Bo Pelini upgraded Rex Burkhead's status to "better than 50-50" Tuesday night. The logic would suggest that the Huskers want the senior to shake off some rust before the Big Ten title game. The good news is that Nebraska has discovered it doesn't have to lean on him to be productively offensively as it did last year. The breakout of Ameer Abdullah and the improvement of Taylor Martinez have kept the offense at an elite level during Burkhead's absence.
The performance of Iowa's rushing defense is going to go a long way in deciding who wins this game, and that's not necessarily a good thing for the Hawkeyes. Iowa was shredded by a pair of athletic quarterbacks in Michigan's Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner (though Robinson was mostly used as a receiver and running back in that game).
The Hawkeyes only have 23 tackles for loss this season and allow opponents to average 4.2 yards per carry. Those aren't statistics you want on your side when going up against one of the nation's best rushing offenses. Even if Burkhead isn't up to snuff, Abdullah and Martinez will keep Iowa busy on the ground, paving the way for Imani Cross to potentially snag a few goal-line scores.
NU Pass Offense vs. Iowa Pass Defense
The coaching staff made a great adjustment for the Minnesota game - based on how they saw the Gophers' defensive backs play, offensive coordinator Tim Beck called for a series of swing passes to Jamal Turner to begin the game. The result was Turner setting a career-high with six catches and, once Minnesota's cornerbacks moved up, a couple of long touchdowns for Kenny Bell.
Iowa is going to need to do better in order to shut Martinez down. The junior was incredibly efficient last week and the Hawkeyes don't look like the defense to stop him. Iowa allows opponents to complete better than 63 percent of their passes, the worst mark in the Big Ten. They also don't force turnovers (seven interceptions) or bring down the quarterback (six sacks).
Those statistics suggest Martinez could be in for a big day, although the numbers might not tell the whole story. If the offensive line can keep Martinez upright, he'll have time to find open receivers. Other than cornerback Micah Hyde, there isn't a lot to fear in this secondary.
Iowa Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Five weeks ago, Iowa was 4-2 and running back Mark Weisman had four straight 100-yard games, sparking a mini "Weisman for Heisman" campaign. Then Weisman got hurt and was either limited or out for the next four games and Iowa went into a tailspin. The sophomore had 16 carries last week and is listed as probable for this game, but it seems unlikely he'll be at full strength.
That being said, power backs like Weisman have given the Huskers some trouble this year. Penn State's Zach Zwinak and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell both had success running on the Blackshirts, but those experiences should work in their favor here. Plus, the negated threat of a passing game will allow safeties P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford to creep toward the line of scrimmage.
There is also no sign of the troubling mobile quarterback here - James Vandenberg is averaging less than a yard per carry this year. He has the ability to move a little bit, but he's not going to burn anyone on the ground. Expect the Huskers to key in on Weisman and try to take him out of the game plan early, forcing Iowa to the air.
Iowa Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
Another week came and another quarterback fell victim to NU's suffocating pass defense. This time the victim was Philip Nelson, who missed on 15 of his final 19 passes and threw a pair of interceptions. Don't expect the Huskers to let up on Vandenberg. On Tuesday, Pelini said he thought nickelback Ciante Evans was the best cornerback in the conference. Look for the junior to prove it on Friday.
Vandenberg entered the season with high expectations but has been a disappointment. He has only six passing touchdowns, 1,349 yards and a 57.8 completion percentage. He hasn't been helped by receiver Keenan Davis or tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, both of whom have followed up preseason all-conference hype with 26-catch campaigns.
The Iowa offensive line isn't particularly stout, but it doesn't get Vandenberg killed either. Maybe defensive coordinator John Papuchis looks to send some blitzes at him early on to keep him guessing. Either way, it's hard to see Vandenberg turning his season around against one of the nation's best secondaries.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Depending on Burkhead's health, Abdullah could be back in his old position of punt returner. Nebraska likes him back deep and he's certainly explosive, but he has muffed a few punts this year and NU's return units have given them almost nothing in recent weeks. If Abdullah is counted on heavily in the running game again, expect Turner or Tim Marlowe (if healthy) to assume the return duties.
The Hawkeyes have all of nine punt returns on the season and are averaging fewer than seven yards on each, rendering their punt return game nearly useless. Jordan Cotton does give them a spark returning kicks, however. He averages 28.4 yards per return and has taken a kickoff for a score this year.
Mike Meyer has been dependable as the Iowa kicker, making eight of his ten attempts. The Hawkeye offense hasn't given him a lot of opportunities, but he tends to come through when he gets them.
I think this match-up comes down to Brett Maher's kickoffs. If he consistently boots them out of the endzone and keeps Cotton from getting a shot, Nebraska wins this match-up. But based on past performance, it's nearly impossible to predict how this unit will play from week to week.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It focuses on the task at hand, which shouldn't be anything new considering they have done a good job of it for much of the season. It's senior day at Iowa and the Hawkeyes will be out for blood knowing there is no postseason awaiting them. If NU lets them in it early, Iowa could make this a game. But if the Huskers can jump ahead quickly, the Hawkeyes don't have the talent to match up.
Iowa Will Win If:
The Huskers come out flat and commit a couple of deadly turnovers. Vandenberg will have to play even better than people predicted before the season began, and stealing some field position (or points) on a Cotton kick return wouldn't hurt.
The Big Ten title game is right there for Nebraska. It's all the players and coaches have talked about for four months and now it's sitting there in front of them. There is no doubt Iowa would love to keep NU from reaching its goal, but the Huskers won't allow themselves to get so close and not come out on top.