By Pat Harty
LINCOLN, Neb. – So it has come to this, a Black Friday matchup between Iowa and Nebraska in which nobody outside of both fan bases has much interest, and even some of those fans are fading.
A game that both sides want to be special is just another game between two average-to-below average teams.
Other than being played on Friday and for the Heroes Trophy, this game has no real significance this year besides Mike Riley’s situation and whether 6-5 Iowa will improve its bowl status.
Most signs point to this being Riley’s last game as the Nebraska head coach and that former Cornhusker Scott Frost will return to his alma mater in hopes of restoring the program’s dominance.
Of course, it’s a big deal to Cornhusker fans because with exception to family and faith, nothing means more to them than Nebraska football.
And right now, Nebraska (4-7) isn’t very good, but neither is Iowa.
“Obviously, the more you win, the better off you are,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “And equally important is to go into the bowl preparation part of the season on a positive note. So those are all important things.
“And then certainly Nebraska has got a lot to play for also. They're a storied program in college football. They've got a lot of pride and we expect nothing but their best shot on Friday.”
Friday’s game from my perspective is different than the other 11 games this season because I don’t have a feeling either way as to who will prevail.
I picked Iowa to lose at Iowa State and to win at home against Penn State because that’s how I felt, and was actually pretty close in both cases.
I bought into the 55-24 beat-down against Ohio State on Oct. 4 at Kinnick Stadium and then mistakenly picked Iowa to win at Wisconsin the following week because I thought the Badgers were too injured, too suspect at quarterback and that Iowa finally was clicking on all cylinders.
I witnessed the meltdown in Madison from a frozen press box, but still gave Iowa the benefit of the doubt against Purdue last Saturday because the game was played on Senior Day at Kinnick Stadium and because Purdue, while having shown significant improvement under first-year coach Jeff Brohm, still was just 4-6 heading into the game, with one of the losses coming at home against Nebraska.
In each of Iowa’s 11 previous games, I went with a gut feeling, a hunch, or whatever you want to call it.
But with Nebraska, there is no gut feeling or hunch, only uncertainty.
On one side, you have a Nebraska team that is horrible against the run, assured of a losing record and led by a head coach, who barring the biggest surprise since maybe when Riley was hired at Nebraska, will be fired shortly after Friday’s game after just three seasons.
Riley is the fourth head coach to fail at Nebraska since Tom Osborne retired after the 1997 season, which also marks the last time Nebraska won a national title.
Bo Pelini was the closet to succeeding, considering he won at least nine games in each of his seven seasons as head coach. But Pelini lost the support of his administration by being surly, combative and disrespectful.
Riley is the polar opposite of Pelini in terms of personality, but Riley lost the support of his administration by losing too many games.
His record is 19-18 heading into Friday’s game.
On the other side, you have an Iowa team with a sputtering running game, an inconsistent passing game, an awful punt and punt return game and a defense that might be wearing down because of so many three-and-outs by the offense.
The Cornhuskers might have an emotional edge simply because it’s their Senior Day, or maybe they’ll pull an Iowa and come out flat and then lay an egg on Senior Day.
Nebraska senior receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El caused a stir this week when he said to the media that nobody likes Iowa.
But to me, trash talk is over-rated.
The desire to win for Riley is another factor to consider from an emotional standpoint.
It’s hard to know which team is more locked in at this stage.
From a matchup standpoint, you’d like to think that Iowa could do some damage on the ground against Nebraska’s sieve-like defense, which is ranked 13th in the conference in rushing defense, allowing a whopping 205.8 yards per game.
Former Iowa linebacker Bob Diaco is in his first and probably his last season as the Nebraska defensive coordinator, and to say that his new 3-4 scheme has been a failure would be an understatement.
The problem is that Iowa is ranked 12th in the Big Ten in rushing offense, averaging just 126.9 yards per game.
Senior Akrum Wadley needs 138 yards to reach 1,000 on the season. Iowa would likely be in good shape if Wadley achieves that milestone because it would create balance and allow for play action.
“Everybody's got to execute for us to have a good opportunity to run the football,” Ferentz said. “And that's the backs, the tight ends, obviously the linemen and the receivers are part of that, at least on big plays. Typically if they're getting in there doing a good job, that gives you a chance to break something loose. You've watched us.
“Nothing's been easy for us we haven't done anything consistently as well. But that's the goal. But to execute it and go out and do it on Friday.”
Iowa’s secondary will be tested by a Nebraska offense that is ranked third in the conference in passing offense, averaging 284.5 yards per game.
Senior quarterback Spencer Lee can make a lot of throws and isn’t afraid to throw into tight windows. But he also gets careless at times, evidenced by his 13 interceptions.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley has thrown 23 touchdown passes and just six interceptions, but 10 of his touchdowns came in victories over Iowa State and Ohio State.
In the other nine games, Stanley has been inconsistent.
This game also will test Ferentz’s ability to motivate his players. He obviously failed in that regard against Purdue because one of his players (Nate Stanley) said Purdue played harder and wanted it more, while another (senior defensive tackle and Nebraska native Nathan Bazata) said Iowa was flat against Purdue.
I could keep going back and forth comparing both teams and the intangibles, but what’s the point?
So with no gut feeling, I’m picking the team I cover to win a close game simply because it’s the team I cover.
I wish I had more confidence, but the last two weeks took a lot of that out of me.
Prediction: Iowa 28, Nebraska 25
Iowa 28, Nebraska 25: Iowa scores its points with two Josh Jackson pick sixes, four Miguel Recinos field goals and two point-after kicks and a safety by Nebraska native Nathan Bazata.
Iowa State 34, Kansas State 23: Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard is so paranoid that Bill Snyder might try to convince Matt Campbell to replace him at Kansas State that Pollard never lets them speak before or after the game without him being present.
Ohio State 23, Michigan 20: Jim Harbaugh signs a life-time contract with Michigan shortly after losing to Ohio State for the third year in a row.
Alabama 27, Auburn 24: Nick Saban celebrates the victory by screaming at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn and to stop having fun because there is no time or place in life for fun.
Notre Dame 30, Stanford 27: Notre Dame officials are told before the game that the Fighting Irish still would get playoff consideration if they win because the chance to make tons of money means more than honoring the four best teams.
Last week: 3-2
Iowa 31, Nebraska 23: I'm not sure what Mike Riley's buyout is, but pretty soon Nebraska will be paying three head coaches.
Iowa State 42, Kansas State 10: Bill Snyder spurns his son and names Matt Campbell the heir to the throne after getting smoked by the Cyclones.
Ohio State 45, Michigan 28: "The Game" hasn't been much of a game recently.
Auburn 34, Alabama 31: I know I'm stupid for picking against Saban in a big game, but I like to live dangerously.
Notre Dame 28, Stanford 21: It's fairly early on Thanksgiving morning but I must already be drunk because I'm picking Notre Dame to win.
Last week: 4-1
Randy Devine (Tyler's father)
Iowa 49, Nebraska 10: Iowa changes things up and and has Stanley punt and Rastetter plays quarterback. Also, Nebraska holds a special ceremony for Mike Riley to thank him for his three years there and then fires him at midfield.
Kansas State 55, Iowa State 45: Bill Snyder runs by the Iowa State sidelines giving Matt Campbell the bird and yells obscenities while grabbing his crotch. After which he has to be wheeled to the sideline.
Ohio State 45, Michigan 24: Jim Harbaugh tries to sneak in the game to play quarterback, but his wide hips give him away.
Alabama 28, Auburn 21: Auburn has Warren Holloway be a honorary captain to get inside Saban's head.
Stanford 24, Notre Dame 21: Notre Dame is flagged for faking injuries in the forth quarter. Iowa fans all over the world say a collective "it's about freaking time".