LINCOLN — Ever since the infamous third-and-7 at Illinois, two debates have simmered about how to define Nebraska’s season. I have seen both play out on social media, in late-night voicemails to my phone and most especially my email inbox.
The first debate centered on whether the coaching staff has sufficiently adjusted to the players to maximize whatever talent or depth was on the roster, and whether that talent and depth was very good.
The second debate is whether Nebraska football can — or ever would be allowed to — take a season to adjust, learn difficult lessons and generally be equipped better for the future because of it, or if the idea of a one-year learning phase was so insulting to the history of the Huskers that, regardless of what happened, a team didn’t have time to figure itself out.
Friday’s game against Iowa can answer both questions with more clarity.
Let’s set the stage.
This is Iowa’s very best against Nebraska’s middle-of-the-road.
Isn’t that just a perfect one-game scenario for Nebraska fans?
During the course of an entire season, this is all pretty humbling to the NU faithful, but for those four hours Friday, the 90,000 at Memorial Stadium get to be college football’s gatekeepers.
This will be the first time many college football fans lay TV eyes on Iowa. Yep. First time. You already know the national media doubt Iowa. The SEC laughs at Iowa. You know that some casual fans will tune in Friday with the idea that Iowa coasted on a soft schedule. It’s bunk, of course — the Hawkeyes belong and then some — and Nebraska fans bristle at this SEC-centric narrative the rest of the time.
But Friday, NU will be asked to strike a pose for the game’s landed gentry, for the Alabamas and Notre Dames and Oklahomas, for the experts tethered to recruiting rankings like life jackets, for all those people who figure college football should be a certain way, and Iowa’s better off losing now than wasting four hours of their time on New Year’s Eve. Just like Kansas State in 1998. Just like Kansas and Missouri in 2007. Just like Oklahoma State in 2011. Just like Wisconsin all those years Wisconsin lost a game or two. And as college football royalty — the crown’s a little rusty, sure, but it’s still recognized — Nebraska fans will embrace that role of gatekeeper.
Thus, I expect at kickoff as raucous and mildly unpleasant a crowd as we’ve seen at Memorial Stadium in some time. Regardless of what the Vegas lines are, NU fans will happily embrace being the 5-6 underdog to the 11-0 Hawkeyes, and they’ll fashion a shoulder chip as a result.
But in the back of their minds, they’ll know, too: This is Iowa, and according to every historical narrative you can write in the last six decades, Nebraska has a great chance to win. Nebraska fans love a long history lesson. It tends to favor their team, after all. And you’ll hear, oh, 53 years of history Friday.
You’ll hear pride in that crowd Friday. You’ll hear expectation.
You’ll hear “earn it, Iowa.” Come on over the river and earn it.
You’ll hear what Missouri and Colorado and Kansas State used to hear in their best years — even if they stuffed it down NU’s throat, as each of those teams did at one time or another. As Iowa might Friday.
But Iowa is not Oklahoma. No ma’am. Wisconsin evokes something slightly closer to OU’s vibe, and the Badgers are not really that close. There is one Oklahoma, and there is the second tier — for Texas and Wisconsin and Colorado and Missouri, teams with some history of dry-gulching the Huskers — and there is a tier after that, and Iowa is on that tier. Iowa should have the respect of Nebraska fans — in 2012, a 4-8 Hawkeye team was one drive from beating a 10-win Husker team — but this game has more freight than all of the others combined.
This is the one game in this series Iowa should win.
The Hawkeyes will thus encounter a wall of noise, packed with history. The crowd alone will be a story and, if Iowa wins, every Hawkeye fan who makes it inside the stadium won’t forget the earned, proven silence that rakes over the stadium at game’s end. If that happens, enjoy it. That silence — Nebraska fans know the kind, for they have practiced it — is as sweet as the applause that follows.
If Nebraska wins, coach Mike Riley may not forget how it silences those two simmering debates for the next nine months.
Beat Iowa and, yes, the messy season takes a new shape, for it will have taken that mess to wake up the Huskers for two wins over top 10 teams.
Beat Iowa — the ultimate “identity” team — and Nebraska’s staff can point to clay that seems more molded than it did a month ago. Beat Iowa, and what a month of December Nebraska will have in recruiting.
Beat Iowa, and suddenly losing to Illinois and Purdue — the only two losses a reasonable Husker fan can really grouse about — look more like a pit stop, a couple of flubbed tests, than evidence of a flunking program.
Beat Iowa, and Nebraska fans — and perhaps the media — can turn the page and understand how much work the Huskers have to do to get where they want to be. Not a one-year peak like Iowa is enjoying, or even a sustained amount of success against league doormats, but a consistent streak of excellence. The kind that comes not only when you avoid losing to bad teams, but when you start beating, consistently, the really good ones.
Beat Iowa, and perhaps Husker nation can see a way to widening the margin on the rest of the Big Ten West.
The margin had closed before this year. I wrote about it earlier in the season: If you broke down Nebraska’s Big Ten tenure by plays and points, instead of games, you understood how razor-thin an advantage the Huskers really had. A series of moments — the Hail Mary against BYU, third-and-7 at Illinois, blown assignments against Northwestern — canceled the advantage and left the Huskers scrambling against a Big Ten that doesn’t fear them. This near-collapse was always a possibility under Riley’s predecessor, and unfortunately for Bo Pelini, the possibility fell on him in his first year at Youngstown State, where he went 5-6 with four losses by seven or fewer points.
Conversely, Riley got out of Oregon State before it completely fell apart in Corvallis. And it has — the Beavers are 0-8 in Pac-12 play and being outscored by an average of 41-15.
At Nebraska, you’ve seen some reasons for confidence and concern. You know most of them by heart; no need to recount them.
To beat Iowa, the Huskers must play their best game. Iowa is perhaps college football’s least likely team to give away a win. The Hawkeyes have become experts at holding foes at bay, in fact, with a power-based ground game that gets some of the canniest third-down quarterbacking from C.J. Beathard that I’ve seen all season. I’ve watched six full Iowa games now, and the Hawkeyes have an answer for every counterpunch.
A 50-50 ball? Iowa wins it.
Beathard has to be the All-Big Ten quarterback — he may not be the most talented, but his supporting cast isn’t anywhere near what Michigan State’s Connor Cook enjoys — and Iowa’s lunch-pail defense tries to keep everything in front of it. Iowa’s defense waits for the opponent to press — counts on it — and it gets its share of turnovers as a result.
Is Nebraska’s best game a clean game? Good question.
I’d like to suggest that limiting penalties and turnovers is the best recipe for success, but if it comes at the expense of the Huskers’ playmaking, I’d take Iowa. The Hawkeyes play clean and clutch. They’ve perfected it. Nebraska hasn’t.
So if it takes trick plays, so be it. If it takes risky blitzes that leave NU’s back end exposed, so be it.
Don’t expect to win third-and-4 against Iowa on either side of the ball.
Do expect that crowd to be at its best. If there is one thing Husker football will deliver Friday, it’s the fans. The toughest critics of the program, the ones that the national media insist have standards too lofty, will set a high, loud bar.
Iowa plans to make history. At the very least, Nebraska’s fans will make the Hawkeyes earn it. It’s on Riley and his team to join the brigade.
On with a truncated Rewind.
» 46: The number of third downs Nebraska and Iowa have converted in Big Ten play. Since Iowa has attempted one more third down than the Huskers, NU is deemed slightly more efficient. Iowa’s defense has been better than the Huskers’ unit, however, keeping opponents to 34.3 percent on third-down conversions. Nebraska is at 38.5 percent.
» 19: Third-down runs from Beathard that he converted into first downs. That leads all quarterbacks in college football. Beathard has 35 carries on third down, and you’d have to figure most of the other 16 carries were sacks. Which means that when Beathard takes off, he usually gets to the first-down marker.
» Plus-21: Iowa’s turnover-margin advantage over Nebraska. The Hawkeyes are plus-11 and NU is minus-10. This is not a new phenomenon; the Hawkeyes have bettered the Huskers in four of the last five seasons.
» 5.32: Yards per carry combined for Iowa’s top three backs, LaShun Daniels, Jordan Canzeri and Akrum Wadley. Nebraska has seen a lot of guys like the burly Daniels this season — BYU had a guy, Wisconsin had a few guys, Michigan State had a few guys. The one who worries me — if he gets many carries — is Wadley. He’s a big-play guy if he gets in space, and Iowa has run a nice draw play with him that can go for big yards. Wadley is the No. 3 back, so again, he doesn’t always play that much. But I think Nebraska can handle Daniels. Canzeri — shifty and a talented pass receiver — has given the Huskers some headaches out of the backfield catching the ball.
» 12: Plays allowed by Iowa’s defense of 30 yards or more this season. Only Michigan’s unit — with 11 — has been stingier. The Hawkeyes tackle well, and that helps, but I’ll posit this, too: Nebraska is tied with Indiana as the most explosive offense that Iowa has faced this season. And Iowa didn’t always defend Indiana that well. The Huskers have to stretch Iowa both ways — horizontally and vertically — to see if the Hawkeyes defenders can run with them.
Cold, windy, hopefully sunny. No rain, Snow would be OK.
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