Battling offense, thriving defense define Nebraska’s clash with Iowa

Nebraska’s Colton Feist says their focus is on the Iowa game, despite looming end-of-season decisions.

There’s a certain style of football that defines the Big Ten.

After several weeks of weak, tense, and physical games, Nebraska expects another one on Friday.

‚ÄúThis side of the conference is similar; They’re going to see big linemen, they’re going to run the ball and manage the clock and play good defense,” interim Nebraska head coach Mickey Joseph said Tuesday.

But Nebraska’s next opponent takes that Big Ten blueprint to the extreme — Iowa’s 7-4 record is despite an offense more suited to a team with a win or two than a division leader.

In fact, only one team nationwide has gained fewer offensive yards this season than Iowa. The Hawkeyes are averaging 253.7 yards per game, just ahead of a New Mexico team who are 2-9 this year. The other teams at the bottom of the offensive rankings are also in the midst of really painful seasons — UMass is 1-10, while Colorado State and Nevada are 2-9, and New Mexico State is stellar at 4-6.

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But as Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz proved this season, yardage isn’t everything.

“If the bottom two teams are playing (for a national title), that revenue gain will probably be more important than mileage unless you can get a few hundred yards over your opponent on the board,” Ferentz said. “At the end of the day, it’s about finding a way to win the game.”

To be fair, Iowa’s scoring offense ranks slightly higher at 17.5 points per game at 123 in the nation. But that reflects a defense that produces high-level punts and turnovers, and a dedicated team unit that helps, too.

Iowa has produced 20 turnovers this season and has had touchdowns in four of those games, which is just one fewer touchdowns than Spencer Petras has thrown this year. The Hawkeyes are unlikely to throw much of the ball on Friday as their best passing target, senior tight end Sam LaPorta, will miss the game with a leg injury.

While Iowa’s offensive ceiling is low, Nebraska is currently in a scoring slump of its own. After a 37-point breakout against Purdue on October 15, Nebraska went on to 39 points in their next four straight games. While much of that stretch was without starting quarterback Casey Thompson, Nebraska constantly struggled to lead the ball and string together first downs against the elite Big Ten defense.

So this Black Friday duel is all about defense – and two good units are on display.

Few defenses are better than Iowa when it comes to capping points, as the Hawkeyes rank 4th nationally with 13.5 points allowed per game. The players on the Iowa defense may change throughout the year, but their characteristics remain the same — physical defensive lines, intelligent linebackers, and ball-hawking defenders who excel in cover-2 schemes.

“Just from watching, they’re very physical, they’re doing a good job, they’re really involved in the running game and doing a good job in tackles,” Thompson said of the Iowa defense.

While Nebraska’s season has effectively taken a breather after losing five games, the Huskers’ offensive struggles have coincided with a defensive resurgence. Aside from the 34 points she gave up to Michigan, the Nebraska defense has continued to post low scores in recent weeks.

Nebraska, in particular, shut out Minnesota and Wisconsin in the first half of both competitions. However, the period of possession struggles kept the Husker defense on the field for much of the game, and Nebraska opponents took advantage of that.

Defenseman Colton Feist knows Iowa will look to maintain possession and wear it down, and knows the Huskers need to improve their defensive performances to avoid the same fate.

“They have a really good defense and we’re going to do our best to maybe score and put our offense in the best possible position,” Feist said. “I think we’ll be proud of that this week knowing their defense is really good and doing everything we can with our defense.”

Indeed, there is a certain amount of pride that Nebraska can play for. In-state products like Feist have felt the weight of Iowa’s seven-game winning streak against its border rivals, a streak that includes game-winning field goals in 2018 and 2019.

And for a team leader like Thompson, this final game offers another chance simply to play as a team for the last time ahead of an offseason filled with transfers and possible personnel changes.

“Regardless of what happens after this game, this will be the last time this actual team and locker room are together,” Thompson said. “Every year there are new faces in the dressing room and in the building, whether it’s new players or new coaches, so I’m really trying to soak up the last few weeks with my team.”

Given the low score forecast, is another close finish imminent? While Nebraska failed to break through against Iowa, the last four games have been one-score contests, with the Huskers playing most of the game.

Given what Iowa has to play for, Ferentz expects another fight against Nebraska.

“Most of them went to the end, so that’s to be expected,” Ferentz said.

With his future with the Nebraska program and any off-season transfers at stake, Joseph feels the team and staff are fully focused on the challenge ahead. Neither Mike Riley nor Scott Frost could get Nebraska to defeat Iowa; could Joseph be the one to break through?

“I know it’s a rivalry game, so they’re going to be ready and they’re going to come out and play that game full force,” Joseph said.