The college football season has arrived at week 12, rivalry week. Iowa hosts Nebraska for the Heroes Game in the regular season finale inside Kinnick Stadium. In this year’s rivalry, there’s more at stake than just one rivalry trophy. In fact, two trophies are on the line for Iowa, but the significance of this game goes beyond the hardware.
About a month ago, this final game against Nebraska existed as a seemingly irrelevant final game. The early season struggles and 3-4 record through seven games felt insurmountable. Four straight wins later, a victory on Black Friday will now guarantee a repeat Big Ten West title and a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game. The final regular season game for this team, and especially the seniors, represents more than just a chance at a title. It symbolizes the product that true team football can create. If you control what you can control, do the little things correctly, and ignore the outside noise, things will fall into place. They have, and Iowa now controls its own destiny, one win away from championship weekend.
Red Zone Offense
The commonality in each of Iowa’s last four wins has been their ability to capitalize on the opportunities in the red zone. In August and September, Iowa’s red zone conversion rate was 123rd nationally at 66%. Only two of their six attempts in that time frame resulted in touchdowns. In October, not including the Northwestern game, Iowa also had just two touchdowns on six red zone attempts.
Things changed in game number eight. Against the Wildcats, Iowa was five for five on scoring in the red area with two touchdowns. In November so far, Iowa is scoring on 87% of their red zone attempts, good for 55th nationally. They’ve scored touchdowns on four of their eight red zone attempts this month.
In the Hawkeyes’ first seven games, they had 12 total red zone attempts. In their last four games, they’ve had 13. These numbers aren’t astronomical, but they are a significant improvement, and the wins are coming as a result.
Cornhusker Coaching Change
Nebraska enters the Heroes Game at 3-8 overall. They are off of a close loss at home in which they gave up 12 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to lose to Wisconsin by one. The program moved on from their head coach three games into this season and just 21 days before his buyout would have dropped from $15 million to $7.5 million. Scott Frost was fired after going 12-31 in his four years and change in Lincoln. Twenty-two of those 31 losses came by a margin of just one score. The university’s decision to move on from Frost was inevitable and heavily warranted, as the perennial lack of production was not a byproduct of their largely talented roster.
Mickey Joseph, the team’s former associate head coach and passing game coordinator, was named the interim. He led the team to two wins in their next three games. However, they have since dropped five straight. Two of which were without their starting quarterback, Casey Thompson.
Nebraska Turnover Struggles
The Cornhuskers have turned the ball over 18 times this season and 13 of them have been interceptions. That is good for the fourth-most interceptions in the FBS. Thompson, the Texas quarterback transfer, landed at Nebraska after being one of the more highly-touted transfer players this past offseason. He has started in nine of Nebraska’s 11 games this season and will start on Friday. Thompson’s 236 passing yards per game is fourth in the Big Ten, but he has thrown 10 interceptions this season, averaging more than one per game played.
Broyles Award semifinalist Phil Parker has Iowa’s defense among the top six in several categories, including total passing defense. They have allowed 66 completions on 123 attempts in their last four games (53%), and have six interceptions in that time frame. Iowa is tied for second nationally this year in interceptions gained during the month of November. In the Heroes Game, Iowa will have an opportunity to add to their numbers against an interception-prone offense.
The Mark Whipple Offense
Parker’s opposition will be Mark Whipple who took over as offensive coordinator in Lincoln this season. His pass-heavy offense is derived from a west-coast scheme called a drive concept. In short, it stems from a two-receiver combination route consisting of crossing patterns designed to force a defensive secondary’s hand. Based on how the secondary reacts to these crossers, other receivers are able to make a read and adjust their routes to the open field. This was very successful in Whipple’s offense last season at Pittsburgh. Their veteran quarterback and receiver combination was able to execute this concept at a variety of different levels.
The transition of this offense to Nebraska hasn’t been as seamless as the folks in Lincoln would have hoped. Whipple’s offense ranks 88th overall in passing, and they’ve thrown just 14 touchdowns on the season. Thompson is a first-year player in this system, and many of his receivers are new to this scheme. Because the offense is based largely on in-play reads, it can be difficult to install in just one season.
This is where the Hawkeye defense can again take advantage. Parker’s squad does a very good job of disguising coverage and confusing a quarterback’s read. It’s a significant reason why they are able to force as many interceptions as they do while limiting the explosive plays.
Husker Run Defense
Nebraska’s run defense is 117th nationally, allowing nearly 200 yards per game. That is worse than Northwestern and Purdue. Those are two teams on who Iowa accumulated 173 and 184 rushing yards on, respectively. Situationally, Nebraska has been at its worst in this category on first down. They have allowed 4.9 yards per first-down rush on 227 attempts.
On the other side of the ball, Iowa is a team that has run the ball on 65% of their first down attempts this season. The Hawkeyes will be able to establish the run game if they can take advantage of this defensive tendency. Tight end and leading receiver Sam LaPorta will not play this weekend due to injury, making a successful run game vital.
Iowa’s Heroes Game Opportunity
This week in the Heroes Game, the model makes Iowa an 8.2-point favorite on Black Friday. The energy inside Kinnick Stadium will be at a high this season with two trophies on the line. Iowa has won the last seven in this series dating back to 2015, and eight of the last nine. Each of the last four meetings between these border rivals has been a one-score game. Iowa and Nebraska typically play each other close, as most meetings feature something on the line in addition to the rivalry alone.
This time, a win means more than a single rivalry trophy, more than even back-to-back Big Ten title game appearances. It will symbolize the heart and dedication to day-by-day improvements that this team has displayed each week. The seniors that take the field inside Kinnick Stadium for the last time on Friday have already proven to themselves that this process works. Now, a win will solidify a seat on Championship Weekend, a spot where just 20 FBS teams get to take the field.