Leistikow's 6 Iowa-Nebraska thoughts: Hawkeye defense again preparing for two quarterbacks

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

For the second consecutive week, Iowa’s defense is preparing for a football game and doesn’t know who its opponent will be starting at quarterback.

Of course, it worked out pretty well the first time.

The Hawkeyes’ extra prep work for Penn State quarterbacks Will Levis and Sean Clifford paid off last week. They put a physical beating on Levis, forcing two lost fumbles. He was replaced by Clifford, who Iowa intercepted twice in the fourth quarter to seal a 41-21 win.

This week, Nebraska coach Scott Frost said there was "no doubt" in his mind that Luke McCaffrey is the future of the program at quarterback. But that doesn't mean he'll start Friday at Kinnick Stadium.

Now the Hawkeyes, on a short week, don’t know whether they’ll be facing Adrian Martinez or Luke McCaffrey in Friday’s noon game against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium.

On Monday, Nebraska coach Scott Frost said that both quarterbacks would compete during practice.

“There's no doubt in my mind Luke McCaffrey's the future around here, but right now to help us win we’ve got to play the guy that gives us the best chance,” Frost said. “I think Adrian's been playing with little chip on his shoulder.”

Reading the tea leaves of that comment, it would seem that Martinez — who has started against Iowa in each of the past two seasons — might get the nod, especially after McCaffrey was careless with the football in a 41-23 loss at Illinois. The Hawkeyes have 10 interceptions through five games and 63 as a program (the most in FBS) since 2017.

Who do Iowa players expect to see Friday?

"We don’t really know who’s coming out, but we’re preparing to play a quarterback who likes to run," Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon said Tuesday. "Regardless of who gets in the game, we’ve got a gameplan for either of them.”

Martinez was especially impressive in the 2018 game at Kinnick Stadium, but the Hawkeyes did a better job containing him in 2019 at Memorial Stadium. McCaffery actually came in to throw one pass in that game, and it went for a 39-yard touchdown. 

Both games that Martinez started went down to the wire, with Iowa winning on last-second field goals.

Whoever gets the first nod Friday, Iowa knows it will be facing a running threat. In 24 career games, Martinez has 1,450 career rushing yards and 4,846 passing yards.

McCaffrey rushed 26 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns against Illinois. Yes, that’s the younger brother of Christian McCaffrey, who tormented Iowa while playing for Stanford in the 2016 Rose Bowl.

If we're comparing this to Penn State, Martinez is more on par with Clifford; can make plays with his legs but is more effective through the air. McCaffrey is more like Levis, a definite running threat but not as likely to beat you with his arm.

“The guy at Penn State last week (Levis) was mobile, but these guys were pretty fast," Iowa linebacker Nick Niemann said. "... Durable runners, both of them. I think they’re pretty similar in senses. I’ll probably just leave it at that.”

Nixon was wearing a big smile, as usual, on Tuesday after a weekend of his 71-yard interception return touchdown made national highlights.

The 305-pound junior has been tremendous all season but entered cult-hero status with his "Eurostep" move and ability to escape a Penn State running back on his way to the end zone Saturday in Happy Valley.

After the game, Big Ten Network's Rick Pizzo asked Nixon if he could use those moves against all-American basketball player Luka Garza on the court. On Tuesday, Nixon joked that his strategy against Garza would be to use his strength to overcome the eight-inch height disadvantage.

"I would have to keep the ball in the paint as much as possible," Nixon said, "and see what I could do there."

With such a short season and Nixon likely shooting up NFL Draft boards, odds are we probably won't see much more of him at Iowa. But he wanted his fans to know that he has heard from many of you, and he appreciates the love he's getting. 

"My phone has yet to stop buzzing on Twitter and Instagram," Nixon said. "I’ve gotten so many new followers. People will just tell me they’re huge fans of mine and love how I play and love how I carry myself. I’m just happy that I’m making more people than I even know proud of what I’m doing and what I’m becoming as a person and a football player."

It took Nixon a while to get acclimated to the Iowa program. Originally a commitment in the 2017 class, Nixon had to go to Iowa Western Community College to get his academics in order. Then he got an offer from Alabama. But he stuck with Iowa, redshirted and now is flourishing. It's a great story that continues to build.

Tyler Goodson scored the first of four rushing touchdowns for Iowa at Penn State on this nifty 10-yard run inside the end-zone pylon.

The Hawkeyes have rushed for 15 touchdowns through five games. They had 17 rushing touchdowns all of last year (in 13 games).

Iowa players were happy for teammate Keith Duncan in 2019, when he set a Big Ten record for field goals with 29. But they weren't happy to see him on the field that much. That was a prime offseason message, that the Hawkeyes wanted more seven-point possessions than three-pointers.

Iowa had 36 touchdowns and 29 field goals last season; so far in 2020, the totals are 21 touchdowns and six field goals.

“I love Keith Duncan to death, but when he’s leading the nation in red-zone field goals, that means we’re not finishing in the red zone," center Tyler Linderbaum said. "The less kick attempts he has, the better."

Added left tackle Alaric Jackson: "Nothing against Keith Duncan, he’s a great player. But I want to see him on the sidelines."

Beyond mentality, another difference is Iowa has two outstanding running backs in Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent. 

When Nate Stanley was manning the quarterback controls in his first two years, he could lean on (eventual) first-round NFL Draft tight ends in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. They were arguably Iowa’s best offensive players.

But he lost them in 2019, and Iowa struggled to hit paydirt. Now, the running backs are clicking behind that offensive line. Goodson and Sargent (six rushing touchdowns each; tied for second in the Big Ten) are among Iowa’s best offensive players. The Iowa running-backs room is as good as it’s been in a long, long time.

"The commonality between both of them is they have great attitudes, great guys on the team," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I'm sure they have off days and all that, but they don't bring it out to the field."

You may have noticed another No. 94 at defensive end for Iowa against Penn State.

Sorry, A.J. Epenesa isn’t back with the Hawkeyes. But there’s a new exciting prospect wearing the No. 94 made famous by former pass rushers such as Epenesa and Jared DeVries.

It’s Yahya Black, an 18-year-old from western Minnesota who already measures 6-foot-5, 279 pounds. He played 13 snaps against the Nittany Lions for his first meaningful Hawkeye action. With John Waggoner out another week, Black might see the field on a limited basis against Nebraska.

“Young Yahya,” teammate Chauncey Golston said, smiling. “He’s a big guy, first of all. He comes ready to work every day. He has good energy. We love it in the room. That’s a good building block for years to come.”

Kirk Ferentz rarely heaps praise on young players, so it was notable that he said Tuesday that Black “came to one of our camps two years ago, and he was one of the most impressive campers we’ve ever had come through here in a couple decades. He’s a very aggressive prospect. I think he’s got a really good future.”

Ferentz, though, said Black is “not ready for prime time yet” and joked about how he lined up a full yard behind the line of scrimmage in one of his first snaps against Penn State.

“He was being way too respectful of their left tackle,” Ferentz said. “It was almost as if he was asking for permission to step across the line of scrimmage. But that’s what young players do. He’s not like that in practice, I can assure you.”

Although freshman development has been especially short-changed during this year of COVID-19, it was notable that Ferentz also said this Tuesday: “I feel really good about our freshmen class in its entirety.”

Jack Plumb also got his first meaningful action Saturday, and it's possible he gets his first career start against Nebraska.

The sophomore from Green Bay got 24 snaps after starting right tackle Mark Kallenberger exited with an injury. For what it's worth Pro Football Focus listed Plumb (6-7, 293) as having the second-best grade of the six offensive linemen who played and helped Iowa score 41 points. 

"Any bit of playing time is really valuable for guys who haven’t played a lot,” Ferentz said. "“If Mark can’t go, then Jack would be the guy, for sure."

It doesn't sound promising that Coy Cronk, who began the season as Iowa's right tackle, returns this week from injury. However, guard Kyler Schott is back after missing three games with mononucleosis. Schott won't start Friday, but Ferentz said he would play.

There is little mystery about Iowa’s best offensive plan Friday: Snap ball, run with ball.

In the previous three years under offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, the rushing attack has been a sore spot — except against Nebraska. Each time, Nebraska’s defense has proven to be much-needed salve for the Hawkeyes’ ailing run game.

In three games against Nebraska with Ferentz calling the plays, Iowa has rushed 123 times for 804 yards and 10 touchdowns. That computes to averages of 268 yards (including 6.54 per carry) and 3.3 touchdowns per Nebraska game.

And now, Iowa’s running game is way, way better than it’s been from 2017 to 2019.

Couple that with Nebraska’s rush defense ranking 13th in the Big Ten Conference, and the Hawkeyes could be in store for a ground-and-pound kind of day.

"They know what we want to do," Linderbaum said. "It just comes down to execution."