IOWA CITY, Iowa - Most Iowa and Nebraska fans remember well former Husker athletic director Shawn Eichorst throwing shade at his rival when being asked about his football program. It basically came off as him saying that beating the Hawkeyes wasn’t overly impressive.
Since he uttered those comments in 2014, the Huskers have lost five in a row to Iowa. The Hawkeyes have been one of the most successful Big Ten outfits during that time and Nebraska one of the most disappointing.
Head coach Scott Frost will try to beat Iowa Friday (Noon, FOX) for the first time in three tries. Nobody on his roster has ever hoisted the Heroes Trophy.
Nebraska enters the game as nearly a two-touchdown underdog against its rival. After losing as a heavy favorite last week against Illinois, it’s an opportunity to right the ship as negativity about the direction of the program swirls around Lincoln.
“Our guys have responded this week,” Frost said Monday. “Energy is way better. I think they're excited to play Iowa. Iowa is a really good team. It's going to be a black and blue game like it always is against those guys. They're going to make you earn it. We respect them but we want to play as hard as we can, and I think the guys are going to prepare.”
The Huskers come into this Black Friday matchup having taken favored Iowa down to the wire the last two seasons. The Hawkeyes won both contests on late field goals.
“Iowa’s a big game just because they’re our border,” linebacker JoJo Domann said. “It’s Nebraska versus Iowa. It’s the Heroes Game. There's a trophy. But at the end of the day, it's two football teams going at it and one’s going to end up on top and one’s not. We really want to end up on top this year. We're doing everything in our power to prepare this week to be that team on top.”
Nebraska has struggled against the run this season, allowing 223.3 yards per game, second most in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes have averaged 181.6 yards per game on the ground, sixth most in the league, and have been improving.
“They’re going to try and run it down our throats. They’re going to try to out physical (us) in all three phases of the game. They're going to try to punch (us) in the mouth and then keep us down. And we're going to be trying to do the same thing,” Domann said.
Nebraska appears to have an unsettled situation at quarterback. Freshman Luke McCaffrey and Adrian Martinez each has two starts to his name this season, the latter having been the starter when healthy the last two seasons.
McCaffrey helped the Huskers knock off Penn State two weeks ago in his first start. He then faltered in a big way during last Saturday’s 41-23 home loss to underdog Illinois. The brother of former Stanford and current Carolina Panther running back Christian McCaffrey tossed three interceptions without a touchdown, although he did rush 26 times for 122 yards and two scores.
“Overall our quarterback play wasn't good enough on Saturday, particularly the turnovers. We got off to such a bad start, but just like every week, we are going to let those guys compete. I've been talking to those guys about just what you asked, being confident. Both of them believe in the type of player they are and the type of throwers they are. They both have the capability of doing it,” Frost said.
The Huskers lean on their running game, averaging 198.8 yards on the ground, fourth best in the conference. They’ll be facing what has been an immovable force in Iowa’s run defense, which is allowing just 102.6 per game and a Big Ten-best 2.6 per carry.
Starting tailback Dedrick Mills is questionable for this game with an injury after rushing 24 times for 94 yards against the Hawkeyes last year. Nebraska is utilizing versatile receiver Wan’Dale Robinson (7 carries, 60 yards against Illinois) as a running back.
Frost would like to find more ways to get the ball into Robinson’s hands but opponents are keying on him.
“They’re aware of where he is all the time. Some of the quick throws, some of the option routes, some of them fast screens, they know where he is. We have a lot of people up near the line of scrimmage against us right now until we're going to be able to push the ball downfield better,” the coach said.
Former Iowa City West High receiver Oliver Martin transferred from Iowa to the Husker program during the offseason. He recently was cleared by the NCAA and Big Ten and played his first game last week, catching two passes for 30 yards.
“He's a talented kid. We're glad to have him. He just hasn't gotten a lot of reps because he wasn't eligible,” Frost said before last Saturday’s game.
Nebraska is yielding 449.8 yards per game, the third most in the league. It ranks last in opponent third-down conversions, allowing an astonishing 54.0 percent conversion rate. It’s also at the bottom of converting on third down (32.0).
“We're certainly not there. There's a lot of things we need to improve, a lot of standards that need to be raised around here so we can do things even better. But I think the message is starting to get home to the guys and their play on the field reflects that,” Frost said of his defense.
TV ANNOUNCERS: Brian Custer and Robert Smith on FOX.
SERIES: Nebraska holds a 29-18-3 advantage in the series that began with a 22-0 Iowa victory in 1891. Iowa has won five straight and six of the last seven meetings. The Hawkeyes have outscored the Huskers 154-76 in the last four meetings. The 56 points scored by the Hawkeyes in 2017 were the most in the series’ 48-game history.
The Hawkeyes have won the last two meetings in Iowa City. Nebraska’s last win at Kinnick Stadium was a 37-34 overtime victory in 2014. The Huskers are 10-8 against the Hawkeyes in Iowa City.
BETTING LINES: The game opened with Iowa as a 12.0-point favorite at VegasInsiders.com. Iowa moved to being a 14.0-point favorite at Elite Sports Book in Riverside as of Tuesday morning. The total was at 51.5.
-Cornhuskers are 3-10 Against The Spread in their last 13 conference games.
-Over is 5-1 in Cornhuskers last 6 Friday games.
-Hawkeyes are 3-0-1 ATS in their last 4 games overall.
-Over is 4-0 in the last 4 meetings between Iowa and Nebraska.
NEBRASKA PLAYERS TO WATCH
-Luke McCaffrey, QB – The redshirt sophomore from Colorado and the brother of former Stanford and current Carolina Panther running back Christian McCaffrey supplanted two-year starter Adrian Martinez after a Week 2 loss against Northwestern. He’s gone 1-1 as the starter with a win against Penn State and a loss versus Illinois. He leads the team with 318 rushing yards (5.7 YPC) but has struggled with one touchdown pass against five interceptions.
–Wan’Dale Robinson, WR – Nebraska’s best skill player, the Huskers have involved him more in the rushing game the last few weeks. He’s carried the ball 23 times for 120 (5.2 YPC) during the last two games. For the season, he leads the squad with 21 receptions for 152 yards. He can be considered a Rondale Moore-type player as a smaller guy who does his damage in space.
-Will Honas, LB – The senior from Kansas leads the Huskers with 3.0 sacks, is tied for tops in quarterback hurries (2) and ranks second in tackle for loss (4.0). He registered two of his sacks in the season-opener at Ohio State. He started his career at Butler Community College and considered transferring to Iowa before choosing the Huskers.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Nebraska: The Husker defense is once again a liability, allowing 34.3 points and 223.3 rushing yards per contest. If it can’t at least slow down the Iowa running game, Nebraska will not stand a chance.
Iowa: Mistakes crippled the Hawkeyes when they lost their first two gams of the season. They’ve cleaned up their act and blown out their last three opponents. If Iowa limits miscues Friday, it will make it four wins in a row.
-Nebraska will continue its long-standing tradition of playing on the day after Thanksgiving. This Friday's game with Iowa will mark the 31st consecutive season the Huskers have played on Thanksgiving Friday.
-Nebraska ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 36th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 198.8 yards per game. McCaffrey (318 yards) and Martinez (195 yards) have combined for 513 of Nebraska's 795 rushing yards this season (128.3 ypg).
-The Huskers have scored on the opening drive of the game twice in four games. At No. 5 Ohio State, Nebraska opened the game with a four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in just 1:51. The Huskers opened the Penn State game with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead.
-Nebraska is 9-5 on the road in Black Friday games since 1990, including 2-2 against the Hawkeyes.
-Nebraska freshmen have produced 43 percent of the team's all-purpose yards in 2020.
-Iowa has won its last three games, outscoring its opponents 125-35 and averaging 41.6 points per game during the winning streak. The Hawkeyes points per game is the highest three-game stretch since 2002, when they scored 127 points (42.3 ppg) in consecutive wins against Wisconsin (20-3), Northwestern (62-10) and Minnesota (45-21).
-The Hawkeyes are 17-4 in their last 21 rivalry trophy games (Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin). Iowa has won five straight against Nebraska and six of the last seven meetings. The Hawkeyes have outscored the Huskers 154-76 in the last four meetings.
-The Hawkeyes rank third in the Big Ten with 10 interceptions (Indiana 13; Northwestern 11). Iowa has 63 interceptions since 2017, the most by any team in the country. The Hawkeyes have at least one interception in 12 straight games. They have 18 total interceptions during that stretch.
-Iowa LB Nick Niemann leads the Hawkeyes and ranks second in the Big Ten with 49 tackles. He recorded a career-best 17 tackles Week 5 at Penn State, the most by a Hawkeye since LB Anthony Hitchens made 19 stops against Iowa State in 2012. Niemann has 18 career starts, the same total as Iowa’s five other linebackers combined (Belton 9, Benson, 4, Wade 3, Campbell 1, Jacobs 1).
-Hawkeye DT Daviyon Nixon leads an Iowa defensive front that includes three players ranked in the top five in tackles for loss. Nixon ranks second in the Big Ten with 8.5 tackles for loss. DE Zach VanValkenburg is tied for third in the conference with 6.5 tackles for loss, and DE Chauncey Golston ranks fifth with 6.0 tackles for loss. Iowa ranks No. 3 in the conference in scoring defense (16.0), pass defense (217.2) and total defense (319.8).
Nebraska – Charles H. Purcell
Iowa – Perry Warjiyo
HOWE I SEE IT: There’s that piece of my brain, way in the back, where I remember that Iowa needed late field goals the last two years to knock off inferior Husker teams. This game sets up the same way.
Nebraska can’t stop the run and the Hawkeyes offer one of the conference’s top rushing attacks. At least on paper, that’s a receipt for disaster if the visitors hope to spring an upset.
The Huskers have been beaten up in the trenches in losing five in a row to Iowa. The Hawkeyes look superior up front once again.
It appears Nebraska will need to play its best game of the year while Iowa simultaneously will have to stink it up to come up short here. Betting on that to happen would be foolish.
PREDICTION: IOWA 34, Nebraska 20
Rob Howe has covered Iowa Hawkeye sports for 24 years and began working at HawkeyeNation.com in 2003. Please follow @HawkeyeNation on Twitter and @RobHoweHN