LINCOLN — Now we'll see. Now we'll see what kind of rivalry Nebraska-Iowa could be for the next several years. If it's any kind of rivalry at all. It's up to Iowa to decide.
The Huskers play for the Legends Division title and a berth to the Big Ten title game. After an ugly 42-17 loss to Michigan, the Hawkeyes play for nothing more than a year-old Heroes Trophy and the subversive satisfaction of sticking it to a neighbor.
Given the apathy Iowa and its coach, Kirk Ferentz, have shown for seizing the moment in 2012, it's even odds that the home team lays a Hawk egg on Black Friday. But given Nebraska's propensity for ... adventure ... in road games this year, there's a small chance for a real contest. For this series to get its teeth. For Nebraska to actually earn its trip to Indianapolis in four quarters instead of getting a two-day vacation to Iowa City.
Thanks to DVR, there are no teams that I've watched more in 2012 than NU and UI, and they've developed distinct identities. Both teams know precisely who they are. Only one of them is happy about it.
As its 38-14 win against Minnesota again proved, there are few teams in the nation — and none in the Big Ten — that attack the perimeter of a defense better than Nebraska. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck's “stretch-and-puncture” philosophy first gasses the so-so defensive athletes of the Big Ten with toss plays, quick screens and wide sweeps. Then he pounds the interior gaps left behind by fear and overpursuit.
Beck's crafty about how he gets defenses moving like a worn-out accordion, but the underlying goal is simple. And he has the athletes — the speed, the moves, the quicks — to make it work.
Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis wouldn't mind a little stretch-and-puncture; he did some of that at Texas. But he doesn't have the pieces. Ferentz hasn't recruited them.
The Hawkeyes' offensive identity remains fixed to a spot like its quarterback James Vandenberg, a smart kid who's lost confidence and the ability to make plays. Iowa puts its offensive hopes on Mark Weisman, a fifth-string big back with injury concerns and a downhill style that defenses will figure out.
One offense lives on the cutting edge, landing haymakers and committing its share of turnovers. The other offense possesses the ball fine — until it punts. And NU's defense, flaws and all, has settled into its identity, too: beat us with your quarterback and receivers. Throw or scramble your way to a win. And Big Ten quarterbacks not named Braxton Miller — at least right now — can't do it.
The Hawkeyes' defense creates turnovers and puts up a fight for as long as its offense will allow. But it has consistently withered on the vine in the fourth quarter. A defensive line full of two-star talent is 116th in sacks and 105th in tackles for loss. The back seven is active and athletic — they're the best players on Iowa's team — but simply asked to do too much.
Some of the gulf between the two programs — which were inches apart in 2009 — boils down to talent; Ferentz doesn't have the same caliber of athletes that he did three years ago. But the Hawkeyes' level of innovation — on both sides of the ball — is a step behind the Huskers. So is the level of moxie.
The Hawkeyes sit on the verge of slipping into the ether with a bad game Friday, and they may know it. Ferentz's contract is so lush and so long that he's not going anywhere, but a pummeling in Kinnick Stadium — to the team that's going to be on the schedule every year for decades — could throw all of Iowa's other playing cards into the air this offseason.
As for Nebraska? It talked a little too big of a game during its first year in the Big Ten. But in Year 2, it's true: The league has to adjust to the Huskers. And only a Buckeye bunch on probation has done it so far. On with The Rewind.
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>> Beck: Excellent game plan from the offensive coordinator. Even the plays that didn't work. The quick screens are just another aspect of NU's offense that defenses have to watch.
>> Wide receiver Kenny Bell: Fast. Quick. Good hands. He's 211 yards short of 1,000. He just might make it.
>> Linebacker Will Compton: He might have played his best game. He filled gaps well, broke down for tackles and hit Minnesota ball carriers with good pop.
>> Nickel Ciante Evans: Speaking of moxie, this kid has it. Smaller without pads than you imagine, but he tackles like a free safety, flipping running backs and wide receivers off the ground with that single-leg takedown.
>> Quarterback Taylor Martinez: His rocket-launcher passing mechanics made an appearance Saturday, as a picture on the front of The World-Herald's Sunday football section showed. Funny how little it matters when No. 3 commands the offense with such poise. Martinez isn't perfect. But with 2,420 passing yards, 792 rushing yards and 29 total touchdowns in 11 games, he's already had one of the great statistical seasons in NU history.
>> Athletic Director Tom Osborne: Looking at the pictures of the coaching legend running onto the field, he seemed to flash, just for a second, that competitive gaze.
>> Wide receiver Jamal Turner: Martinez said Turner put a ton of pressure on himself to score a touchdown, and finally seems free to play his game. You saw Turner's flavor Saturday. He gets to top speed with ease.
>> Cornerback Josh Mitchell: Exciting, acrobatic coverage led to two pass breakups. He has two years to polish his skills.
>> Punt return game: Special teams coordinator Ross Els said it was “nonexistent” after the Penn State game. After three returns for 7 yards, it still is.
>> Fumbles: Five more put on the ground, two more lost. Iowa leads the Big Ten in turnover margin, so expect more of the same Friday. Eventually, it'll bite the Big Red.
>> Rex Burkhead's health: That he didn't play Saturday — even for a down — suggests that Nebraska's serious about No. 22 regaining full health, and he's no sure thing for this week. If Burkhead's to be a factor at all in the Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin's physical defense, he has to shake off the rust. That means he plays Friday. Is his knee up to it?
>> Why would the Big Ten want Rutgers and Maryland? The TV sets in New York City and Baltimore/Washington D.C., have to be the top reason. Though all three cities are filled to the gills with pro sports, there's still a comfortable sports gap on Saturday afternoons in the fall. The Big Ten Network might as well fill it, right? ESPN.com is reporting that the University of Maryland Board of Regents vote on Monday could be tight.
Hey, I'd rather have Kansas and Iowa State in the Big Ten. Rutgers has a poor athletic reputation, while Maryland, a full-blooded ACC basketball school, is just a poor cultural fit for the Big Ten. But road trips to Newark and DC are cheaper and easier than trips to Penn State and Texas A&M. And those areas open new recruiting markets for Husker football and basketball teams.
>> Should Ohio State get consideration for No. 1 in the Associated Press poll? If the Buckeyes beat Michigan on Saturday and finish the year as the only undefeated team, then, yes, voters should consider them. Not as a slam dunk; OSU's overall schedule has been weak. But if we're talking about Ohio State instead of Georgia — which lost a game 35-7 — there's a conversation worth having. Even with the probation.
>> Why does the SEC always get the last laugh? Because the league wins big in high-profile nonconference games. LSU hammered Oregon last year. Alabama humiliated Michigan this year. Washington, which beat Stanford and Oregon State this year, didn't stand a chance at LSU.
Here's what else happens: When an SEC team's season goes south, it seems to go all the way south, so as to make for a nice, clean runway for the bullies. Tennessee and Arkansas, which have impressive recruiting classes, facilities and skill players, seemingly gave up on their coaches.
But two games next week should be interesting. The ACC's top two teams — Clemson and Florida State — play South Carolina and Florida, respectively. Though I haven't picked worth a darn this year, I'll take the ACC teams for the block of SEC's bragging rights.
>> 45.5: The opponent's completion rate in 2012. That's four percent lower than any other defense can boast. And in the second half, that completion rate goes down to 37 percent. Wow.
Yes, Nebraska's defense draws pass interference penalties, and that doesn't count against this rate. But the occasional spot fouls and 15-yard penalties are worth it to rattle control freaks like quarterbacks, who thrive on completing passes. Think of it like roughing up a skilled point guard as he drives the lane. Yeah, he'll get two free throws this time. But he won't get the call every time.
>> 72.2: Martinez's completion rate in the second quarter of games this year. He's completed 70 of 97 passes for 849 yards and six touchdowns in that quarter.
>> 4.11: Yards per carry for Nebraska on third-and-3 or less. It shows that NU's short-yardage game is serviceable if not always flawless.
Let's peek briefly at Wisconsin, which may await Nebraska in the Big Ten title game.
The Badgers outplayed Ohio State soundly in the second half of their 21-14 overtime loss, but you wonder how much they overextended themselves physically to do it. Compound that with a game at Penn State this week — that UW will surely try to win — and this will be a depleted, worn-down team coming into Indianapolis.
High hopes and long naps after turkey dinners.
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