Landon Wirt, senior sports editor: Nebraska 23, Iowa 17
Nebraska football’s season has made very little sense.
The Huskers have played top-10 opponents like Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio State extremely close. Conversely, Nebraska’s also put up relatively poor performances against Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota. All but one of the Huskers’ losses have been by one score or less, and Nebraska has yet to lose a game by double-digits this year.
As a result, advanced metrics have no idea what to make of head coach Scott Frost’s team. Even at 3-8, Nebraska currently sits at No. 33 according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings, ahead of current College Football Playoff Top 25 squads like Michigan State, BYU, Wake Forest and Arkansas.
So, what better way to cap an extremely strange season for the Huskers with a win over Iowa for the first time since 2014.
Of course, this won’t come easily and there’s a non-zero chance that this prediction blows up in my face. Nebraska will be without its best offensive player in junior quarterback Adrian Martinez and best defensive player in senior linebacker JoJo Domann against the Hawkeyes, after all.
Plus, Iowa has an extremely opportunistic defense and holds a distinct advantage over the Huskers in special teams. Add in that Iowa has much more to play for than the Huskers, and a Nebraska win seems rather unlikely.
However, much like last week, Nebraska has the added benefit of being able to play with a reckless abandon that could prove beneficial on Friday. The Huskers were extremely aggressive against Wisconsin last Saturday, and there’s no better time than the final game of the regular season to completely empty the playbook.
Nebraska does have plenty of playmakers around freshman quarterback Logan Smothers, and Iowa’s offense hasn’t drastically improved under sophomore quarterback Alex Padilla’s guidance. Ultimately, I think that the Huskers will be motivated enough to compete against the Hawkeyes and have the talent necessary to pull off the home upset.
One of these one-score losses are eventually bound to flip into a win, and there’s no better time to buck the trend than in the regular season finale.
Martin Herz, assistant sports editor: Iowa 19, Nebraska 17
It’s a fitting end to the Nebraska season. No one would have expected this type of season from the Huskers, a season that will be remembered in Husker lore for all the wrong reasons.
If Nebraska’s record were based solely off my picks each game this season, Nebraska would sit at 7-4. Instead, the Huskers sit 3-8 with at least four losses where Nebraska had at least a 40% postgame expected win probability, a metric that measures the likelihood a team would win if the game was played again with the same statistics for both sides.
Let’s start simply with this, this game will be ugly. Smothers’ first start is against Iowa, one of the country’s best ball-hawking defenses over the last five seasons, and he doesn’t have a reliable ground game to lean on.
Nebraska could be one-dimensional if its ground game is ineffective again, but Iowa’s offense is still in a tier below a Smothers-led offense. Padilla has taken over Iowa’s offense since junior Petras’ shoulder injury back in Week Nine and the Hawkeye offense hasn’t looked better.
Last week, Iowa scored 33 points against Illinois. 26 of those points came from either special teams or defense. Padilla did look a little better against Minnesota, but Padilla isn’t the savior of Iowa’s woes.
Although Nebraska’s run defense collapsed against Wisconsin freshman running back Braelon Allen, the Badgers boast a much better run-blocking unit than Iowa does. Iowa ranks 124th in average line yards per carry at 2.25, a number lower than UConn.
Still, Iowa routinely wins games with its offense playing absolutely dreadfully. Iowa is a nine-win team because it punishes teams when they make a mistake and Nebraska with a new starter will absolutely do that.
Another big factor will be the leg of Iowa sophomore punter Tory Taylor, who in a normal year would be the best punter in college football, but that honor goes to San Diego State junior punter Matt Araiza who averages 51.8 yards a punt.
Taylor is 19th nationally in yards per punt but he’s punted 67 times already and still has the ability to flip the field. Combined with Nebraska’s shaky special teams, Iowa will get shorter fields if it can generate stops quickly. That’s not to mention the Nebraska return coverage miscues, the latest seen against Wisconsin on the opening kickoff.
Senior wide receiver Charlie Jones notched a kick-return touchdown against Illinois last week and Jones also averages about 8.8 yards per punt return. Frost described the special teams as a “specialists issue,” and the Nebraska specialists will be pushed once again against an opportunistic Iowa squad.
In the end, Nebraska’s special teams will be the culprit for another loss where Nebraska likely out gains Iowa in yards but can’t win in other phases. The Hawkeyes will beat Nebraska again, and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz’s signature win formula will be on full display: great special teams and defensive play that carries a putrid offensive performance.
Jason Han, assistant sports editor: Iowa 17 Nebraska 14
In the end, you can’t escape yourself.
All signs on the season so far point to a close game. There are only two situations in which this doesn’t happen: either Smothers takes the reins of the offense and does better than Martinez ever did, which is highly unlikely, or the Iowa defense manages three or four touchdowns on its own, which is also unlikely.
Iowa’s offense is terrible — one need only look at Padilla’s completion rate over the last two games, just above 41%, to realize that. And Padilla put those numbers up against Minnesota and Illinois, teams with inferior defenses to Nebraska.
To counter Iowa’s offensive inefficiency, one wonders how defensive coordinator Eric Chinander is able to motivate his players for Friday’s game. It’s a rivalry game, yes, but one with near-nothing at stake for Nebraska itself. The Huskers were fighting for potential bowl games the last few years against the Hawkeyes and couldn’t get over the hump against them.
It’s rather enjoyable to play these predictive games. To bring up some tactics on one side against tactics on the other and see how the two intersect, but Nebraska’s current pathologies don’t require more extensive analysis than what anybody else can give you.
In the end, Nebraska can’t escape itself. This is the truth regardless of the outcome. No matter what, it will be haunted by the absent presence lurking behind it, this tension at the start of every fourth quarter, at the start of every potentially game-defining drive.
That’s the invisible force which compels the Huskers.