IOWA CITY, Ia. — There are two undefeated Football Bowl Subdivision teams remaining. Iowa is one of them. Imagine predicting that when fall camp started in August.
While the Hawkeyes’ strength of schedule has become a national debate, they are 11-0 with a ticket to next month’s Big Ten Championship Game already punched. Iowa was ranked third when both major polls came out Sunday. It is the highest ranking for an Iowa team in the Associated Press poll since it was No. 3 on Dec. 8, 2002.
Tuesday will tell us if Iowa moves up from fifth in the College Football Playoff poll. If the Hawkeyes join the Final Four, they’ll need to close out a perfect regular season Friday at Nebraska to stay there. And there are a few curveballs to deal with.
Coach Mike Riley’s team is coming off a bye week. It’s a quick turnaround with the game being played on a Friday. And Nebraska would become bowl eligible with a victory.
“We’re six days out from playing again, and we’re playing a team that’s been sitting back all week watching us,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday’s 40-20 victory over Purdue. “We’ve got some ground to make up.”
Nebraska, 5-6 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten, has lost four games on the opponents’ last possession. The Cornhuskers also rallied from a 38-26 deficit with less than 2 minutes remaining to hand Michigan State its only loss of the season, 39-38.
Nebraska beat Iowa 37-34 in overtime last season at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes blew a 24-7 third-quarter lead and executed poorly down the stretch.
“One of the good things about sports, it’s not like real life,” Ferentz said Saturday. “Pretty much you get what you deserve.”
Whenever NFL scouts pass through the Iowa football complex to watch film or ask the coaches about potential prospects, Ferentz tells them this: No one makes more tough, contested catches in practice than senior tight end Henry Krieger Coble.
And now there’s plenty of game film to back up Ferentz’s claim. Krieger Coble is second on the team with 27 receptions for 338 yards. And here’s a remarkable statistic: Krieger Coble’s last 13 catches, going back the Oct. 10 game against Illinois, have gone for first downs.
The last catch in Krieger Coble’s streak went for a 22-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter Saturday, his first at Kinnick Stadium in his last game there. During this streak of 13 first-down catches, those drives have resulted in nine touchdowns and two field goals. One ended with a fumble, the other on a missed field goal.
Iowa has not trailed in a game in the fourth quarter all season. The Iowa State and Pittsburgh games were tied going into the final period. The Hawkeyes have outscored foes 111-74 over the final 15 minutes.
“We may not have been behind, but we’ve been in a lot of really tight ball games, tight situations, and the guys have fought through it,” Ferentz said. “These guys keep battling. That’s one thing that’s been pretty consistent. They play hard and respond to whatever happens to them.”
Iowa’s defense has allowed a total of 203 yards rushing in the fourth quarter this season — 18.4 yards per game. And quarterback C.J. Beathard has completed 29 of 46 fourth-quarter passes for 405 yards and three touchdowns.
None of Iowa’s first eight opponents managed 400 yards of total offense. But the last three have. The Hawkeye defense has surrendered 405 yards against Purdue, 434 against Minnesota and 407 against Indiana.
“There are just some small detail things we need to fix,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said. “They’re becoming bigger as the weeks go on.”
Nebraska is second in the Big Ten in total offense, averaging 443.4 yards per game.
To the air?
Nebraska’s rush defense ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 10th nationally, allowing just 109.8 yards per game. The Cornhuskers are not as effective against the pass. Nebraska is allowing 305.5 yards through the air, which ranks 13th in the Big Ten and 124th out of 127 FBS teams nationally.
Look for Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis to script a game plan using Beathard’s arm. If he has time to throw, that is. Nebraska has logged 24 sacks. Defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun has 4.5 sacks, end Greg McMullen has 4.0 and tackle Vincent Valentine has 3.0.
Iowa takes down Purdue, 40-20, to clinch the Big Ten West but will face challenges next week against Nebraska.