Iowa football: What's at stake in the final game of the 2021 regular season
Iowa gets one final regular-season chance to prove the doubters, naysayers and oddsmakers wrong.
In the Big Ten’s lone Black Friday game, Iowa heads to Lincoln to take on a reeling Nebraska team in an early afternoon tilt.
What a mismatch, right? Iowa is 9-2, Nebraska 3-8. Iowa leads the B1G in taking the ball away (21 INTs, 5 fumble recoveries); Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez gives the ball away as much as anyone in the league (10 INTs, 3 fumbles lost). UPDATE: That’s a moot point now, as Martinez will sit out with an injury.
The Hawkeyes have a lot left to play for, including the B1G West title if they win Friday and Wisconsin falls at Minnesota a day later. In the Cornhusker State, an early Frost warning came a couple weeks ago and Big Red has frozen itself out of the win column for 5 straight games.
So yeah, of course Scott Frost’s train wreck of a football team opened as a 3.5-point favorite.
What The Ferentz?! Well, you know the litany by now.
- Iowa has the worst offense in the Big Ten at 293.2 yards per game, a rate that ranks 124th of 130 FBS teams.
- The team seems to have no competent quarterback. Alex Padilla, who took over for a hurt and ineffective Spencer Petras 2 games ago, went 6-of-17 for 83 yards and an INT in Saturday’s 33-23 victory over Illinois.
- When the turnover well runs dry, Iowa quickly winds up in a world of hurt. Here’s the evidence: In its losses to Purdue and Wisconsin, Iowa lost the TO battle 7-1 and was outscored 51-14.
So yeah, Iowa has plenty left to prove, a dubious distinction to avoid and some rather lofty goals still in reach.
Keep proving it
Kirk Ferentz tends to find ways to win, as he’s proven through 23 years running the Hawkeyes program. This year’s way relies on basic, opportunistic football, with heavy reliance on defense and special teams. And it should work again this week, despite what the Vegas oddsmakers think. (After the Martinez news, Iowa is now a 1.5-point favorite.)
In its 9 wins, Iowa has a +18 turnover margin, and that number should increase against Martinez’s replacement, Logan Smothers, who has no choice but to take risks to move an otherwise limited Nebraska offense. Martinez, the do-everything fourth-year starter, finally succumbed after being worn down physically and mentally, having been sacked 27 times and taken a beating while rushing for a team-high 525 yards. Smothers has a lot of production to try to replace.
Iowa scored touchdowns on defense (Jack Campbell pick-6) and special teams (Charlie Jones kickoff return) to rally past Illinois this past weekend, and will need strong games from those units again to defeat the Huskers for a 7th straight time.
On offense, whether Padilla makes a 3rd consecutive start or Petras returns, Iowa needs to feed Tyler Goodson. The junior running back is coming off a 132-yard day vs. the Illini and needs 55 yards to post his first 1,000-yard rushing season. Thanks mostly to Goodson’s efforts, the Hawks have a slight time-of-possession advantage over opponents despite their limited offense. Iowa needs to stick predominantly to the ground game, as it did on 52 of 70 offensive plays vs. Illinois. The other option isn’t pretty, as Iowa’s QBs have been sacked more than any other team’s in the B1G and rank among the dregs of the league in almost every passing stat.
The one saving grace for the QBs? Only 7 INTs thrown, tied for 3rd lowest in the B1G.
Again on Friday, Iowa gets to prove that bland can be beautiful, and it’ll be hard to argue with a 10-2 record. What Nebraska fans wouldn’t give for less drama and greater results.
Keep Nebraska down
Nebraska plays everybody tough, with none of its losses by double-digits this year, thus its favorite status for the Hawkeyes’ visit.
Whatever metrics go into those odds, Iowa just can’t let them prove accurate. Losing in Lincoln for the first time since 2011 against a program using place-holder assistants to run its offense would be the lasting impression of this season, regardless of all that had come before or whatever happens in a bowl game to follow.
Iowa cannot give Frost that satisfaction. It must kick the Huskers while they’re down, and take the Heroes Trophy home again. Don’t join Northwestern, the only B1G victim of flawed hometown hero Frost, who axed a bunch of assistants and took a pay cut to avoid the axe himself. Ferentz and company need to make sure these programs remain moving in opposite directions.
Max out on goals
Iowa needs to hold serve vs. Wisconsin by putting its 7th B1G win on the board a day before the Badgers travel to Minnesota. The Hawkeyes need to keep the road to Indianapolis open. A win gives fate a chance, and turns Iowans into Gophers fans for a day.
But even if a date with the Ohio State-Michigan winner doesn’t turn out to be Iowa’s destiny, there are still plenty of feathers to put in the cap.
An 11-2 finish would be Iowa’s best since 2015, and if the final victory came in an NY6 bowl, the Hawks would probably finish in the top 10 of the AP Poll for the first time since then too. Currently No. 17, Iowa faces the prospect of going dramatically the other way if it doesn’t prevail on Friday.
Finding fixes and a clear-cut starting QB for Brian Ferentz’s offense can wait. Iowa needs to keep doing what it has been doing the past 3 games: Win by any means necessary.