Iowa tight end Noah Fant discusses the complementary relationship with Mackey Award finalist T.J. Hockenson, discusses NFL Draft future. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
From thud to kersplat to lowering the boom.
Last week's 63-0 dismantling of Illinois maybe did a little bit to soothe the wounds of the past few weeks for Iowa football fans. But from Noah Fant's re-emergence to the workmanlike domination of the Fighting Illini, there's an odd juxtaposition going on regarding just how much fans should be lamenting the three-game losing streak that came before.
Either way, this narrative of a 7-4 football team has led us to the point where Friday's 11 a.m. rivalry contest against Nebraska will shape much of the pre-bowl talk.
Let's take a look at the projected starters for the Fox-televised broadcast:
Quarterback: No. 4, Nate Stanley (6-foot-4, 242 pounds, junior) — It's always fun when you don't need to go much under center. Stanley found that happy place by jaunting to three touchdowns on just 178 yards. Yeah, the first-possession interception happened, but he was fine. Needs a more authoritative performance this week.
Running back: No. 10, Mekhi Sargent (5-10, 210, sophomore) — 100-yard rusher alert! Love the effort from Sargent again, no matter the opponent. Averaged more than 7 yards a pop on his 17 carries and added a pair of score. Magnifique.
Fullback: No. 46, Austin Kelly (5-11, 245, senior) — What's a guy, even a backup fullback guy, gotta do to get into a 63-0 game? Asking for a friend.
Tight end: No. 87, Noah Fant (6-5, 241, Jr.) — Oh, where to begin? Surprise, surprise, Fant and Hockenson can co-exist on the field. Glad we could learn that on the 11th game of the season. There was a bittersweet irony in that first touchdown coming Fant's way, and it's unfortunate that the Iowa coaching staff seems to have learned its lesson considerably too late in this case.
Tight end: No. 38, T.J. Hockenson (6-5, 250, Soph.) — The passing game didn't need to shine last week, but Hockenson found the end zone on both of his receptions. The Mackey Award finalist threw some vicious pancake blocks, too.
Split end: No. 12, Brandon Smith (6-3, 219, Soph.) — The one-game hiatus probably hurt Iowa last week more than it really helped this week, but Smith has to be looked at as the receiver who needs to make the biggest leap heading into 2019. A pedestrian three catches for 39 yards in this type of game is acceptable. It may not come, but the true breakout game is what's been missing from Smith's season.
Wide receiver: No. 84, Nick Easley (5-11, 205, Sr.) — It's extremely difficult to judge production in a game like this. But it's worth noting just how understated Easley's reliability has been when considering that his one-catch performance this past weekend was his lowest output since the Wisconsin game. His consistency will be missed.
Left tackle: No. 77, Alaric Jackson (6-7, 320, Soph.) — What the Hawkeyes' offensive line wouldn't give for a rushing performance anywhere close to that of what Iowa put up in last season's 56-14 romp in Lincoln: 313 yards, an average of 6.7 per carry, and six ground-game scores.
Left guard: No. 59, Ross Reynolds (6-4, 295, Sr.) — Iowa essentially opened the regular season (I know, I know, Northern Illinois, but really) with a sweep of the Cy-Hawk football series in Reynolds' career. He'll look to bookend this regular season with another trophy-game sweep, this time of the Cornhuskers.
Center: No. 69, Keegan Render (6-4, 307, Sr.) — We haven't mentioned the gaudy sacks-allowed numbers for the Iowa offensive line lately. They've allowed just 13, still the best mark in the Big Ten. Two more games to cement that badge of honor.
Right guard: No. 61, Cole Banwart (6-4, 296, Soph.) — That 100-yard-rusher breakthrough was a long time coming. You had to go back to Akrum Wadley (against Nebraska last year, of course) to find a triple-digit performance.
Right tackle: No. 74, Tristan Wirfs (6-5, 320, Soph.) — Should the Hawkeyes expect to make it two rushing beatdowns in a row? I'd say so. Nebraska is 91st in the country against the run, having surrendered 27 touchdowns on the ground in 11 games with averages of 4.9 yards per rush and 189.4 yards allowed per game.
Left end: No. 98, Anthony Nelson (6-7, 271, Jr.) — It's amazing how much disruption the Iowa defensive front four (not named A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston) caused without really making a dent in the stat sheet, for the most part. The two Nelsons and Sam Brincks combined for one tackle in the game (an Anthony Nelson sack).
Left tackle: No. 90, Sam Brincks (6-5, 275, Sr.) — By the numbers, anyway, Iowa will be facing its toughest test to date on defense. Nebraska has a top-30 offense in the country at 461.3 yards per game, and is second in the Big Ten Conference to Ohio State (of course).
Right tackle: No. 96, Matt Nelson (6-8, 295, Sr.) — How Nebraska gets its offense is somewhat fascinating, as there's quite the balance. The Cornhuskers are 28th in the nation in rushing (215.3 yards per game) and 53rd in passing (246 yards, 11.7 per completion).
Right end: No. 40, Parker Hesse (6-3, 261, Sr.) — Five solo stops and a tackle for loss. Hesse just does his thing while everyone (rightfully) drools over whatever Epenesa is going to do next year. Hesse's consistency, like Easley's, will be missed, too.
Outside linebacker: No. 49 Nick Niemann (6-4, 232, Soph.) — Amani Hooker's emergence at the linebacker spot after moving from safety is somewhat dwarfing Niemann's development, but he had another four tackles last Saturday in the blowout.
Middle linebacker: No. 48, Jack Hockaday (6-1, 235, Sr.) — Hockaday is expected to make his fourth consecutive start (and eighth of his career) to end the regular season. His unsung 51 tackles ranks third on the team this season.
Weak-side linebacker: No. 32, Djimon Colbert (6-1, 234, freshman) — Colbert, on the other hand, will likely be up to nine starts on the weak side. This developmental year should prove massive dividends the next two years against tougher Big Ten schedules.
Left cornerback: No. 8, Matt Hankins (6-1, 185, Soph.) — The competition has something to do with it, of course, but since Hankins and Michael Ojemudia returned as primary cornerbacks over Julius Brents and Riley Moss two games ago, opponents are averaging just 102 yards and 13.5 completions through the air. (Thanks, Northwestern and Illinois.)
Strong safety: No. 27, Amani Hooker (6-0, 210, Jr.) — Is Amani Hooker the defensive (or even team) MVP of the season? Columnist Chad Leistikow is making a case. From pass breakups and interceptions to run support to special teams, the junior is proving his level-headed value everywhere.
Free safety: No. 30, Jake Gervase (6-1, 212, Sr.) — Gervase was doing a lot more than presenting Kirk Ferentz with the win No. 150 game ball last weekend. Another eight tackles to share the team lead, and he's tops overall on the season at 73. The Davenport Assumption alum is surging as his career comes to a close.
Iowa free safety Jake Gervase explains how the defense changed once Amani Hooker transitioned to outside linebacker before Week 5 against Minnesota. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
Right cornerback: No. 11, Michael Ojemudia (6-1, 199, Jr.) — Ojemudia had one of his better all-around games in an Iowa uniform last week. He made four tackles, broke up a couple passes and intercepted another.
Kicker: No. 91, Miguel Recinos (6-1, 193, Sr.) — You know things are going well when you aren't even kicking all your team's extra points. Recinos bowed out after eight of 'em last week and let Caleb Schudak have the honors for a moment.
Punter: No. 7, Colten Rastetter (6-1, 213, Jr.) — Well, the punt average ticked up to 38.8 yards this week on four kicks. But he only just outpaced Nate Stanley's pooch-kick average of 36 yards. Look out.
Kickoff returns: No. 6, Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-1, 175, Soph.) — Not a lot to do in the kickoff return game when the other team doesn't score.
Punt returns: No. 14, Kyle Groeneweg (5-10, 186, Sr.) — The great exhale, eh?. Groeneweg's mini-demons were hopefully erased a bit with his 61-yard punt-return score last Saturday. Now, just enjoy the final two games of the season.
NEBRASKA PROJECTED STARTERS
Quarterback: No. 2, Adrian Martinez (6-2, 200, Fr.)
Running back: No. 22, Devine Ozigbo (6-0, 235, Sr.)
Wide receiver: No. 8, Stanley Morgan Jr. (6-1, 200, Sr.)
Wide receiver: No. 81, Kade Warner (6-1, 210, Fr.)
Wide receiver: No. 10, J.D. Spielman (5-9, 185, Soph.)
Tight end: No. 86, Jack Stoll (6-4, 260, Soph.)
Left tackle: No. 76, Brenden Jaimes (6-6, 300, Soph.)
Left guard: No. 67, Jerald Foster (6-3, 335, Sr.)
Center: No. 63, Tanner Farmer (6-4, 325, Sr.)
Right guard: No. 56, Boe Wilson (6-3, 305, Soph.)
Right tackle: No. 71, Matt Farniok (6-6, 330, Soph.)
Defensive end: No. 91, Freedom Akinmoladun (6-4, 295, Sr.)
Defensive end: No. 95, Ben Stille (6-5, 290, Soph.)
Nose guard: No. 96, Carlos Davis (6-2, 325, Jr.)
Outside linebacker: No. 43, Tyrin Ferguson (6-2, 230, Jr.)
Outside linebacker: No. 12, Luke Gifford (6-4, 245, Sr.)
Inside linebacker: No. 5, Dedrick Young II (6-1, 245, Sr.)
Inside linebacker: No. 7, Mohamed Barry (6-1, 230, Jr.)
Cornerback: No. 21, Lamar Jackson (6-3, 215, Jr.)
Cornerback: No. 23, Dicaprio Bootle (5-10, 190, Soph.)
Safety: No. 24, Aaron Williams (5-11, 190, Sr.)
Safety: No. 14, Tre Neal (6-1, 215, Sr.)
Placekicker: No. 32, Barret Pickering (6-0, 195, Fr.)
Punter: No. 98, Isaac Armstrong (5-11, 205, Jr.)
Kickoff returns: No. 28, Maurice Washington (6-1, 190, Fr.)
Punt returns: No. 10, J.D. SPielman (5-9, 185, Soph.)