Time: 2:30 PM
Location: Jack Trice Stadium, Ames, IA
After winning two in a row Iowa State hosts what is arguably the biggest game in Paul Rhoads’ short tenure in Ames. Top 10 matchups against Iowa, Utah, and Oklahoma were all big at the time, and wins against Nebraska and Texas on the road were program builders, but nothing has registered so high on the pregame scales as this game has.
There are multiple storylines to go with this game. Iowa State’s victory over Nebraska in Lincoln in 2009 and the ensuring revenge factor, Nebraska’s final game in Ames for the foreseeable future, and Paul Rhoads going for his first three game winning streak as a head coach.
None are more important than this: The winner of this game controls their own destiny for the Big XII North Championship and a spot in the final Big XII Championship game in Dallas on December 4th.
So without further adieu, let’s get it on!
A History: Iowa State vs Nebraska
The Des Moines Register did an insightful piece about how this series has been played since 1896. Iowa State is 18-84-2 all time against Nebraska.
Last 5 Games
2008: Nebraska 35, Iowa State 7
2007: Nebraska 35, Iowa State 17
2006: Nebraska 28, Iowa State 14
2005: Nebraska 27, Iowa State 20
A few of these games have been closer than the score indicates. The 2008 game was only a two possession game going in to the 4th quarter and 2007 marked the highest amount of plays ever run by an Iowa State football team. 2006 was a debacle of a game with missed assignments, penalties, and poor officiating that saw two Cyclone touchdowns taken off the board. 2005… well… Nick Leaders probably still has nightmares about dropping that interception in the first overtime.
Back it Up: Week 9 Review
Iowa State started slow but rallied in the 2nd half to beat Kansas 28-16. Josh Lenz returned a punt for a touchdown and Alexander Robinson, Jeff Woody, and Shontrelle Johnson all added touchdowns on the ground.
Nebraska throttled Missouri 31-17 behind a 24 point first quarter. Roy Helu Jr. set a Cornhusker single game rushing record of 307 yards on 28 carries. Taylor Martinez added 16 yards before leaving the game with a lower leg injury.
Iowa State Offense vs Nebraska Defense
Two things need to be cleared up immediately before embarking on this preview.
One, this Iowa State offense has to play like it did against Texas and the 2nd half of Kansas to even sniff a chance of victory.
Two, Nebraska has a championship worthy defense, but they do not have a dominating one. Contrary to Cornhusker belief, losing a top 5 draft pick and once in a lifetime player does not make your defense better.
Iowa State has rediscovered their rushing attack after starting slow this year. Injuries to both Robinson and Austen Arnaud hampered the development of the run game and dismissing Scott Haughton during the off season had a bigger impact on the line than anyone would have thought. However, after rushing for 199 yards as a team against Texas and 232 against Kansas things have started to look up for the Cyclone offense. The passing game is not explosive as Arnaud is averaging around 10 yards per completion but enough is being done to keep teams from stacking the box and daring Iowa State to beat them with their legs. Even when they do the threat of a healthy Arnaud has been hurting them. Arnaud rushed for 59 yards on 13 attempts vs Kansas last week.
The Nebraska defense is no slouch and ranks 16th in the nation in scoring defense with 17.8 points allowed per game. However, this team ranks 78th overall in rushing defense with an average of 162 yards allowed per game. The pass defense (3rd) and total defense (19th) rank high enough but they have been gashed for yards on the ground more than once this year. Jared Crick, while an outstanding talent, benefitted from the presence of Suh last year and has not been the dominating force he was touted to be.
Most Intriguing Matchup: Iowa State offensive line vs Nebraska defensive line
Honorable Mention: Iowa State receivers vs Nebraska secondary
Advantage: Line – Iowa State, Receiver vs Secondary – Nebraska
Reason: The reason two units get called out here is because of the importance both play in the game tomorrow. The offensive line did an outstanding job last week with Alex Alvarez sliding over to center and Sean Smith sliding in at left guard. After a slow start to the game the line gelled and helped push Iowa State past Kansas on the ground.
This Nebraska defense has been susceptible to the run in part to their smaller size in the linebacking corps due to employing only one true linebacker and two hybrid linebacker/safeties. This has helped immensely in their pass game (Prince Amukamara is also a solid reason) but has hurt their run defense when the defensive line has been overmatched. As noted, Jared Crick is an outstanding talent but he is one man. If he is removed from the game Nebraska will struggle to stop the run with their front four.
However, the Iowa State wide receivers must step up against a top set of cornerbacks to keep Nebraska honest in the trenches. If the receivers do not find space expect Arnaud to be running for his life or taking coverage sacks. The short passing game will be more important than ever to keep Nebraska from committing their linebackers to the run game and just using their defensive line to fill gaps. If the bubble screens and quick hitches take off expect this offense to march down the field on the back of Robinson and Woody.
If the corners lock down the receivers expect a longer than desired day. The quick hitch was open all day against Kansas but may not be as instrumental this week against Nebraska. With the man-to-man coverage they typically employ expect Collin Franklin to see a lot of heavy 5-7 yard looks just to get the ball in his hands.
Iowa State Defense vs Nebraska Offense
Taylor Martinez hurt? Zac Lee hurt? It sounds like it could be true in both cases. If true, sophomore Cody Green will get the start. He presents a running threat like Martinez but has the build more like Austen Arnaud (6’4", 225 lbs). Regardless of their quarterbacking situation expect Nebraska to deviate very little from their gameplan. That gameplan will rest on the back of Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead and trying to gash a Cyclone defense that is ranked 99th against the run and 102nd overall.
Missouri was hurt last week by over pursuing the play and allowing Helu Jr. to find cutback lanes in the defense. Once this happened he had nothing but daylight to run towards. Helu Jr killed the Missouri defense with touchdown runs of 66, 73, and 53 yards with the first two coming in the first quarter alone. For those of you scoring at home, that is 192 of his 307 yards on three carries.
That cannot happen this game.
What makes this game pivot so much on the health of Martinez is the Iowa State scheme on defense. Texas devoted two spies to Martinez the entire game. The good: Martinez rushed for 21 yards on 13 carries, Helu Jr and Rex Burkhead combined for 78 yards on 20 carries. The bad: Nebraska had single coverage all day long and were a few dropped balls away from touchdowns on blown coverages. All of that manifested the next week when Oklahoma State ran a similar defense and got torched for 51 points and 323 yards and five touchdowns through the air by Martinez. The moral of the story is do not devote your whole defense to Martinez if you do not have the speed to keep up.
Iowa State does not have the speed to keep up or the domination in the trenches to shut anyone down. They will give up yards this game regardless of who plays quarterback. They key will be to minimize the big plays. Keep Helu Jr from hitting those big runs and keep the quarterback near the line of scrimmage and you force Nebraska to convert in the red zone.
Nebraska is 80th in red zone offense while Iowa State ranks 39th in red zone defense. Doesn’t take a wizard to figure out who has the advantage here. Minimize the big plays and good things will happen.
Most Intriguing Matchup: Iowa State’s linebackers vs Nebraska’s backfield
Reason: Nebraska gashed Missouri at will last week by taking advantage of their linebackers’ aggressiveness. Iowa State has young talent in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein but they do not have the experience to play a mistake free game like Jesse Smith, Fred Garrin, and Josh Raven did in 2009.
Nebraska is going to run the ball and then run it some more. If Martinez plays there will likely be less than 10 pass attempts. If Green plays there will probably be less than 15. Iowa State is going to have to accept they will give up yards but concentrate on keeping the play in front of them at all times. If they can do this, and minimize the big play, they will set themselves up for success when the chains move inside the 20.
The 8 turnovers forced last year were not a fluke but not something a coach can gameplan for so do not expect lightning to strike twice. However, the Iowa State defense will be looking to force at least a pair of turnovers to keep this Nebraska offense, which is prone to put the ball on the turf, off the field.
Iowa State Special Teams vs Nebraska Special Teams
Kirby Van Der Kamp continues to punt well and Grant Mahoney continues to struggle (missed a 51 yard field goal with the wind at his back vs Kansas). The kick unit has come together and provides solid, not great, coverage on kickoffs. Only the punt coverage and the kick return game have yet to really set the world on fire this year.
Josh Lenz returned a punt for a touchdown against Kansas and it was the first Iowa State punt return since Ryan Baum’s return against Northern Iowa in 2006. That is unlikely to happen this week with a fast Nebraska team that focuses on special teams being a strength.
Alex Henery of Nebraska has nailed all extra point attempts (39) and converted on 10 of 11 field goals this year with his only miss coming from over 50 yards. If Iowa State does succeed in the red zone expect Henery to at least put three points on the board.
Most Intriguing Matchup: Iowa State kick return team vs Nebraska kick coverage team
Reason: With the exception of some long returns early in the season the Iowa State kick coverage team has struggled to make game changing plays the last few weeks. Iowa State will likely need a spark in this area to tip the field position their way sometime during the game. Possibly a reverse? Based on the bag of tricks this staff has do not be surprised to see something fun happen during a kick return.
Taylor Martinez is the key to this game. Football coaches all the time say that the team does not revolve around one player but this offense certainly does. Green may be a threat to run but he is not a threat to take over a game like Martinez is (see: Kansas State game). Iowa State cannot relax against Nebraska but their ability to minimize big plays will be greatly helped if Martinez never steps on the field in Jack Trice Stadium.
Paul Rhoads and Wally Burnham have shown in their careers as defensive coordinators that they can shut down these dual threat quarterbacks. Iowa State may not have the personnel at every position on the field to keep up but you know they will be in the right place. Some solid, fundamental defense and a few turnovers might be all the difference this team needs.
Offensively the gameplan is simple, keep Nebraska from taking out one area of the game. If they want to stop Iowa State from running, get it outside. If they want to leave the middle of the field open like Texas did, pound it and pound it some more. There cannot be a 0-26 performance on 3rd down like there was against top 10 teams Utah and Oklahoma. Iowa State must convert on 3rd down to the tune of 45%. If they do that they will score enough to win this game with a little help from the defense.
This pick is not intended to be a repeat of the Texas upset. That game was a whole different animal as Texas has an offense that is inept with coming to terms with its identity. This pick reflects five things, in no particular order.
1. Blind homerism
2. A belief that Nebraska is not the same without Suh
3. Taylor Martinez will not play
4. Nebraska has lived dangerously close to the edge this season against lesser competition
5. Iowa State has built towards this game all year and it will come together
Oh, and one more.
You are leaving our conference, and you put our future in doubt because of it, so fuck your revenge factor, fuck this series, and for one final time, fuck the Huskers.
Iowa State 24
*Add 14 points if Martinez plays. Sorry.