WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL
What can we even say about this side of the ball after the last two weeks? The Wisconsin game was an absolute nightmare of offensive football and the Purdue game was only a very small improvement. And, as we well know, Iowa's offense has been lousy far more often than it's been competent (let alone good) this season. In Big Ten play, the Iowa offense has only cracked 20 points twice this year: against the very bad Illinois defense and in that fever dream of a game against Ohio State. On the road Iowa's offense has been even worse, scoring just two touchdowns in their first three Big Ten road games this year. There are a lot of very good reasons to be very pessimistic about Iowa's ability to score points in this game.
The counterpoint to that -- and the main (if not only) reason for optimism about Iowa's offense in this game -- is that Nebraska's defense has been a five alarm garbage fire this year. They rank last in the conference in scoring defense (34.6 ppg, which drops to 35.4 ppg in B1G-only action), and total defense (429.9 ypg). They rank 13th in run defense in terms of yards per game (205.8 ypg), but their 5.4 yards per carry average allowed is the worst in the Big Ten (by over 0.7 yards per carry) and their 27 rushing touchdowns conceded is by far the worst in the league. They've also been very accommodating against the pass this year, conceding 2465 passing yards (224.1 ypg) and allowing opposing passers to complete 64.4% of their passes (worst in the league) and 17 touchdowns against nine interceptions.
The question is: does any of that matter? The Iowa offense has made playing offensive football look like the hardest thing in the world the last two weeks, with obtaining first downs looking near-impossible and scoring touchdowns becoming as challenging as Hercules' fabled labors. Will that get any better against a defense as porous as Nebraska's has been this year? As several people have noted already, what happens when the very stoppable force meets the very movable object? This is a matchup of weakness versus weakness for both teams. May the least ineffectual prevail.
WHEN NEBRASKA HAS THE BALL
The Cornhusker offense has been competent for most of this season. It's averaging 26.8 ppg, sixth in the Big Ten. The passing game has been productive, averaging a third-best 284.5 yards per game through the air. Tanner Lee has thrown for 267.1 yards per game and 21 touchdowns; unfortunately, he's only completed 57.9% of his passes and he's also thrown 14 interceptions. There should definitely be errant passes to be found in this game; the Iowa defense just needs to get their hands on them and haul in some more interceptions (and, if possible, score some points with them). After last week I think it's fairly obvious that we can expect any passing game to target Iowa's non-Josh Jackson cornerback heavily; let's hope Matt Hankins is ready for his close-up. Nebraska has some dangerous receivers as well -- Stanley Morgan, Jr. leads the team with 912 yards and eight touchdowns on 54 receptions, while JD Spielman has 830 yards and two touchdowns on 55 receptions. Their third option at wide receiver, De'Mornay Pierson-El (on that Jess Settles eligibility plan, apparently) has 584 yards and five touchdowns on 42 receptions.
Unlike the passing game, the Nebraska rush offense has been poor this season. They rank just 13th in the Big Ten this year (one spot below Iowa!) with 111.2 yards per game and an per-carry average of 3.52. They've failed to crack 69 yards (nice) in four of their last six games and in the two outliers they managed 110 and 112 yards. This is decidedly not the fearsome Nebraska ground game of years (decades?) past. Devine Ozigbo (480 yards and three touchdowns on 3.81 yards per carry) and Mikale Wilson (340 yards and six touchdowns on 4.2 yards per carry) are the top threats on the ground.
Spielman and Pierson-El also give Nebraska some dangerous weapons in the return game. Nebraska is third in the Big Ten in kick returns, with 816 yards and a touchdown and an average return of 23.3 yards. Spielman has been the main weapon there, with 27 returns for 699 yards and a touchdown so far this season. Pierson-El has been Nebraska's main punt returner this year and while he hasn't done much so far -- 13 returns for 92 yards -- he's still dangerous back there and the punting portion of the game has been such a disaster for Iowa's special teams the last few weeks that it would hardly be a shock if he broke a return (as he did against Iowa in 2014). Maybe Iowa's punts will continue to be too short to allow much of an effective return.
If Iowa had shown even a semblance of a competent offense on a consistent basis this year, I'd feel a lot more confident about this game, given that Nebraska's defense has been lit up by pretty much every offense that it's faced this year. Iowa should be able to move the ball against Nebraska and they should be able to score points on the Huskers. But that's all reliant on the line blocking effectively, the receivers actually holding onto the ball, Stanley not overthrowing targets, and -- oh yeah -- the coaches a) coming up with an effective gameplan and b) making the right play calls. Gulp. There also the intangible factors to consider in this one. This is widely expected to be Mike Riley's last stand in Lincoln; do the Huskers play with fire to try and win one for him on his way out, or have they packed it in on this season? For that matter, how motivated will Iowa be? We've seen past Iowa teams (2006, 2010, and 2014 spring to mind) that have mailed it in a bit at the end of the season when things haven't gone their way earlier in the year -- will this Iowa team be different? I'm probably foolish, but I'm going to predict that we see just enough glimpses of competence from the Iowa offense to win this game. Iowa 27, Nebraska 17