Give me the team with the better offensive line. Minnesota 19, Wisconsin 17
Purdue (7-4, 5-3) at Indiana (4-7, 2-6)
Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., BTN, Purdue by 10½
Prediction: If Iowa loses to Nebraska, a Purdue win in the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket would advance the Boilermakers to the Big Ten title game. Purdue's injury toll has mounted as the season has progressed and Tom Allen's team showed a lot of fight in East Lansing last week. Iowa transfer Charlie Jones of Purdue needs seven catches to reach 100 for the season (93 receptions, 1,056 yards, 11 touchdowns). Purdue 27, Indiana 23
Michigan State (5-6, 3-5) at No. 10 Penn State (9-2, 6-2)
Time, TV, line: 3 p.m.., FS1, Penn State by 18
Prediction: Michigan State's collapse vs. Indiana (blowing a 17-point second-half lead) suddenly makes its bowl eligibility look grim, a major disappointment for Mel Tucker in Year 3. Penn State's quietly dominant march to a New Year's Six bowl should continue, with this being a revenge spot (and Sean Clifford's Beaver Stadium finale) after last year's 30-27 loss to the Spartans in the snow. Penn State 31, Michigan State 14
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.