Iowa is just one win away from the Big Ten Championship, but that win will come without two of the Hawkeyes’ key players. Tight end Sam LaPorta and fullback Monte Pottebaum both suffered injuries in Iowa’s 13-10 win over Minnesota last week, and Kirk Ferentz doesn’t expect both to be ready to play on Friday. Iowa, which had one of the country’s worst offenses with LaPorta and Pottebaum on the field, must now find a way to move the ball without their leading receiver and trusted lead blocker. Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has faced a lot of criticism this season (and with good reason) but needs to put together a creative game plan to prevent the Hawkeye defense and special teams from having to win the game alone.

In Nebraska, Iowa will face a program that seems almost pathologically incapable of winning close games, especially against the Hawks. The Cornhuskers haven’t beaten the Hawkeyes since 2014 and are their third head coach since their last win at Kinnick Stadium, but Iowa hasn’t beaten Nebraska by more than a point in the past four years and was coming from a 21-6 deficit to win last year’s competition. Iowa has spent the last seven years driving the final nail of disappointment into the coffin of Nebraska’s seasons. The Cornhuskers have nothing left to do but a chance to get revenge against a team that is quickly becoming their greatest rival.

Here are three key factors to watch out for in game this Friday:

1. Can Iowa dominate (and successfully rotate when unable) with their ground game?

The loss of Sam LaPorta has robbed Iowa of one of its few offensive mismatches, a tight end that can bend over like a wide receiver, outsmart defensive backs and burn through any linebackers unlucky enough to cover him. Iowa could try to make up for LaPorta’s absence by leaning on its ground game, which has been shaky at best for most of the season thanks to poor offensive play. Iowa faces the conference’s worst rushing offense statistically, and the Hawkeyes have accumulated the fewest yards per carry (2.85), rushing yards per game (94.82), and rushing touchdowns (11) in the Big Ten . Additionally, the loss of Monte Pottebaum will deprive Iowa of a tough and experienced blocker who excels at taking out potential tacklers in the second layer of defense.

Even with Iowa’s struggles to lead the ball, Nebraska could still have trouble containing Hawkeye ground play. During Iowa’s seven-game winning streak against the Huskers, the Hawkeyes have eclipsed at least one running back with 100 rushing yards each year. Nebraska has one of the worst rushing defenses in college football, and the 195 rushing yards they allow per game ranks 117thth in the nation in this statistic. Nebraska’s rush defense is almost Northwestern’s statistical mirror image, an Iowa team rushing for 178 yards and two touchdowns against him while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. In a matchup between the conference’s worst rushing offense and worst rushing defense, there’s still reason to believe Nebraska may need to charge the box to stop Iowa’s ground game.

Comparing the Big Ten’s worst run defenses

´╗┐Team Opponent yards per carry Opponent rushing yards per game Opponent rushes touchdowns
´╗┐Team Opponent yards per carry Opponent rushing yards per game Opponent rushes touchdowns
Nebraska 4.6 195 21
northwest 4.64 194.55 21

If Nebraska deploys its run safety, will Iowa be able to penalize Nebraska without having LaPorta on the field serving as a safety blanket in the passing game? The Huskers allow more passing yards per game (232.2) than all but three Big Ten teams, and Nebraska dropped Northwestern’s Ryan Hilinski, who is essentially a “own-brand” version of Spencer Petras, earlier this season look like Peyton Manning (27-38, 314 yards, 2-0 TD:INT ratio).

Should Nebraska manage to stop the run by stacking the box, Iowa wide receivers will have to prove they can beat their defenders and pay the Husker defense. The Hawkeye Wideouts have had a rough season; The team’s most prolific wide receiver (Nico Ragaini) has nearly half as many receiving yards as LaPorta (305 versus 601) over the year, and the unit has struggled with drops and breakup failures. Unless Iowa can pull another big performance out of backup tight end Luke Lachey, the Hawks may need the receivers to make at least a couple plays in the passing game to prevent a credible sell-out of Nebraska against the run.

2. Can the Iowa Defense Block Nebraska’s Key Playmakers?

Nearly half of Nebraska’s 3,801 yards in offense this season has come from two players: running back Anthony Grant and wide receiver Trey Palmer. In order for the Iowa defense to stop the Cornhusker scoring attack, they need to find a way to take these players out of the equation.

While Iowa’s rushing defense was strong for most of the year, the Hawkeyes were absolutely outdone last week by Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, whose 263 rushing yards were the most by any player against Iowa since 1993. Ibrahim hit every cutback lane and gained yards from contact on almost every run and seemed tireless despite 39 carries. Anthony Grant isn’t quite on Ibrahim’s level but has shown a similar combination of power, agility and vision at times this season. Grant has been largely reclusive in his last two games against Michigan and Wisconsin (17 carries for 51 yards) but may have a breakout game if Iowa’s defense can’t fix the rushing problems that plagued them last week.

Meanwhile, Palmer is a legitimate deep threat who can stretch the field and beat defenders on catch, skills he demonstrated in his record-breaking 237-yard streak against Purdue. With Casey Thompson returning as quarterback, expect Nebraska to target Palmer early and often. However, if the Iowa defense, which allows fewer yards per pass attempt than any other team in the nation (5.2), can find a way to slow down Palmer’s open-field speed, the Huskers could have trouble getting the ball through the ball against him air to move the hawks.

3. Can Iowa Win the Sales Battle?

If there’s one area where Iowa has consistently had an advantage over Nebraska for the past several years, it’s in the revenue battle. The Hawkeyes have a 14-5 lead in sales since 2015 and have repeatedly capitalized on Nebraska giveaways to score points and short-circuit Husker comeback attempts. Nebraska should be similarly concerned about the revenue struggle this season; while Iowa has a top 20 sales margin (+7), Nebraska ranks 108thth in this category with a margin of -6. The Huskers’ freebies also have a habit of coming at the absolute worst times, ending potential goal drives, softening the team’s momentum and creating excellent field position for their opponents.

For the opportunistic Iowa defense, Nebraska’s turnover-prone nature presents a significant opportunity to take control of the game. When Iowa’s offense is struggling without LaPorta and Pottebaum, it can be up to the defense to create short fields or score straight, which the Hawkeyes have done more than almost any team in college football over the past two seasons. Unless Nebraska finds a way to solve its revenue woes, the Husker offense could face another disappointing end to the season as they see their rival capture the Big Ten West crown once again.

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