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Nebraska’s improved offensive line gets one final test against Iowa’s stout (and tall) front

November 21, 2018
Nebraska's offensive line runs onto the field for the final play of the game against Minnesota Oct. 20 at Memorial Stadium.

It almost seemed silly to ask the question.

Of course Nebraska offensive tackle Brenden Jaimes has taken note of Iowa’s defensive line, particularly the ends.

“They have great length, great speed, great power,” Jaimes said Tuesday. “I think they’re some of the best defensive ends we’ve seen all year.”

He’s mostly referring to sophomore A.J. Epenesa (6-foot-5, 277 pounds), junior Anthony Nelson (6-7, 270) and senior Parker Hesse (6-3, 261). The three ends help spearhead an Iowa defense that, at least statistically, is more impressive than the rugged Michigan State unit that put Nebraska’s offense through the wringer for much of last week’s game.

Although Nebraska prevailed 9-6 in Lincoln, “It was like fighting for blades of grass — kind of a bloody-nose fight,” said Husker offensive tackle Matt Farniok, who starts on the right side opposite Jaimes.

“It was great preparation for Iowa,” Farniok added in reference to Nebraska’s season-ending game at 11 a.m. Friday in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) leans pretty hard on a defense that ranks sixth nationally in terms of yards allowed per game (279.5). Meanwhile, Michigan State ranks 19th (320.1). The Hawkeyes also top the Spartans in passing defense (17th nationally compared with 83rd), scoring defense (ninth compared with 17th) and sacks (31.0 compared with 25.0).

Sparty, however, leads the nation in rushing defense (78.9), though the Hawkeyes also are strong at No. 8 (99.5).

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Epenesa, who was a five-star recruit coming out of Edwardsville, Illinois, leads the team in both tackles for loss (13½) and sacks (8½), while Nelson is second with 7½ sacks.

So, it could be another game in which Nebraska (4-7, 3-5) will have to scrape hard for yards and points.

Husker offensive line coach Greg Austin said his improving group will enter the game with confidence.

“Over the course of the last seven weeks, we’ve had a measure of success,” the coach said. “We’ve done a pretty good job. But we knew we had our work cut out for us (against Michigan State). That’s one of the best defensive lines that we’ve faced. It was going to be a fight, and our (linemen) kept the faith.

“They just kept coming back to the sideline and saying, ‘Hey, keep on running the ball, keep on running the ball.’ We knew if there was one little slither, a gap that was open, it was going to be closed in a half a second. That was different than really any other defense we’ve played beside Michigan.

“Our guys kept working and did a pretty damned good job.”

The objective for each lineman against Michigan State was to put a body on a body and be more physical than the opposing lineman. Nebraska’s line “absolutely” will take that approach against Iowa, Austin said.

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However, he acknowledged the height of Iowa’s linemen changes Nebraska’s approach a bit.

“They’re really, really, really good technicians with their hands,” Austin said. “So we’re going to have to do a really good job of getting the leverage that we need to try to get up and under them — and put our bodies on their bodies.”

Farniok, a sophomore, was recruited heavily by Iowa and respects Iowa’s history of having strong line play.

“It’s going to be like Michigan State again,” he said. “It’s going to be a hard-fought battle for inches at a time. It’s going to be kind of an exciting game.”

Nebraska, winner of four of its last five games, has plenty left to prove, Farniok said.

“We want to prove that we’re figuring it out and we’re going to be a team that can be dangerous next year,” he said. “I mean, obviously we didn’t start out this season the way we wanted, but we’re putting it together and putting on a strong finish, and we want to end this season right.”

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