The question marks surrounding Nebraska's running game are bigger than ever coming off last week's dismal performance against Michigan. The Huskers rushed for just 138 yards on 31 attempts in the loss, with junior running back Rex Burkhead putting up his worst individual output of the season with just 36 yards on 10 carries. Burkhead was also held without a touchdown for the first time this season.
The good news is Iowa's defense has hasn't exactly been all that great against the run this season, giving up 153.8 yards per game on the ground to rank seventh in the Big Ten Conference and 63rd nationally. The Hawkeyes' front seven is led by a strong defensive line and linebackers Christian Kirksey (93 tackles) and James Morris (92), but Nebraska should be able to find better success running the football this week.
NU Pass Offense vs. UI Pass Defense
After a string of productive and efficient games throwing the football, sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez took a step back last week by completing just 39 percent of his passes for just 122 yards against the Wolverines. Even more concerning was the pressure he was under all game, as he was sacked a season-high three times. The Huskers now rank 104th nationally in passing offense with just 166.9 yards per game.
Again, Iowa's defense should provide a much better match-up today. The Hawkeyes rank dead last in the Big Ten against the pass, giving up 234.0 yards per game through the air. Iowa also ranks ninth in the conference and 73rd nationally in pass efficiency defense at 133.59. If NU's offensive line can give Martinez some time to throw and his receivers can catch the ball, he could have a better day today.
UI Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Iowa has been as good as any team in the Big Ten at running football, ranking third in the conference in rushing offense and 14th nationally with 224.1 rushing yards per game. Running back Marcus Coker is the league's second-leading rusher with 1,297 yards this season, but the Hawkeyes' next leading rusher (De'Andre Johnson) has only 79 yards on just 18 carries this year.
Nebraska's run defense has been up and down all year. While mobile quarterbacks have been the real Achilles heel for the Blackshirts this season, they were gashed last week by true freshman Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint for 138 yards and two touchdowns. The Huskers should be a little deeper on the defensive line this week, but their front seven will need to be as good as ever to contain Iowa's physical ground attack.
UI Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
As good as Iowa's running game has been this season, its passing game has been almost even better. The Hawkeyes rank third in the Big Ten in passing offense with 241.3 yards per game. Quarterback James Vandenberg has completing better than 60 percent of his passes and has thrown for 2,624 yard with 23 touchdown passes to just five interceptions. There also might not be a better receiver in the conference than Marvin McNutt, who leads the Big Ten in receiving yards (112.7 per game), receiving touchdowns (12) and is second with 6.7 catches per game.
The Huskers plan to match-up senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard on McNutt as much as possible today, which should make Vandenberg at least think twice about locking in on McNutt on pass plays. The rest of the secondary has to do a much better job if NU is going to slow down Iowa's passing attack, as it's been torched by too many times this season.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Junior kicker/punter Brett Maher may have been left off the lists of Groza and Guy award finalists, but he's still put up a terrific year. Maher is 17-of-20 on field goals this season and a perfect on 40-of-40 on extra-points. His 17 field goals have him just one kick shy of the top five on the NU single-season list for field goals made. Returner Ameer Abdullah has been made a non-factor of later, as teams have made it a point to kick away from him at all costs in recent weeks.
Iowa's kicking game has been OK this year, but it's definitely had its share of issues. Kicker Mike Meyer has made just 14-of-20 field goals on the year, including having one kick blocked. Returner Micah Hyde also poses a threat to break off a long return, but Nebraska's coverage teams have been fairly solid in their own right.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can put together the type of effort it had earlier in the year against Michigan State on both sides of the ball. The Huskers need Burkhead to be his normal productive self, and the Blackshirts need to be as aggressive as ever and keep the Hawkeyes' offense from getting into a groove.
Iowa Will Win If:
It can follow a similar game plan to what every other team that's knocked off Nebraska this season has done: get out to an early lead and force the Huskers to panic offensively. A heavy dose of Coker could open things up for Vandenberg, and McNutt is the caliber of player that can burn any defense in the country if given the chance.
Nebraska and Iowa haven't played each other since 2000, but that doesn't mean this game doesn't already have the feel of a longstanding bitter rivalry. Given that and the fact that the Huskers desperately need to have something positive happen after last week, emotions will be riding high both for the team and the NU fans. With it also Senior Day, there will be no shortage of motivation for the Huskers to come out swinging today.