The Hawkeye regular season comes to a close this weekend as Iowa visits Lincoln for the season finale. A win for Iowa would give them their second 10-win season in three years, and third in the last seven. A 10th win would also give Iowa their best record over a four-year span since the late 1950s. Nebraska, on the other hand, will finish 2021 with their fifth-straight losing season. Head coach Scott Frost cleaned out his staff early in the month of November, getting rid of four offensive coaches. The Huskers are 3-8 this season, and Frost has won just 15 games in his four years in Lincoln.
The Heroes Game Rivalry
Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011 and established a new border rivalry game with Iowa called the Heroes Game. The rivalry was on and off throughout the 20th century, but Nebraska’s invitation to the conference reignited the yearly matchup. The idea behind the “Heroes” game was to honor citizens from each state for their acts of heroism. Each year, a group of individuals is invited down to the field to be recognized for their brave acts over the last calendar year.
Since the beginning of the rivalry game in 2011, Iowa has won the last six meetings, and seven of the last 10. The last three contests have finished as one-score games, two of which come down to last-second field goals by the Hawkeyes. No matter the record of these two programs, this is one of the most hard-fought games of the season on both ends. The rivalry is very evident between the fans, and the battle on the field emulates that emotion.
Adrian Martinez Out
Early this week at Frost’s press conference, he announced that Nebraska’s starting quarterback Adrian Martinez would not play against Iowa. He suffered a shoulder injury in the second quarter against Wisconsin last week. Martinez re-entered the game to start the third quarter and almost led a dramatic victory on the road. According to Frost, the injury is significant enough to keep him sidelined for the last game of the season. It is potentially the senior’s final game as a Husker inside Memorial Stadium. Frost did not comment if he would return for an additional year of eligibility.
With Martinez out, it will be up to two freshman quarterbacks with limited playing experience this season. Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarburg will be taking reps at practice this week and likely share the duties on Friday. Smothers has appeared in four games this season completing seven passes for 119 yards. Haarburg has not made an appearance in his young career at Nebraska. The two quarterbacks lack the experience of Martinez but were both highly touted recruits. Smothers was a former four-star from Alabama, and Haarburg was a three-star from in-state.
Establish the Run
In the month of November, the Hawkeye offense has been able to get a better feel for the run game. Tyler Goodson is up over 300 yards in this month alone and is just 55 yards away from a 1,000-yard season. His production has been complemented by the speed of Arland Bruce IV and the young talent of Gavin Williams. Nebraska’s run defense has been below average this season. The group ranks 104th nationally in the category and gives up an average of 143 yards on the ground per game.
The Hawkeyes have given the ball to four or more different players on the ground in 10 of their 11 games this season. The usual running backs have been solid this year, but the option to give to receivers on the end-around has added another level of dynamics to the offense. Bruce and Charlie Jones have been productive with the ball in their hands all season. When they can take handoffs in the backfield, it makes the offense that much more effective. Against the Huskers’ run defense on Friday, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more than four Hawkeye players get the ball in the backfield with a great chance to make something happen.
Opportunity Up Front
The Hawkeyes will have another significant advantage this week in Lincoln. Nebraska’s offensive line ranks worst in the Big Ten by far when it comes to pass protection. According to Pro Football Focus, they have a 28.4 pass-blocking grade. Martinez has been sacked 28 times this year which is the most in the conference. He has also been pressured 164 times on the season, good for second-most in the entire country. Luckily for the Huskers thus far, Martinez has been elusive and able to generate plays outside of the pocket. However, on Friday, Nebraska will be playing with either Smothers or Haarburg instead, who are both freshmen. While talented, they will be forced to elude pressure all afternoon allowed by their offensive line.
On the other side of the ball, Iowa has three guys that can generate consistent pressure. Joe Evans lines up on the edge and leads the team with seven sacks on the year. He also had the game-winning strip-sack against Minnesota two weeks ago. Evans’ ability to produce pressure on the opposing quarterback has been huge this year for the Hawkeye front, and he’ll have a great opportunity against Nebraska.
Another guy that will make noise on Friday is Lukas Van Ness. The redshirt freshman has five sacks this season and has hurried the opposing quarterback 13 times. He lines up next to Zack Van Valkenburg who ranks first on the team in rush defense according to Pro Football Focus. This defensive front can potentially outmatch the offensive line of Nebraska this weekend and force a lot of pressure on their young quarterback. That pressure can cause errant throws to a secondary known for their interception capabilities. Iowa leads the country with 21 interceptions this season by 11 different players.
Iowa Visits Lincoln for Season Finale
Despite the dramatic difference in records, Nebraska opened as a four-point favorite. The line has now swung in favor of the Hawkeyes, but the numbers from Las Vegas symbolize the tough match that Nebraska has been for every team this season. The Huskers have not lost by more than nine points to a ranked team this year, and the story will likely be similar on Friday. Iowa is used to playing close games; they almost seem to prefer it. Six of Iowa’s nine wins this season have been by 10 points or less. A close game plays into the hands of the Hawkeyes. Nebraska has fallen short many times this season due to questionable play-calling and decision-making late in games. As Iowa visits Lincoln for the season finale, the 11th Heroes Game will likely be another battle until the final whistle. A victory on Black Friday would mean a seventh 10-win season for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes.