Scouting Iowa: Breaking down the Hawkeyes
Location: Iowa City, Iowa
Coach: Kirk Ferentz (150-101, 23rd season).
Record: 7-4, 4-4 Big Ten.
Rankings: Not ranked
OFFENSIVE RATING: 5
Offensive averages / national rank
31.5 / 47
387.0 / 79
152.5 / 88
234.5 / 64
DEFENSIVE RATING: 9
Defensive averages / national rank
16.5 / 9
280.9 / 6
100.8 / 8
180.1 / 17
SPECIALISTS RATING: 6
Special-teams averages / national rank
28.5 / 3
11.1 / 43
35.9 / 96
Why you may need Rolaids
1. This will be the third-best defense Nebraska has faced, behind Michigan and Michigan State, and it’s only a tick behind those two. Iowa is top 10 in the nation in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense, and 17th in passing yards allowed. The Huskers scored 10 points against Michigan and nine points against Michigan State. Now, both of those performances come with caveats (NU was a different team vs. Michigan, and the cold and wind played a large role against Sparty). But still. Iowa has smoked the bottom teams in the Big Ten this season because it’s dominant on that side of the ball. The Hawkeyes have two shutouts this year and have allowed three points and seven points in two other games — no other defense in the Big Ten can come close to those numbers.
2. The Hawkeyes are really good up front on defense, and their best lineman isn’t even a starter. A.J. Epenesa is a former five-star recruit and is turning himself into a one-man wrecking crew. Last week against Illinois, the 6-foot-5, 277-pound sophomore had eight tackles, including 3½ for loss, 1½ sacks, blocked a punt that set up a touchdown, and forced a fumble and returned it for a touchdown. Epenesa is tied for second in the Big Ten in sacks, and is tied for fifth in tackles for loss. And yet, he has never started in his 24 career games for Iowa. Epenesa is the next freak defensive lineman to come out of the Big Ten.
3. There has been more than a little drama with how Iowa has used Omaha South grad Noah Fant this season. But the junior tight end is still one of the best in the country, and T.J. Hockenson is every bit as good, if not better. Who on Nebraska’s defense will match up with those two? Fant had three catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s massacre in Lincoln. This season, Hockenson leads the Hawkeyes in receptions (41) and receiving yards (663), and is a semifinalist for the Mackey Award given to the nation’s top tight end. Hockenson and Fant have combined for 1,170 receiving yards on 79 catches, including 13 receiving touchdowns.
Why you might chill
1. Nebraska isn’t likely to back down. The Huskers showed last week they’re better equipped to stand up to the Big Ten’s most physical teams than they were at the beginning of the season. Iowa’s offense is better than Michigan State’s, but not by a ton, and the Hawkeyes don’t have a dominant ground game. As Scott Frost said last week, the Huskers are “dangerous.” Whether that means a win in Iowa City, where Nebraska hasn’t won since 2014, remains to be seen. But NU isn’t likely to fold up like a cheap tent the way it has the past two seasons in 40-10 and 56-14 losses.
2. The weather doesn’t look like it will be a complete disaster, though the forecast calls for some rain and temperatures in the mid-40s. That will feel like a day on the beach compared to last week and should allow Nebraska to run more of its offense. The Huskers will need to do a better job of hanging on to the ball, but at least they won’t have to worry about a 30 mph wind and wind chills in the single digits affecting things.
3. Might Nebraska be the more motivated team, even though it’s Senior Day in Iowa City? The Hawkeyes are going to a bowl; it’s a just matter of which one. But for the Huskers, this is it. There have been a lot of good vibes rolling through NU’s program in recent weeks, and going into the offseason by winning five of your last six, including a win over the school to the east, would be a heck of a way to wrap up Frost’s inaugural season. Once the game starts, of course, it’s just football. But maybe in a close game late, NU finds a little something extra to finish out the year the way the Huskers want to. It doesn’t hurt that Iowa hasn’t been good in close games, either. The Hawkeyes are 0-3 in one-score games, with losses by six, four and two points.
By the numbers
The number of passes Iowa has intercepted this season. That number leads the Big Ten and is second nationally.
The number of points Nebraska scored the last time it beat Iowa, a 37-34 overtime win at Kinnick Stadium in 2014. That’s the only time the Huskers have cracked the 30-point barrier against the Hawkeyes since joining the Big Ten.
The number of 100-yard rushing games by Iowa players this season. It didn’t happen until last week at Illinois, when Mekhi Sargent went for 121 yards and two touchdowns.
Chad Leistikow covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.
Is Iowa any closer to solving its Noah Fant issue than it was before the Illinois beat-down?
It now seems to have been resolved, though it’s still a mystery why the preseason AP All-American was on the sidelines in key situations in close losses to Penn State and Northwestern. After feeling the heat for a full week, Iowa coaches deployed Fant for the offense’s first 25 snaps in Saturday’s 63-0 rout of Illinois. And, lo and behold, Fant even had the most targets of any Hawkeye (five) and scored the game’s first touchdown. He now has 19 for his career, by far a school record for tight ends.
The Ohio State win last season was certainly more of a surprise, I would imagine, but how out-of-nowhere was Saturday’s performance?
It wasn’t nearly as surprising as the Ohio State beat-down of 2017, just because this Hawkeye team has shown signs of being very, very good much of the season — but just hasn’t put it all together very often. Against Wisconsin, special teams was the problem. Against Penn State, it was an atrocious game by quarterback Nate Stanley. Against Purdue, it was an uncharacteristic stinker from the defense.
The Hawkeyes have been dominant against the bottom of the Big Ten this season. Is there anything aside from the obvious answer of Iowa just being better as to why/how the Hawkeyes have been able to take care of business in those games?
Iowa’s best position group outside of tight ends is its defensive line, and when that unit is dominating, the entire defense can be ruthless. In four of Iowa’s 11 games, the first-team defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown — including against Iowa State in an impressive 13-3 win in Week 2.
Just how good is A.J. Epenesa?
Speaking of the defensive line … Epenesa has more sacks (8½) than any Hawkeye since a guy named Mike Daniels (who had nine in 2011). Yet the sophomore comes off the bench, because Iowa has more complete defensive ends in senior Parker Hesse and junior Anthony Nelson. I’m a Chicago Bears fan, and I liken Epenesa’s impact when he’s in the game to that of Khalil Mack. The program doesn’t get five-star recruits often, and Epenesa is living up to the hype.
How did it take so long for Iowa to have a 100-yard rusher this season?
Two reasons. One, the Hawkeyes have split their carries almost evenly among three sophomores in Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. Each of them had a 90-yard game at one point earlier this season but never 100. Two, that trio just hasn’t been able to register big plays out of the run game. Iowa’s longest rush of the season remains a 40-yarder on Young’s first carry of the season.