Leistikow's thoughts: Why the Hawkeyes feel like NFL players during Nebraska week

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — For one week every football season, Iowa’s routine-obsessed football program alters that routine.

Nebraska week.

Normally on game weeks, Iowa holds one or two padded practices with full contact. This week? No shoulder pads. No contact.

Normally, players scurry off to class after their morning practice. This week? No classes, because of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Players even are afforded 30 extra minutes of sleep, offensive lineman Kyler Schott gleefully reported, before they shuffle off to the football complex.

Put that all together, and it’s no wonder the Hawkeyes sounded recharged and refreshed Tuesday despite gearing up for their fourth game in 21 days: Friday’s regular-season finale at Nebraska (1:30 p.m., Big Ten Network).

Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston says he's feeling energized despite playing a heavy snap count this season.

In each season, Hawkeye players this week have nothing on their minds but football.

“It’s just like the NFL,” junior defensive end Chauncey Golston said. “You’ve got one job: football. You’ve got all day.”

Film study is the biggest benefit of extra time. 

Golston lives in a house with four teammates. He told a story Tuesday about coming downstairs to see if Daviyon Nixon wanted to get something to eat. He found Nixon and teammate Amani Jones studying Nebraska film on their iPads.

“It’s nice to see that no one’s sleeping on this week,” Golston said.

One of the benefits Kirk Ferentz saw manifest from the change to morning practices before the 2015 season was the extra urgency it instilled in players to turn the page to the next game. That attitude has proven especially beneficial for the shortened, six-day preparation for Nebraska.

The lightened physical load during Nebraska week is designed to keep Iowa players as healthy as possible for the last game they’ll play for another month.

“I think the biggest thing right now is for us to be fresh physically, if at all possible,” Ferentz said. “It's hard at this time of year. But also (to stay) mentally sharp.”

The Nebraska-week change-up to the routine has proven successful: Since switching to this approach, Iowa is 4-0 against the Cornhuskers.

Overall, it seems like Iowa’s health is pretty good — except for Brandon Smith.

It doesn’t sound good for the talented wide receiver to provide an impact Friday. Ferentz had indicated Smith would return against Illinois from an ankle injury, but that didn’t happen. On Tuesday, Ferentz said he was thankful that Smith is only a junior as he waits to recover.

“He was doing pretty well, came out of the gate strong and plateaued a little bit,” Ferentz said. “So it's just one of those deals. There's no way to predict it, and it's just hard to deal with no matter what. Unless you're back full-speed, you're not happy.”

Any snaps he plays Friday would be gravy. Hopefully for Iowa, he’ll be back for the bowl game. 

The snap counts for Golston and A.J. Epenesa continue to mount.

Golston played 67 of a possible 76 snaps against Illinois, according to Pro Football Focus. Epenesa played 66. For the season, Epenesa has played 637 of a possible 714 snaps — 89.2% of the time. Golston has played 626 (87.7%).

That’s already about 100 more snaps than what starting defensive ends Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse had in 13 games a year ago.

How are they holding up?

As their play of late suggests, the tandem of defensive ends actually seem to be getting stronger. Epenesa has been a force. He has forced a quarterback fumble in each game this November.

“I’m still energized. Because in a minute, it’s going to (feel) like the offseason,” Golston said. “I’ve got to give credit to (strength and conditioning coach Chris) Doyle. He knows what he’s doing.”

Cold, wet conditions are expected Friday.

The National Weather Service projects light snow Friday morning in Lincoln, followed by a light rain that will continue into the game. A temperature of about 36 degrees is expected at the 1:30 p.m. kickoff. That’s not good for tailgaters, but how much will that affect the game?

“Advantage defense, maybe a little bit,” Iowa free safety Jack Koerner said. “It might make some things sticky for them trying to pass the ball, and ball security becomes a little bit of an issue.”

Nebraska is far more careless with the football than Iowa, which has committed a Big Ten-low 10 turnovers. The Cornhuskers have committed 19 this season.

To prepare for the rain, Nate Stanley has been throwing wet footballs.

The senior quarterback joked how quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe was splashing water on the balls in Tuesday’s practice, soaking them to an extent that wouldn’t actually happen in game conditions.

“We have … 12 or 14 game balls a week that get rotated in,” Stanley explained. “And the refs do a good job of keeping the balls dry.”

Still, Stanley said, practicing with wet balls was helpful. Ferentz said his receivers won’t wear gloves if it’s raining, because of how a slick ball easily skips off of them.

Recall that Stanley has delivered against Nebraska in the rain before. His 10-yard strike to T.J. Hockenson through the rain on fourth-and-8 set up Miguel Recinos’ walk-off field goal last November.

Iowa has gone 12 consecutive games without allowing an opponent to top 24 points.

That is the longest stretch of the Ferentz era. The last team to surpass 24 is Iowa’s opponent this week. The Hawkeyes escaped Nebraska 31-28 a year ago in Iowa City.

Iowa defensive players don’t claim to be aware that they’re yielding a paltry 12.2 points per game. They are also unaware that the Ferentz-era record for a defense is 13.0, set in 2008. No Hawkeye defense has ended a season this low since Hayden Fry’s 1981 team allowed 11.7 points per game.

Iowa ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense.

“If we can just continue to improve and continue to play well,” linebacker Kristian Welch said, “that’ll be a byproduct of us playing to our potential.”

Nebraska (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) is coming off a 54-7 win at Maryland and ranks fifth in the league in total offense. And, presumably, Iowa (8-3, 5-3) will face a good bowl opponent.

If Iowa somehow finishes with a season average below 13 points a game, it’ll have a credible argument as the best defense of the Ferentz era.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.