Friday's matchup to watch? Nebraska's prolific WRs vs. Iowa's up-and-down secondary

Matthew Bain
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It happens during team meetings every week, Jake Gervase said: Iowa coaches whip out sheets of paper that list team goals and measure how close the team came to achieving those on the past Saturday.

Iowa's Josh Jackson (15) breaks up a pass intended for Purdue's Jarrett Burgess (80) during the first half of their football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes take a 9-7 lead into halftime

Coaches always keep track of “big plays” allowed, Gervase said. He remembers three or four of those being singled out from the Purdue loss. (Iowa’s corners are familiar with a few.)

"And that ended up leading to 17 points," Iowa's senior safety said during Tuesday’s media availability.

Big plays have become a problem for the Hawkeyes lately. In their two-game skid to Purdue and Wisconsin, they’ve allowed 10 plays of 15-plus yards and four plays of 20-plus yards.

Eight of those came via the pass.

That brings us to Nebraska, Iowa’s opponent in its regular season finale Friday. The Huskers haven’t done much right in their 4-7 season. They have excelled in the pass attack, though. Tanner Lee ranks second in the Big Ten Conference in passing yards (2,938).

Nebraska's biggest threat comes with its three-headed monster of receivers: Stanley Morgan, JD Spielman (who is questionable for Friday) and De’Mornay Pierson-El. They’re the most productive crop of pass-catchers Iowa has faced since Iowa State — and it allowed 347 passing yards against the Cyclones.

The Huskers' trio all rank in the conference’s top 10 in receiving yards per game; Morgan and Spielman are first and third, respectively.

"I think it’ll be fun to go against them," Josh Jackson said. "It’s always fun to go against good receivers, good receiver groups. They all bring different challenges.

"You just have to stay focused on good receivers because they could make a play at any time. You just have to make sure you’re on task and always on your toes, not really sitting on your heels."

Jackson will start at left corner and freshman Matt Hankins will get his first college start at right corner. Miles Taylor and Gervase are projected to start at safety, as Amani Hooker is still out with a knee injury.

Gervase said attention to detail is paramount against receivers like Nebraska’s.

"The little things that can cost us in the secondary," he said. "Because if you make one false step, one mistake, that can cost you for a 60-, 70-yard touchdown.

"In the secondary, when you make a mistake, everybody sees it. D-line up front, the media or fans might not see it. We trust everyone that’s on the field. The coaches trust in us and we’re going to have trust in each other. We’ve just got to go out there and execute."

To help prep for Friday, let's take a closer look at the three guys Gervase and company will be tasked with stopping.

Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. catches a pass in the second half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium.

Stanley Morgan Jr., 6-foot-1, 195 pounds

Morgan leads the Big Ten with 91.2 receiving yards per game, and he's second with 912 overall. The junior is also tied for first with eight touchdown receptions.

In terms of talent, he’s in the ballpark with Allen Lazard (that ballpark might be the size of the Polo Grounds, but still). He was a three-star prospect out of talent-rich New Orleans with a "who’s-who" of suitors, including offers from Clemson, Florida, Georgia, Ohio State, Tennessee and UCLA.

You can bet Jackson will line up against Morgan.

Iowa State comparison: Marchie Murdock

Ohio State's Jordan Fuller (4) trips Nebraska wide receiver JD Spielman (10) before he could reach the end zone, during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

JD Spielman, 5-9, 180 pounds

A lightning-quick slot receiver, Spielman, a redshirt freshman, ranks third in the Big Ten with 75.5 receiving yards per game and third with 830 overall.

Iowa and Iowa State both offered him out of high school, where he was a three-star prospect from Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Michigan and Minnesota offered, too, but Spielman picked the Huskers. Size is pretty much the only factor that kept him from four stars.

Spielman re-aggravated a shoulder injury last week against Penn State and is questionable for Friday. 

Iowa State comparison: Trever Ryen

Nebraska wide receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El (15) runs away from Rutgers long snapper Bill Taylor (47) as he carries a punt return during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

De’Mornay Pierson-El, 5-9, 190 pounds

Another strong slot target for Lee, Pierson-El ranks 10th in the Big Ten with 53.1 receiving yards per game. The senior has also hauled in five touchdowns.

He was the least recruited of the talented trio. A three-star prospect out of Alexandria, Virginia, Person-El picked Nebraska over offers from Boston College, North Carolina, Temple and Wake Forest.

Iowa State comparison: Trever Ryen

For reference, Murdock had four catches for 68 yards against Iowa; Ryen had just one catch for 10 yards.

Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.