Nebraska football’s whirlwind of a season finally comes to a close on Friday.
It seems like ages ago that the Huskers began their season under the looming threat of an NCAA investigation, then lost to projected Big Ten bottom feeders Illinois 30-22 days later. In truth, it was a menacing harbinger of what was to come.
Ten games, seven one-score losses, four fired assistant coaches and an injured quarterback later, the Huskers are an Iowa loss away from an all-time poor season. Nebraska has no postseason aspirations entering the Black Friday battle against the Hawkeyes, but has a real opportunity to play spoiler against an Iowa squad that could still claim the Big Ten West — with a little help.
And, as always, there are plenty of fascinating developments to monitor in the latest installment of the Nebraska-Iowa rivalry. Here’s what to watch for as the Huskers search for their first victory over the Hawkeyes since 2014:
It’s Logan Smothers time
The latest Nebraska football bombshell came on Monday, when Frost announced that junior quarterback Adrian Martinez would miss the Iowa game with a shoulder injury, thus ending his season.
It presents an interesting dilemma for the Huskers, given Martinez’s lengthy tenure as Nebraska’s starting quarterback as well as the limited experience of quarterbacks behind him. In past seasons, Martinez had missed time during the middle of the season with injuries, but was never unable to play at season’s end.
In fact, this is the first Iowa game that the Huskers’ four-year starting quarterback has missed in his Nebraska career.
Enter freshman quarterback Logan Smothers, in-line to make his first career start against an Iowa defense that is extremely opportunistic — forcing 21 interceptions so far this year. Smothers, from what we’ve seen so far in his limited action, brings the dual-threat capabilities that Martinez does. He’s capable and athletic enough to make plays in the run game and can push the ball downfield, too.
However, Iowa’s defense is extremely unforgiving and will look to punish Smothers early and often. The drop-off in quality from a starting quarterback to a backup is often significant, and then the unproven nature of Smothers further complicates things.
There’s a couple of ways to look at Nebraska’s current quarterback dilemma. Martinez should certainly be commended for playing through multiple injuries, and playing well at that, but the Huskers’ insistence to roll a less-than 100% Martinez out week-after-week could say something about the options behind him, too.
Smothers was regarded as a four-star recruit out of high school, but hasn’t really had the opportunity to flash his potential yet outside of a flurry of garbage time snaps in three games this season and one first quarter drive against then-No. 20 Michigan State.
At any rate, Smothers should be in for a trial by fire on Friday afternoon against Iowa. How well he performs could go a long way in determining the future of the Huskers’ quarterback position.
Quarterback uncertainty abound
Nebraska won’t be the only team without a stable quarterback situation on Friday.
Junior quarterback Spencer Petras started the first eight games of Iowa’s season, and was rather unremarkable in the process. Though, the Hawkeyes typically don’t ask their quarterbacks to sling the ball all over the field but instead manage the game with quick completions.
At any rate, the good and bad of Petras was fully on display while he was leading the Hawkeye offense. He went 21-of-30 for 259 yards and three touchdowns in an early-season statement win against then-undefeated Maryland in early October, but also hurled four interceptions in Iowa’s stunning home loss to Purdue.
Then came Iowa’s game against Wisconsin, where Petras suffered a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter and missed the remainder of the contest. He attempted to battle back for Iowa’s game against Northwestern the following week, but only managed a few drives before being replaced by sophomore quarterback Alex Padilla.
Padilla, much like Petras, has struggled a touch with his consistency in the passing game. After completing 18-of-28 passes for 172 yards against Northwestern, he completed under 50% of his passes against Illinois and Minnesota. However, Padilla did throw for 206 yards and two touchdowns against the Golden Gophers, a testament of his ability to operate the play-action passing game and push the ball downfield.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is weighed with a difficult decision on Friday now that Petras is healthier. In media availability on Tuesday, Ferentz said that he’d start Padilla if the Huskers and Hawkeyes were to play on that date, meaning the sophomore could be in line for his first true road start at Memorial Stadium on Friday.
It’s clear that Padilla has provided some sort of spark over the course of Iowa’s three-game win streak, and it will be interesting to see how Padilla will operate in a true road environment should he get the start.
Iowa’s offense could cause issues
No matter which Hawkeye quarterback is under center, the central tenants of Iowa’s offense could be extremely problematic for Nebraska’s defense.
Wisconsin, like Iowa, is a team that operates a physical, run-heavy offense complemented with the play-action passing game. The Badgers found success in both areas last week against Nebraska but particularly against the run, with freshman running back Braelon Allen accounting for 228 of the team’s 252 total rushing yards.
Iowa’s rushing attack has similarly plagued the Blackshirts in recent years.
In 2019 the Hawkeyes ran for 225 yards on Nebraska’s defense, led by now-junior running back Tyler Goodson, who had 13 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown. The Hawkeyes ran for just 129 yards in last season’s matchup, but Goodson accounted for nearly all of them with 111 yards on 30 carries.
Goodson, behind a stout Hawkeye offensive line, has been relatively effective so far this season. He’s totaled 945 yards on 4.4 yards per carry with six rushing touchdowns, while being a reliable threat in the receiving game as well. Goodson has 24 receptions for 217 yards and a receiving touchdown in that department.
Nebraska’s defense is facing an Iowa offense that plays the exact same way as Wisconsin. Following the Huskers’ worst defensive performance of the season against the Badgers, a Blackshirt turnaround will be necessary for Nebraska to emerge victorious.
Senior Day questions
At Monday’s weekly media availability, Nebraska defensive coordinator Eric Chinander said that he “doesn’t anticipate” Husker players that are honored during Friday’s Senior Day festivities to return next season.
COVID-19 threw an odd wrench into player eligibility, meaning the Huskers are littered with fourth-year juniors and sixth-year seniors, so it will be interesting to see which players from the junior class are honored prior to the game.
One domino fell on Tuesday night, with junior tight end Austin Allen announcing that Friday would be his last game for the Huskers before pursuing professional opportunities. Martinez is the most notable fourth-year junior yet to decide on his future, but there are others who fit the criteria, too.
Still, a key indicator to whether or not Martinez plans to return to Nebraska for another season just might be whether or not he’s honored in Friday’s festivities. His situation and decision is one to monitor especially as the Huskers enter an extremely critical offseason.