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Iowa has owned football rivalry with Nebraska because of dominance at line of scrimmage

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The past five Iowa-Nebraska football games have featured explosive plays by the Hawkeye offense —think of Jordan Canzeri’s 68-yard touchdown run in 2015 and Noah Fant’s 68-yard touchdown catch in 2017.

There has been extreme drama, with Iowa kickers Miguel Recinos and Keith Duncan nailing walk-off field goals to win the past two meetings.

Earlier:For Hawkeyes Render and Fant, matchup with Cornhuskers is personal

But the real reason the Hawkeyes have won five straight against their neighbors to the west couldn’t be any simpler. Iowa has dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, flattening a Cornhusker team that has never seemed to adapt to what it takes to win football games as fall turns to winter in the Big Ten West. If you can’t block and tackle with the big boys, you simply can’t survive.

“There’s no secret,” Iowa senior offensive tackle Alaric Jackson said this week when asked to assess what it takes to whip Nebraska up front.

No, there isn’t.

Consider these statistics during Iowa’s five-game run of success against Nebraska:

  • Iowa has rushed the ball for 1,221 yards, averaging 6.2 per carry.
  • Nebraska has tried to move the ball on the ground as well, but has managed only 618 yards, at 3.5 per carry.
  • The Hawkeyes have sacked Cornhusker quarterbacks seven times.
  • The Cornhuskers have gotten to Hawkeye quarterbacks only twice, both in 2016. That means four games without a hint of pressure for Iowa’s C.J. Beathard and Nate Stanley.

All of this points to dominance up front. Iowa asserts it. Nebraska buckles under.

For the Cornhuskers, it’s been wince and repeat.

Friday’s noon matchup at Kinnick Stadium, to be televised on Fox, figures to be more of the same. The Hawkeyes (3-2) have won three consecutive games by re-establishing their identity as a team that wants to run you over. Each win has come with at least four rushing touchdowns. Iowa tailbacks Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent have six apiece.

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent fended off Nebraska safety Antonio Reed with a stiff-arm two years ago in Kinnick Stadium. Sargent ran for 173 yards and a touchdown in that 31-28 Hawkeye win. He'll look to establish that ground superiority again at noon Friday when Iowa seeks a sixth consecutive win in the rivalry.

Nebraska (1-3) just gave up 285 rushing yards in an 41-23 loss against Illinois. The Cornhuskers' response this week has been to grow out their mustaches. As symbols of machismo go, they’d be better off growing some muscle.

More:Recinos delivers Hawkeye win over Nebraska with clutch field goal

Iowa’s defensive front just limited Penn State to 62 yards rushing while generating five sacks and four turnovers. Nebraska, which will likely alternate quarterbacks Luke McCaffery and Adrian Martinez, needs to find a way to handle that quartet first.

“I don’t really have like a personal hatred towards those guys,” Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon said. “With our state and the love we get from our fans, you just kind of feel some sense of responsibility when we’re playing against those guys to go out there and play your best and try to win.”

Defensive end Chauncey Golston took it a little further.

“I get a lot of joy out of beating everyone,” the Hawkeye senior said. “There’s a lot of talk that comes out of Nebraska, so I guess you get a little more with silencing the crowd and stuff like that. But not much.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz tempered any thought that his team has manhandled Nebraska up front, pointing to the past two games being settled on the final play.

"There's nothing easy. This won't be easy," Ferentz said. "It really gets down to the team that probably makes the least amount of mistakes, doesn't give up easy things, easy plays, and can play the full game."

Jackson, a senior who has an NFL future, said the key to Iowa’s offensive line play has been the unity, on and off the field, day in and day out. It’s a group that may get guard Kyler Schott and tackle Coy Cronk back for Friday’s game, making it deeper and scarier.

It’s a unity that extends all the way to quarterback Spencer Petras, who showed up for this week’s media interviews wearing a “Schott Squad” hoodie and talking about how frequently he hangs out with the family of center Tyler Linderbaum, who is from Solon.

Of course, Petras loves his offensive line. He has burrowed into the end zone twice for rushing touchdowns of his own in his first season as a starter, while being sacked only six times.

Linderbaum explained his philosophy for leading Petras into the end zone like this: “Just get lower than your man and keep driving your feet. Just try to push your man as far back as you can.”

It’s about as accurate of a description as you’ll find when it comes to what Iowa has done to Nebraska in recent years. Linderbaum knows what needs to be done.

“We want to get this ground game going,” he said.

“It’s a trophy game, so that’s always big. I know the Iowa fans and Nebraska fans get into it. They haven’t beat us in a while, so we’re going to have to be ready to go. They’re going to give us their best shot.”

NEBRASKA (1-3) at IOWA (3-2)

When: Noon Friday

Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

TV: Fox (Brian Custer and Robert Smith)

Line: Hawkeyes by 13.5

Weather: 44 degrees and partly cloudy; winds from northwest at 11 mph

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.