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IOWA CITY — After each game this season, The World-Herald's Sam McKewon will hand out his Husker Report Card, assessing Nebraska's performance in several areas. Here are the grades coming out of the Iowa game.
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Against one of the best run defenses in the Big Ten — and college football — the Huskers found some ways to carve out a run game. The reverse call with Alante Brown was excellent misdirection. A splash of Wan’Dale Robinson at running back was effective. NU picked its spots better on designed quarterback runs. Clearly, Luke McCaffrey is a unique threat on that draw play and deserves a tote or two per game with that scheme. Nebraska’s offensive line lost too many one-on-one matchups to have much success in the inside run game, but Robinson — who is quick like Ameer Abdullah, but smaller — can navigate his way through the trees. Rahmir Johnson, a much-hyped running back out of New Jersey who’s had his ups and downs since arriving in Lincoln, had the best drive of his career to start the second half. NU clearly feels better about its run game than its passing attack at this point. GRADE: C-plus
If it takes a swing pass — one of which was credited as a run but goes down as a pass — to get Robinson involved, so be it. NU blocked that play nicely a few times. Quarterback Adrian Martinez is still locking up a bit as a thrower, but he made the necessary throws at the end of the first half on an important touchdown drive. The pass game was efficient enough — Martinez completed 18 of 20 — but not explosive. And if you want to know what NU thinks of its pass game, you can see some of the trepidation on third down in the red zone. It wasn’t awful — NU threw it as well as it has perhaps all season — but it’s quite modest and the offensive line is inconsistent when faced with pressure. Nebraska’s final offensive play of the game was ... oof. Tough. GRADE: C-minus
Nebraska lost to Iowa, 26-20, on Friday in Kinnick Stadium. The Huskers haven't beat their rivals to the east since 2014.
All Nebraska could ask for, given captain Collin Miller was out and NU’s a little banged up otherwise. The Blackshirts repeatedly set a hard edge with their outside linebackers so Iowa running backs Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent couldn’t get to the sideline on their stretch runs. The cutbacks started poking through a bit in the second half, as what had been 1- or 2-yard runs started becoming longer. But NU never gave up the backbreaker, and in the first half, successfully forced Iowa to pass when it didn’t want to. The defense did what it could, getting a key stuff even on the final Iowa rush of the game. GRADE: A
Quarterback Spencer Petras aided the effort by missing some open receivers, but Nebraska’s pass defense picked off one pass and generally kept Iowa pass-catchers in front of them. Iowa has a solid bootleg play-action pass game, and did a good job of isolating sophomore outside linebacker Garrett Nelson, who’s not as good in coverage as JoJo Domann. These little leak plays mattered late in the game, as NU’s defense wore down. But, again, Nebraska’s total defense did more than enough to win Friday and Iowa’s 6.4 yards per pass attempt is a good day for Big Red. GRADE: B-plus
It took until his 41st game as a Husker, but senior CB Dicaprio Bootle got his first career interception Friday against Iowa.
Cam Taylor-Britt’s muffed punt return, and Iowa’s subsequent recovery, was one of the most disappointing plays of the season. The Huskers were about to have terrific field position on a fourth-quarter drive to tie or take the lead and Taylor-Britt’s mistake essentially handed Iowa a field goal. It summarized NU’s special teams struggles over the years. As expected, Iowa did well. Hawkeye receiver Charlie Jones ripped off a 31-yard punt return that helped set up a touchdown, and Taylor-Britt failed to field — or even try to field — a punt that rolled down to the NU 2. Iowa’s average starting field position was its own 38 — well ahead of where you’d want it, and 10 yards better than Nebraska, which attempted two kickoff returns and both times fell short of reaching its own 25. Meanwhile, Connor Culp’s “sky right” kickoff repeatedly left Iowa with starting field position beyond its own 30 or better. It wasn’t a disastrous kickoff return for a score, but it’s a reminder that Nebraska should endeavor to find a kickoff specialist who can pound one through the end zone for a touchback — especially when there’s a nice north wind at his back. Culp hit a couple of field goals, however. A special teams turnover is a failure, period. GRADE: F
Playcalling/ Game management
The coaches had a good week. There were reporters in the Kinnick Stadium press box who thought Iowa would score more than 40 points, that the spread might be as big and ugly as it was in 2017. Nope. Nebraska played hard and with feistiness on defense. The Husker offense didn’t blow the doors off, but looked crisper than usual. The play-calling was relatively sound. The snaps in the first half were not, but Nebraska found a way to settle down Cameron Jurgens in the second half. NU’s defense played terrific in the red zone. The special teams errors, while massive, are rooted in the need for elite specialists in every phase. The Huskers lack that. They need that. They know they need that. If NU coaches were worth heavily criticizing last week, they’re worth praising this week. The Huskers were right there with Iowa. The quarterback rotation between Martinez and McCaffrey wasn’t perfect — perhaps McCaffrey should have been the change-up guy on the second drive of the second half — but for the rest of the season it’s more of an identity, since it’s clear what McCaffrey will be asked to do on offense. GRADE: B
NU can live with this effort and this plan. It needs better execution. It needs more experienced players and more dominant linemen. Iowa has explosive, elite defensive linemen. Nebraska doesn’t quite yet. It showed Friday on a handful of plays when it mattered. Iowa’s edge in special teams was clear, too, and it was worth seven to 10 points in Iowa’s favor. Saturday’s game is a glimpse into how close NU is when it plays hard, doesn’t cut corners and has a decent plan. It’s a reminder, too, of how far Nebraska is from being an elite team. Iowa is an above-average program that has beaten Nebraska six straight times. None of those wins have been flukes. At some point, when NU has a touchdown lead in the third quarter over an above-average team, that lead needs to stick. GRADE: B