Analysis: Nebraska result sits squarely on Iowa's defense

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Another Iowa home football game. Another ranked Big Ten Conference opponent.

Another chance for the Hawkeyes' defense to decide things.

Such has been the pattern for most of the season, and there’s no reason to think things will be different when Iowa hosts No. 15 Nebraska at 2:30 p.m. Friday in the regular-season finale.

Defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie and the Iowa defense shutout Illinois on Saturday. That's a much taller task Friday against Nebraska. But if the Hawkeyes can hold the Cornhuskers to 14? That might be enough for a victorious season finale.

Last month, Iowa held No. 10 Wisconsin to 17 points but lost by eight when its offense couldn’t get into the end zone.

Two weeks ago, the Hawkeyes surrendered only 13 points to No. 3 Michigan and won on a last-play field goal. In that game, the Iowa offense’s ability to score a lone second-quarter touchdown — on a gutsy decision and a perfect play-call on fourth down from the 3-yard line — was a difference-maker.

But there was a bigger difference in those two outcomes, one that points allowed doesn’t begin to tell. The Badgers ran up 423 yards against Iowa, springing six plays that gained 20 or more. The Hawkeyes were lucky not to be blown out that day.

Against Michigan’s much more potent offense, the Hawkeyes yielded a mere 201 yards, and a single pass play that netted more than 20.

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That’s the kind of dominant effort that will be needed again Friday if the Hawkeyes (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten Conference) are to prevail. With an offense that is struggling like Iowa’s is, the defense must think in terms of flawlessness.

The Hawkeyes know it, too.

That was the lesson of the debacle at Penn State on Nov. 5, when a shockingly frail Iowa defense allowed 41 points.

“We were flat-out embarrassed,” Iowa defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie said. “I think as an athlete, as a competitor, we all have pride. We do take those things to heart.”

The question of the week for the Cornhuskers (9-2, 6-2) has been whether senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will be healthy enough to start. He has been battered in recent weeks, with a concussion, ankle and hamstring injuries among the worries. He sat out last week as Nebraska dispatched Maryland in its home finale.

The sub-question surrounding Armstrong has been: If he is OK to play, how much will he be able to run? It is Armstrong’s mobility that has helped him become Nebraska’s all-time leader in total offense, with 10,552 yards and counting. He has also amassed 90 touchdowns in a career marked by equal parts brilliance and confounding mistakes, including a four-interception disaster in last year’s 28-20 Iowa victory in Lincoln.

No one at Iowa is willing to concede that Armstrong will be at less than 100 percent. That’s the smart approach. The chatter about Armstrong’s health has felt like a classic smokescreen.

“I’m pretty sure he’s a senior now. I feel like he’s been there forever,” Hawkeye cornerback Desmond King said of Armstrong. “I’m pretty sure he’s going to be ready to go for this game. Our mindset, we need to know and react and think that he’s going to play in this game.”

King, also a senior, wants the challenge Armstrong brings.

“For sure,” he said. “You want to have a competitive game here in Kinnick Stadium.”

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It will be competitive if King and his cohorts do their part. Nebraska’s offense is much more than just Armstrong.

Senior Jordan Westerkamp leads a terrific contingent of wide receivers that has produced 116 catches, 1,819 yards and 12 touchdowns.

An offensive line that includes four sophomore starters has grown up fast, helping the Cornhuskers dominate on third downs and in fourth quarters. Nebraska is the best in the nation with a 115-27 scoring advantage in the final 15 minutes of games. It has converted 47 percent of its third-down plays to rank 19th in the country.

Terrell Newby is a solid tailback, with 825 rushing yards and a 4.8 yards-per-carry average. Backup Devine Ozigbo has added 346 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

The Cornhuskers are balanced. At Wisconsin on Oct. 29, Nebraska gained 152 yards rushing and 153 passing, rallying with 10 fourth-quarter points to force overtime before losing.

This is a big challenge for an Iowa defense that probably has to hold Nebraska to around half of its 28-points-per-game average to have a shot at victory.

But the Michigan challenge was even greater, and the Hawkeyes rose up then, just a week after the low point in Happy Valley.

“As a defense, we all decided that, hey, enough is enough. We’ve got to come together,” Ekakitie said.

“When you put as much time and effort into being a college athlete as everyone here does, for someone to question your dedication to the game or whether or not you were working hard enough, it hurts.”