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What Husker fans need to know about the Iowa Hawkeyes

November 24, 2018

A preview of Iowa, the final opponent in the first season of the Scott Frost era.

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Record: 7-4 (4-4)

Offensive yards per play: 5.51 (T-79th nationally)

Defensive yards per play: 4.44 (7th)

Turnover margin: plus-7 (T-22nd)

Penalty yards per game: 47.2 (33rd)

Coach

Kirk Ferentz (150-101 at Iowa, 20th season)

The dean of Big Ten coaches — the dean of pretty much all college football coaches not named Bill Snyder — Ferentz pulled off the rare feat, successfully following a legend. Ferentz has equaled, and in some ways surpassed, Hayden Fry’s success. Steady and sometimes unspectacular, Ferentz was on shaky ground after four mediocre seasons from 2011-14, when he also spent a lot of time raising money for Iowa’s indoor football facility. That’s been built, and Iowa’s program, since switching to morning practices, has been more competitive. The 63-year-old Ferentz has what amounts to a lifetime contract at Iowa that runs through the 2026 season. The pro-style offense hasn’t changed much in the past 15 years, the defense bends but rarely breaks and the return game is usually pretty good. Iowa has an identity. It’s Ferentz.

Offense

Type: Pro-style

Coordinator: Brian Ferentz

Father hired son. And to be fair, Brian has been a pretty good playcaller since taking over. Iowa still has a zone-based run scheme that relies on well-coached linemen moving quickly in unison while a running back remains patient for a hole to emerge, often on the backside of the play. It’s not fancy, and it doesn’t break a lot of big plays, but it keeps defenses honest. Mekhi Sargent (575 yards) and Toren Young (547) are Iowa’s two top backs. The Hawkeyes’ play-action passing is a big-play operation, thanks to tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, two of the nation’s best. They have combined for 79 catches, 1,170 yards and 13 touchdowns. Iowa uses them together and separately on crossing routes, wheel routes and go routes. Nebraska’s linebackers and safeties will have to be on their game. Quarterback Nate Stanley is streaky, but he averages 7.4 yards per attempt, which means when he hits, it’s usually for big yards. He’s not much of a runner and he can have fumble issues.

Defense

Type: 4-3

Coordinator: Phil Parker

He’s been with Kirk Ferentz since the beginning of his tenure in 1999. Parker coached defensive backs until 2012, when he took over as defensive coordinator, and he’s built Iowa into one of the nation’s best overall defenses. The defensive line — featuring Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson, Chauncey Golston, Matt Nelson and A.J. Epenesa — is the best run-stuff/pass-rush combo in the Big Ten West. They’ll be hard for Nebraska to move around. Iowa had to replace all of its top linebackers from last season, but the Hawkeyes are getting serviceable play from Jack Hockaday, Kristian Welch and Nick Niemann. The secondary, anchored by safeties Jake Gervase and Geno Stone, has helped Iowa to 17 interceptions. It’s a good crew. Iowa generally relies on a four-man pass rush and forces opponents to put together long drives for touchdowns. The Hawkeyes, like Michigan State, are sound, tough and confident.

Players to watch

Fant and Hockenson: Super-fast Fant can play receiver, too, if needed while Hockenson sneaks out of his blocking to slip behind linebackers. Iowa is more dangerous when both are on the field, though Brian Ferentz doesn’t always pair them together.

Epenesa: The rare five-star player to commit to Iowa, Epenesa, whose dad played for Fry, has lived up to the hype. He has 13 sacks in two seasons and, at 6-foot-5, 277 pounds, he’s almost ideal for a prototypical end. He’ll play many years in the NFL.

Amani Hooker: The junior safety, one of the quarterbacks of Iowa’s defense, has four interceptions and 53 tackles. While he’s not overly big — 6-0, 210 — he patrols the back end of the defense well.

They said it

“They know what the opposing team is trying to do. They really do. They really study your plays, your run game and they’re communicating well.” — Nebraska offensive coordinator Troy Walters on Iowa’s defense

“You know, 150 is the number, but all the players that have been part of this, that’s the story right there. That’s the fun part about it all.” — Kirk Ferentz on winning his 150th game at Iowa with the 63-0 victory over Illinois

Three stats

9.21: Yards per attempt on third down for Iowa’s pass offense. The Hawkeyes have been explosive on that down.

28.45: Yards per kick return, which leads the Big Ten and is third in the nation. Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette has 15 returns for 478 yards. He’s dangerous.

13: Sacks allowed. That’s really good, and speaks to Stanley’s occasional ability to get out of the pocket plus the Hawkeyes’ ability to protect. Nebraska’s pass rush better pack a lunch.

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