Nebraska Cornhuskers: Iowa Hawkeyes

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December, 19, 2013
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Five things: Iowa-Nebraska

November, 29, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Iowa hasn't beaten Nebraska at Memorial Stadium since 1943 as it visits for the second time as a Big Ten foe on Saturday (noon ET, ABC.) Here's what we'll be watching:

[+] EnlargeRon Kellogg
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSenior Ron Kellogg III, a former walk-on, could be in line for his first career start on Saturday.
1. The Nebraska quarterback: Who will it be? The Huskers never made an announcement on a starter this week, perhaps because they're simply not sure if freshman Tommy Armstrong is healthy enough to go on his injured ankle. Or maybe it's because Nebraska wanted to build the suspense on Senior Day before handing former walk-on Ron Kellogg III his first career start. We're going with the latter. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said redshirt freshman Ryker Fyfe would be ready if needed, which might mean Armstrong is hurt worse than we know.

2. The Senior Day effect: The fifth-year guys among Nebraska's 23 seniors -- players like linemen Brent Qvale, Cole Pensick and Jeremiah Sirles, quarterback Taylor Martinez and defensive back Andrew Green -- were part of the first group scouted and signed by Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after a full year to recruit. In other words, they were his kind of guys. And say what you want about Nebraska's fall from the national radar, these seniors were tough. They've led the Huskers to eight straight wins in games decided by seven points or fewer, including the overtime victory last week at Penn State. Emotions will run high before kickoff.

3. Ameer Abdullah's durability: The Huskers' junior I-back has answered every question through 11 games. But he has averaged 24.5 carries per game over the past four weeks. If he's getting tired, this is not the right opponent to face. Iowa's rushing defense ranks 20th nationally, allowing 123.6 yards per game. Abdullah needs 17 yards to record the fifth 1,500-yard season in Nebraska history. As long as he has plenty of gas in the tank, Abdullah is a good bet to get to 1,600 on Friday.

4. Iowa's downhill running attack: Led by bruiser Mark Weisman, the Hawkeyes do nothing fancy in the running game. They'll line up and pound it at the Huskers. It worked with decent success for Penn State a week ago, but Nebraska stiffened after halftime. The Blackshirts continue to show improvement and climb the charts statistically as the young linemen and linebackers grow into their roles. Iowa has been especially potent in the first half this year, so the importance of a good start defensively for Nebraska is magnified. One way to set the tone? Get ahead in the turnover department, a problem for both teams this year.

5. The white elephant in the room: We can't finish without mentioning the uncertain status of Pelini, who has taken the Huskers within one win of a sixth straight nine-win season. Still, Nebraska appears no closer to the nation's elite than three years ago, and the school's administration, given ample opportunities, has offered little public support for the coach. It's policy for first-year athletic director Shawn Eichorst to stay quiet on personnel matters, but there's a tense moment or two on tap for Nebraska in the wake of this regular-season finale, win or lose.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- In the view of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, before his program can claim a rivalry with Nebraska, the Hawkeyes ought to first clear one hurdle.

“We haven’t beaten them in a while,” Ferentz said. “Like decades.”

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesKirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes hope to beat Nebraska for the first time since 1981.
It was 1981, in fact. Nebraska has won its past five meetings with Iowa and seven of the past eight, including victories in each of the past two seasons after the Huskers joined the Big Ten.

Iowa visits Memorial Stadium on Friday (noon ET, ABC).

Ferentz is 0-4 against Nebraska. The games in 2011 and 2012, billed as the conference’s newest border showdown, frankly, have lacked intrigue.

A year ago, the Huskers clinched the Legends Division with a 13-7 win in Iowa City marred by biting cold and wind. Nebraska won 20-7 in Lincoln in 2011, holding the lackluster Hawkeyes scoreless until less than four minutes remained.

It’s not exactly the stuff of Little Brown Jug or Paul Bunyan’s Axe, though Nebraska and Iowa have branded this annual day after Thanksgiving clash as the Heroes Game. To the winner goes a trophy sponsored by Hy-Vee, a grocery store chain prominent in both states.

Really gets your blood boiling, huh?

“We’re playing for a trophy so I guess it’s a rivalry,” Nebraska linebacker Michael Rose said. “Geographically, it makes sense. I don’t know what really constitutes a rivalry, but it’s a game on our schedule, and we need to be ready to play.”

Here’s a thought: Construct the rivalry on the field, the way Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn and other historic post-Thanksgiving games were born.

It’ll take years, but maybe, this third meeting as Big Ten foes can serve as the start of something good.

First, there’s intrigue at Nebraska surrounding coach Bo Pelini as questions swirl about his job status in the vacuum of public support from the school’s administration. The Huskers are playing to extend their streak of nine-win seasons to six years and secure an attractive postseason destination, possibly matched against an old Big 12 rival.

Iowa, after a four-win season in 2012, has rebounded nicely. It seeks an eighth win on Friday.

“It’s nothing fancy,” Pelini said of Iowa. “They execute. They are very fundamentally sound. It exudes the fact that they are a well-coached football team.”

Notably, the Huskers and Hawkeyes play a similar style that figures to create a competitive, if not eye-pleasing, matchup. Nebraska ranks 19th nationally in rushing offense; Iowa is 20th against the run.

The Hawkeyes’ defense has played more consistently since September. Iowa ranks 10th in total defense, allowing 304.5 yards per game. Nebraska, while burned early, has shown strong defensive growth in November.

“This is a new rivalry, but being border states, you can really feel it growing more and more each year,” Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah said. “With each year that passes, I feel the rivalry getting stronger. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

No reason to force it. Over time, likely, passionate feelings will develop. Nebraska and Iowa are set to play on Black Friday through at least 2019.

“I hope Nebraska fans don’t get mad at me, but I think Nebraska and Iowa are almost the same kind of culture,” said Rose, a freshman from Kansas City, Mo., “just a hard-working, blue-collar kind of state.

“They’re not really know for anything flashy, anything way out there, but just a consistent approach in everything they do. I think that adds to the rivalry.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The second half starts in four days for Nebraska.

The first six games of the schedule featured just one real test of the team's progress under Bo Pelini, and the Huskers failed that exam on Sept. 14 with a 20-point home loss to UCLA. Sure, Wyoming pushed Nebraska. South Dakota State scared them for 15 minutes. Purdue forced freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong into a few mistakes. Really, though, anything worse than 5-1 would have ranked as something close to a disaster.

And while the meat of the second-half lineup previously did not appear set to start until November, let’s power up the truth machine a week early in honor of Minnesota’s upset win over Northwestern and the uncertainty that still hovers around the QB spot at Nebraska.

So here are three truths that could lead the Huskers to a successful second half:

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTommy Armstrong has gained valuable experience in place of an injured Taylor Martinez. What will it mean for Nebraska when Martinez returns?
A healthy Taylor Martinez is set to return soon. The most optimistic of Nebraska fans envision that Martinez, out since the UCLA game with turf toe, will return to the field and finish his career with a fantastic flurry similar to the stretch that marked its beginning in 2010, when he ran wild for five games. More realistic, Martinez will be fresh for November, and his backups, Amstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III, have earned valuable experience that can help the Huskers down the stretch. If Martinez goes down again, there’s no reason to panic.

The defense is starting to gel. Let’s hold off on placing too much emphasis on the vast statistical improvement and near shutout delivered against Purdue. The Boilermakers are awful on offense. But look deeper, and the Huskers have shown growth since bottoming out in that forgettable first quarter on Sept. 21 against South Dakota State. This unit had nowhere to go but up; nonetheless, improvement is evident at all three levels, and veterans have emerged in leadership roles -- the point of Pelini’s preseason captain-naming, Blackshirt-awarding tactics.

The Legends Division is there for taking. Yes, Minnesota and Iowa are better, and the winning percentages look good for Michigan and Michigan State. But let’s be real, this is not the SEC West. Or even the Leaders Division, which showcases the league’s top two teams in Ohio State and Wisconsin. If Nebraska played in the old Big 12 with this team, a four- or five-loss season would loom as a real possibility. And while the gimmes of the past month are gone, basic, week-to-week improvement should earn the Huskers a second straight ticket to Indianapolis.

And now here are three truths that could doom the Huskers between now and the day after Thanksgiving:

A quarterback controversy is dangerously near: All looks good on the surface as Martinez nears a return. Pelini appears set to hand all control back to his fourth-year starter; no more rotating QBs, which is typically akin to playing with fire. But what happens when Martinez twists his ankle or bangs his shoulder on the cold turf? Or if his turnover troubles resurface? Armstrong is a competitor, and his mood this week is easy to read. He wants to keep playing. If Martinez slips, others – inside and outside of the program -- are likely to share the freshman’s feelings.

The young defense is sure to encounter adversity: That much we know, whether it happens on Nov. 2 at home against the Wildcats, or more likely, in 60 minutes that could turn crazy -- don’t all Michigan games? -- at the Big House a week later. The Blackshirts, particularly that youthful front seven, have yet to prove they can avoid collapse at a time of stress against a quality opponent. The Nebraska offense is good, but it also remains turnover prone, especially with Martinez in command. What if momentum turns against the defense and carries from one game to the next? It’s a scary thought.

That schedule, on second thought, is a grind: Despite the absence of a team ranked in the top 20 of the BCS standings in Nebraska’s next six weeks, it is, for any school, a tough set of games. Notably, you’ve got the volatility of Michigan, a stout defense from the Spartans and foes in Penn State and Iowa that want revenge on the Huskers for two seasons of tough defeats. The Big Ten, if not on the skill level of other leagues, will beat you up. And this stretch for Nebraska rates as a serious challenge. Injuries are already taking a toll in Lincoln. And this run of games taxed the Huskers in 2012. If they make it to Indy, will they even remain in physical condition to contend for a Rose Bowl berth?

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