By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – There has been speculation that Iowa might have a letdown, or even rest some key players against Nebraska on Friday since Iowa already has clinched the Big Ten West Division title.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz put an end to that silly talk when he met with the media on Tuesday.
“I’ve always looked at it as every game is important,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I know it’s not always that way. When I coached at Worcester Academy, that was the most important thing going on at that given time when we played, and I think it’s just how people are wired.
“We have every intention of doing all we can to win Friday knowing it’s going to be really tough.”
Even with the West Division already decided, Iowa still has plenty of motivation to win on Friday in Lincoln, Nebraska, including the chance to win 10 games for just the 10th time in program history, and for just the fifth time in the regular season under Kirk Ferentz.
That was part of Kirk Ferentz’s message to his players when practiced started this week.
“With all due respect, I think people don’t understand how tough it is to win games at any level,” Kirk Ferentz said.
The revenge factor also could be a factor since Nebraska kept Iowa from winning the West Division last season by defeating the Hawkeyes 24-17 at Kinnick Stadium, although, Iowa left tackle Mason Richman downplayed that angle.
“I think mostly we’re focused on ourselves and going over there and stealing a win from them,” Richman said. “It’s not really a revenge game per se because these are obviously two different teams compared to last season.
“For us, it’s just about going over there and competing. It’s going to be a real good environment and they’ll be ready to go and their coach has obviously done a great job with their team.”
Richman was referring to first-year Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule, who had the Cornhuskers off to a 5-3 start, but they have since lost three straight games due mostly to problems on offense.
Nebraska’s run defense has been rock-solid all season as opponents are only averaging 86.5 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry.
“They’ve done a great job in a short amount of time,” Kirk Ferentz said of Rhule’s coaching staff.
Iowa has won seven of the last eight games in the series, but five of the wins have been by eight or fewer points.
With a win on Friday, Nebraska (5-6) would become bowl eligible for the first time in seven years.
Therein lies more motivation for the Iowa players.
Iowa has shown a knack for winning close games under Kirk Ferentz with seven of its nine wins this season by 10 or fewer points, and three by six or fewer points.
“As much as anything, it’s the neighborhood we live in,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Wouldn’t mind trying a different neighborhood at times. When we get there, it just doesn’t seem to last long.”
Multiple factors will determine Friday’s outcome, including turnovers, field position and the matchups at each position.
Here is look at which team has the advantage at each position:
Quarterback: Barring late changes with Nebraska, Friday’s game will match a backup quarterback in Iowa sophomore Deacon Hill versus Nebraska third-team quarterback Chubba Purdy, who is the younger brother of former Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy, who now starts for the San Francisco 49ers.
Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims started the season as Nebraska’s starting quarterback, but his inability to protect the football ultimately cost him his job. Sims is now listed third on the depth chart behind Chubba Purdy and Heinrich Haarberg, who has started eight games this season, but is currently slowed by an injury.
Purdy has appeared in five games this season and has 193 passing yards and one touchdown.
Haarberg has passed for 967 yards and seven touchdowns, but he is only completing 49.0 percent of his passes and thrown seven interceptions.
Deacon Hill, meanwhile, became the starter for Iowa after Cade McNamara suffered a season-ending knee injury against Michigan State in the fifth game.
And though it’s been a struggle for Hill, he has shown recent improvement, completing 39-of-60 passes for 390 yards and two touchdowns over the last two games. He passed for a career-high 223 yards in the 22-0 victory over Rutgers, and he is now 5-1 as the starter.
Running back: The fact that Heinrich Haarberg leads Nebraska with 477 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns doesn’t speak well about the Nebraska running backs.
Anthony Grant leads the Nebraska running backs with 409 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Emmett Johnson has 384 rushing yards, while Gabe Irvin Jr. has 196 yards on the ground for Nebraska.
Senior Leshon Williams leads Iowa with 668 rushing yards, followed by sophomore Kaleb Johnson with 385 yards and redshirt freshman Jaziun Patterson with 191 yards.
Johnson had a 30-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that helped Iowa defeat Illinois 15-13 last Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Johnson and Patterson both missed three games earlier in the season because of injuries, but all three running backs are now healthy and contributing.
Wide receiver: Both units leave much to be desired from a productivity standpoint.
Billy Kemp, who transferred from Virginia, leads Nebraska with 31 catches for just 289 receiving yards, while Nico Ragaini leads Iowa with 24 catches for just 213 yards.
Kemp played in 50 games for Virginia, including 25 starts. He finished his Virginia caerrer with 192 receptions for 1,774 yards and eight touchdowns. Kemp has 2,063 career receiving yards and is one of 43 active receivers in the FBS with at least 2,000 receiving yards.
Tight end Erick All still leads Iowa with 299 receiving yards despite suffering a season-ending knee injury in the seventh game against Wisconsin.
Sophomore Kaleb Brown has provided a spark for Iowa in the last three games after having barely played before that. He had seven receptions for 71 yards in the victory over Illinois last Saturday while replacing the injured Diante Vines.
Redshirt freshman Jacob Bostick is also now finally healthy for Iowa, but he has yet to catch a pass this season.
This was a difficult choice between two units that have struggled for most of the season.
Tight end: If Luke Lachey and Erick All were both healthy for Iowa, this would be an easy decision.
However, they’re not healthy, leaving Iowa to rely on its third, fourth and fifth-team tight ends.
Sophomore Addison Ostrenga has sort of emerged as Iowa’s go-to tight end in the absence of Lachey and All. Ostrenga had five receptions against Illinois, and he has 19 catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns for the season.
Council Bluffs native Thomas Fidone, a former Iowa recruiting target, leads the Nebraska tight ends with 23 catches for 251 yards and four touchdowns. Fidone has been hampered by injuries, but he is now finally healthy and starting to show why he was so highly regarded as a recruit.
Nate Boerkircher is listed as Nebraska’s starting tight end, but he only has five catches for 51 yards.
Offensive line: Bryce Benhart, a 6-9, 315-pound junior, anchors the Nebraska offensive line from his right tackle position where he has made a program record 40 starts.
Junior Ben Scott has started 10 of 11 games this season at center after having transferred from Arizona State where he started 28 games from 2020-22, including the final 11 at center.
Noure Nouili, who came to Nebraska from Colorado State as walk-on, has started 10 games at right guard this season. He is originally from Frankfurt, Germany.
Nebraska’s other two listed starters – left guard Justin Evans-Jenkins and 6-10 left tackle Teddy Prochazka – have both started five games this season.
Prochazka suffered season-ending injuries in both 2021 and 2022. He also sat out the first two games this season.
Iowa will counter with a veteran offensive in which the five listed starters have combined to make 121 career starts, led by graduate transfer right guard Rusty Feth with 40 starts. Feth made 34 career start for Miami (Ohio) where he also made second-team All-Mid-American last season while playing center.
Junior Tyler Elsbury is listed as the starter for Iowa at center for the injured Logan Jones. Elsbury has made just two career starts, but he has played in 35 games, so he is hardly inexperienced.
Junior Mason Richman will make his 34th career start at left tackle in Friday’s game.
Both units have struggled this season, but Iowa’s offensive line has lifted its performance level in recent games.
Defensive line: Nebraska only starts three defensive linemen in its 3-3-5 alignment, but it’s worked this season judging from how well the Cornhuskers have defended the run.
Sophomore defensive end Jimari Butler leads the Cornhuskers with 8.5 tackles for loss and with 5.5 sacks. He also has 30 tackles for the season.
Junior Nash Hutmacher has started every game for Nebraska at defensive tackle this season and he has 36 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
The 6-4, 330-pound Hutmacher was a four-time state champion wrestler in his home state of South Dakota, and he finished with a 166-0 record. He also won each of his final 73 matches in high school by pin, which is the second longest pin streak in the history of high school wrestling.
Junior defensive end Ty Robinson is Nebraska’s third starter on the defensive line, and he leads the team with nine quarterback hurries.
Iowa’s four starters on the defensive line have combined to make 84 career starts, led by senior tackle Logan Lee with 38 starts.
Sixth-year senior defensive end Joe Evans, a former high school quarterback, has made 24 career starts and played in 54 games. He has 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, five pass breakups, and a team-high nine quarterback hurries this season.
Junior defensive end Deontae Craig has 48 tackles, four tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries, while junior tackle Yahya Black has 42 tackles, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries.
Junior end Ethan Hurkett and sophomore tackle Aaron Graves also provide quality depth as they have 40 and 31, tackles, respectively.
Linebacker: The Cornhuskers have five linebackers that have between 48 and 23 tackles this season, led by Javin Wright with 48 stops, followed by John Bullock with 45 tackles.
Wright also leads the Nebraska linebacker with two interceptions.
Oddly enough, neither Wright nor Bullock are listed as starters on this week’s depth chart. Bullock is listed behind fellow junior Nick Heinrich, who has 42 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, while the 6-5, 215-pound Wright is listed behind senior Luke Reimer, who has 38 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and five sacks despite missing two games this season due to a non-football related illness.
Sophomore Mikai Gbayor, who is listed as the third starter at linebacker, has 23 tackles and three tackles for loss.
Nebraska’s linebackers are a big reason why opponents are averaging just 86.5 rushing yards per game as they tackle well in space and are very physical, much like Iowa’s linebackers.
Iowa often plays with just two linebackers in its 4-2-5 cash alignment, but the two starters – seniors Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson – have combined for 220 tackles, the highest by a Power 5 tandem in the nation.
Higgins leads the Big Ten, and ranks third nationally, with an average of 12.1 tackles per game. He had a career-high 18 tackles against Penn State.
Jackson, a graduate transfer from Virginia where he played with current Nebraska slot receiver Billy Kemp IV, has had at least 10 tackles in two this season and 22 for his career. Jackson ranks second on the team behind Higgins with 87 tackles.
Iowa’s third linebacker, senior Kyler Fisher, has 23 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack in limited playing time.
Both units are solid, but Iowa’s dynamic duo of Higgins and Jackson are both performing at an elite level.
Defensive backfield: Both teams often play with five defensive backs and that strategy has worked well in both cases.
Junior rover Issac Gifford leads Nebraska with 75 tackles. He also has 6.5 tackles for loss and seven pass breakups.
Senior safety Omar Brown is third on the team with 47 tackles, while cornerbacks Malcolm Hartzog and Quinton Newsome have 38 and 33 tackles, respectively. Hartzog and fellow cornerback Tommi Hill also have six pass breakups.
Hill also leads the team with three interceptions.
Iowa’s secondary was dealt a major blow when star cornerback Cooper DeJean suffered a season-ending lower-leg injury in practice last week.
But even without DeJean, Iowa’s secondary still is formidable.
Safeties Quinn Schulte and Sebastian Castro rank third and fourth on the team with 56 and 48 tackles, respectively. Castro also leads Iowa with three interceptions, including a pick-six against Iowa State, and he has seven pass breakups and six tackles for loss.
Junior cornerback Jermari Harris also has seven pass breakups and 35 tackles despite missing the first two games while serving a suspension.
Sophomore strong safety Xavier Nwankpa, a former five-star recruit from Southeast Polk, has 38 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and one interception.
Redshirt freshman Deshaun Lee has replaced DeJean as the starting cornerback opposite of Harris, and Lee has 21 tackles and three pass breakups.
DeJean’s absence made this a harder decision, but Iowa’s secondary still is solid without him.
Special teams: Nebraska punter Brian Buschini has punted 50 times this season for a 40.8 average, while Iowa punter Tory Taylor, a Ray Guy Award semifinalist, has punted 72 times, which leads the nation, for a 48.2 average.
Nebraska kicker Tristan Alvano has made 8-of-13 field-goal attempts this season, while Iowa kicker Drew Stevens has made 17-of-23 field-goal attempts this season.
Iowa also lost one of the Big Ten’s top punt returners when DeJean was injured, but junior walk-on Kaden Wetjen filled in admirably last week against Illinois. He had a 17-yard punt return that helped to set up Iowa’s go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Iowa 4, Nebraska 3
Iowa vs. Nebraska
When: Friday, 11:09 a.m.
Where: Lincoln, Nebraska, Memorial Stadium (85,458)
Radio: Hawkeye Radio Network
Series record: Nebraska leads, 30-20-3
Last meeting: Nebraska won 24-17 on Nov. 25, 2022 at Kinnick Stadium