Leistikow's Iowa vs. Nebraska prediction: 5 Hawkeye keys to earning a 10th win

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

When Kirk Ferentz meets with his team at the beginning of each game week, he’ll often share a few big-picture thoughts about where the Iowa football program stands. Then, the message gets back to buckling down about the game ahead.

This week, Ferentz’s remarks about the opportunity for a 10-win season stuck out to Iowa players. Nine Hawkeye teams have reached double-digit wins — 1985, 1987 and 1991 under Hayden Fry, and 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2015 and 2019 under Ferentz.

A victory in Friday’s regular-season finale at Nebraska would be the first step in Iowa’s long-shot hope to win the Big Ten West Division for the first time since 2015. But before finding out if they get the subsequent help they need (Minnesota over Wisconsin on Saturday), the Hawkeyes would enter rare air by earning the fourth 10-win regular season of the Ferentz era.

Furthermore, a win Friday would mean Iowa could boast a one-game improvement in each of its last three 12-game regular seasons — from 7-5 in 2017 to 8-4 in 2018 to 9-3 in 2019 to 10-2 in 2021, with the pandemic-shortened 6-2 campaign of 2020 wedged in between.

More:Iowa football bowl scenarios: A long-awaited Citrus return is on the table

Iowa strong safety Kaevon Merriweather framed the season appropriately Tuesday. He termed the 9-2 record a success, while also noting that the team wanted more after a 6-0 start and the rise to No. 2 in the national polls.

“Probably not where we want it to be. We still want to go to the Big Ten championship,” Merriweather said. “But all in all, it’s definitely been a successful season. We’ve all stayed together, especially after those two (midseason losses to Purdue and Wisconsin).”

Oddsmakers have made this game a virtual toss-up. These five keys will determine whether Iowa picks up win No. 10.

No. 1: Make adjustments, stay the course on defense.

This is an Iowa strength under defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who is one of 15 semifinalists for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. The Hawkeyes are preparing for Nebraska quarterback Logan Smothers, a redshirt freshman making his first career start, as they would if dual-threat Adrian Martinez hadn’t been ruled out with a shoulder injury.

“(Smothers) does some similar things as Adrian,” Merriweather said. “I think he can escape the pocket as well. He can run. He’s pretty athletic. He can also get the ball down field as well.”

More:How does a depleted Iowa defense match up against Nebraska? 'It doesn't matter'

Iowa linebacker Seth Benson said after the first series defensively of every game, linebackers coach Seth Wallace asks his players to hurry back to the sideline. That's one of the game's crucial sessions about adjustments.

“You just watch, see his tendencies,” Benson said, “then go from there.”

No. 2: Set a physical tone.

This is true on both sides of the ball, but Merriweather spoke of the mentality on defense.

“All hats to the ball. And when you get there, put a lick on them,” Merriweather said of the message from Parker. “Put your body on them. Don’t just arm tackle and wrap up.”

Cornhuskers players have said in interviews they won’t have trouble getting up for Iowa. This is an opponent that has owned them for six straight years. But this is also a 3-8 team that fired four offensive coaches and hasn’t beaten Iowa in Lincoln since 2011. Iowa knows how to bring the fight into Memorial Stadium and dispirit the crowd, too.

No. 3: Win the turnover battle, dominate on special teams.

These are two areas in which Iowa can’t accept a push.

Even with a backup quarterback, Nebraska has the better offense. The scheme is sound. The Cornhuskers are averaging 9.37 yards per pass attempt, on pace to shatter the school-record of 9.09 set in 1978. Iowa needs to respond with turnovers.

Iowa has a plus-13 turnover margin this season. Its 21 interceptions lead the country and are within two of the program-record 23, set in 1986 and tied in 2008. The Hawkeyes’ only losses this year came when they were uncharacteristically careless with the football — minus-3 vs. Purdue, minus-3 at Wisconsin. Nebraska, meanwhile, is minus-4 in turnovers (16 giveaways, 12 takeaways).

Iowa’s special teams are elite; Nebraska’s are abysmal. The Hawkeyes need to make this a heavy advantage, like in 2019 when an Ihmir Smith-Marsette kickoff-return touchdown snuffed Husker momentum.

More:What channel is Iowa football vs. Nebraska? How to watch Hawkeyes' game against Huskers

No. 4: Keep the run game going.

Tyler Goodson has good memories from his first start in Lincoln. As a true freshman, Goodson’s 55-yard touchdown scamper in the first quarter pushed Iowa to a 14-3 lead. Fifty-five yards are also exactly what Goodson needs to achieve a 1,000-yard season.

The Hawkeyes are hopeful they can keep Goodson’s good times rolling. A 27-carry, 132-yard outing last week against Illinois was the best Iowa’s run-blocking has looked all year. It was almost entirely paved through the middle of the field, behind freshly named Outland Trophy finalist Tyler Linderbaum.

Tyler Goodson rambled 55 yards on this 2019 touchdown run in Lincoln. The Hawkeyes hope to build on their strong run-game performance against Illinois.

“We know they’re going to be ready for it. We run up the middle. Every game,” Goodson said. “That’s what we do. They know what we do. We know what we do. It’s all going to come down to who wants it more and who’s the most detailed and who’s going to fight for it.”

No. 5: Stay aggressive on offense.

The Cornhuskers are capable of scoring quickly, and Scott Frost won’t hold anything back as he tries to generate a victory that can serve as an offseason rallying point. Getting a seven- or 10-point lead would be great for the Hawkeyes, but they can’t try to nurse it to the finish line.

More:Iowa's offense is improving in November. Can they put it all together against Nebraska?

Ferentz said the keys are still in Alex Padilla’s hands at quarterback, with Spencer Petras available in relief if needed. (He’s been practicing well, per Ferentz.)

In 2018, Iowa saw a 28-13 lead against Nebraska turn into 28-28. In 2019, a 24-10 lead became 24-24. In 2020, a 10-0 lead became a 20-13 deficit. Iowa escaped in all three previous meetings against Frost with some late-game heroics, but wouldn’t it be nice to put one of these outcomes away for once?

Iowa wins if …

The Hawkeyes are overdue for a complete performance in all three phases. If Padilla is effective on the road like he was at Northwestern and the defense creates Smothers into mistakes, Iowa can win decisively.

Nebraska wins if …

Likewise, the Huskers' season metrics are so much better than Iowa's … except in the win-loss column. Frost's team needs to avoid devastating mistakes and put together a complete game, as it did in its lone Big Ten win (56-7 vs. Northwestern).

No. 12 Iowa (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) at Nebraska (3-8, 1-7)

Time, TV, Tipico Sportsbook line: 12:30 p.m. CT Friday, BTN, Iowa by 1½ points

Prediction: Iowa 24, Nebraska 20 … The Hawkeyes' season has been defined by finding a way to win. This time, they rally in the final minutes … let's say with a dramatic touchdown by native son Keagan Johnson.

More:Looking back at Iowa football's win over Nebraska in 2020, which featured clapping complaints

Saturday's Big Ten games

(All times CT, lines from Tipico Sportsbook)

No. 3 Ohio State (10-1, 8-0) at No. 6 Michigan (10-1, 7-1)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., Fox, Ohio State by 8

Prediction: There is so much history stacked against Michigan. Ohio State is 23-0 under Ryan Day in Big Ten play and won eight straight vs. the Wolverines. And the Buckeyes couldn't be much hotter; they scored touchdowns on 15 of 19 possessions in resounding wins against Purdue and Michigan State before taking their foot off the gas. The Wolverines, though, bring the best defense Ohio State has seen all year. Winner goes to Indy. Ohio State 27, Michigan 21

Maryland (5-6, 2-6) at Rutgers (5-6, 2-6)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., BTN, Maryland by 1½

Prediction: Behind Ray Guy finalist Adam Horsak, the Scarlet Knights are on pace to set an FBS record in net punting (45.3 average) and have been turnover-free in all five wins. Kirk Ferentz is jealous. Rutgers 20, Maryland 17

Penn State (7-4, 4-4) at No. 13 Michigan State (9-2, 6-2)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., ABC, Penn State by 2

Prediction: Iowa's slim New Year's Six bowl chances would be helped if James Franklin, who signed a 10-year contract extension this week, can avoid a fifth Big Ten loss. Michigan State is No. 12 in the playoff rankings, Iowa is No. 16. Penn State 24, Michigan State 21

Northwestern (3-8, 1-7) at Illinois (4-7, 3-5)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., BTN, Illinois by 6½

Prediction: Year 1 under Bret Bielema has been a success, with signature road wins at Penn State and Minnesota. The Illini have the fight and experience to finish strong. Illinois 26, Northwestern 14

Indiana (2-9, 0-8) at Purdue (7-4, 5-3)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., FS1, Purdue by 15

Prediction: In front of a sellout crowd in the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket, the Boilermakers will secure their first eight-win regular season since 2006. Purdue 38, Indiana 16

No. 18 Wisconsin (8-3, 6-2) at Minnesota (7-4, 5-3)

Time, TV, line: 3 p.m., Fox, Wisconsin by 7

Prediction: An Iowa-Minnesota money-line parlay pays about 4.5 to 1, so those are basically the odds that the Hawkeyes emerge from this weekend as Big Ten West champions. And why not? It would be a crazy ending to an unpredictable season. Minnesota, with the nation's No. 4 defense, has enough 1) girth up front and 2) Badgers hate to bring a formidable shot. Minnesota 22, Wisconsin 21

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.