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Michigan Iowa Football

Iowa defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson (67) celebrates with teammate Desmond King (14) after making a stop against Michigan earlier this season.

Location: Iowa City, Iowa

Coach: Kirk Ferentz (18th year)

Record: 7-4 (5-3 Big Ten)

Rankings: None

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Offensive averages

(National rank in parentheses)

Points: 25.5 (87)

Total yards: 326.5 (121)

Rush yards: 163.6 (79)

Pass yards: 162.9 (113)

Offensive rating: 4 (out of 10)

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Defensive averages

Points: 18.6 (15)

Total yards: 365.2 (31)

Rush yards: 158.9 (50)

Pass yards: 206.3 (39)

Defensive rating: 7

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Special-team averages

Kickoff returns: 25.2 (11)

Punt returns: 12.0 (14)

Net punting: 38.3 (47)

Special-teams rating: 7

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By the numbers

14:

Opponents have forced nine turnovers by Iowa this season, but have only converted those into 14 total points.

5:

The Hawkeyes have scored 14 points or fewer in five of their eight conference games, including three wins (vs. Rutgers, Minnesota and Michigan).

10:

Ten true freshmen have played for the Hawkeyes this season, including Omaha South graduate and tight end Noah Fant (87).

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Why you may need Rolaids

1. Iowa's defense is finally rounding into the form that coaches and fans were talking about during fall camp. The Hawkeyes limited Michigan to 201 total yards in a 14-13 upset two weeks ago, and followed that by shutting out Illinois 28-0. The Huskers' offensive line will have its hands full with 310-pound defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (67), who is playing his best football at Iowa. He had nine tackles against a stout Wolverines offensive line.

2. We haven't even talked about Iowa's top two players yet, senior cornerback Desmond King (14) and junior linebacker Josey Jewell (43). King is projected to be an NFL Draft first-round pick and Jewell will likely be playing on Sundays at some point, too. Jewell leads the Big Ten in tackles with 105 stops. King has just two interceptions this season, but teams are throwing away from him. Iowa has some injuries in the secondary, but true freshman corner Manny Rugamba (5) and senior safety Anthony Gair (12) have stepped in nicely. King, by the way, also is a dangerous returner in the punt game.

3. Iowa's offense has been stagnant, but when the Hawkeyes do get into the red zone, they finish. Iowa has scored on 31 of 34 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line, which ranks second in the Big Ten. Eight different Hawkeyes have scored red-zone touchdowns, including six by running back Akrum Wadley (25), who is Iowa's top offensive playmaker. He has rushed for 861 yards and has 30 receptions. LeShun Daniels (29) is not far behind with 855 rushing yards.

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Why you may chill

1. Did we mention Iowa's stagnant offense? The Hawkeyes are 121st in total offense, and are averaging 260.5 yards over their last four games. Quarterback C.J. Beathard (16) is ninth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and is completing 58 percent of his throws. Iowa's receivers have not helped Beathard's cause, and a foot injury has kept top wideout Matt VandeBerg (89) out most of the season. Iowa hopes to have him back by the bowl game.

2. The offensive line is in patchwork mode. Iowa has used seven different starting lineups up front, and every starter has missed at least one game. The current Hawkeye depth chart has a sophomore at left guard and center, and a freshman at right tackle. Kirk Ferentz said it's unlikely that senior right tackle Cole Croston (64), who has made seven starts this year, will play Friday. Starting tight end George Kittle (46) also is banged up.

3. Which Iowa team is going to show up? The one that knocked off Michigan? Or the one that lost to FCS North Dakota State, was routed at Penn State and had to hold on for a 14-7 win at Rutgers? Though the defense has played very well the past two weeks, this is the same unit that gave up 423 yards to Wisconsin and 599 to Penn State. 

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Press coverage

Chad Leistikow covers Iowa football for the Des Moines Register.

Iowa gave up 41 points to Penn State, then clamped down against Michigan and Illinois. What changed defensively?

Leistikow: "The Michigan upset happened in large part because 310-pound defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson played the best game of his career. He single-handedly recorded the safety that changed the momentum of that game, and his ability to dominate the line of scrimmage opened up lanes for linebackers to make plays. That trend continued against Illinois. What’s interesting is that injuries forced backups to play against Michigan and Illinois at cornerback (true freshman Manny Rugamba for fifth-year senior Greg Mabin) and strong safety (fifth-year senior Anthony Gair for junior Miles Taylor). With Gair, Iowa has suddenly shown its best safety play of the season and Rugamba has created a turnover in each of his starts. Combine those developments with two of the Big Ten’s best defensive players in linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Desmond King, and this is now the stingy defense many Hawkeye fans expected all season."

Considering Nebraska’s current quarterback situation, it may be safe to assume that Friday’s game may be a physical, defensive slugfest. Are those the kind of games this Iowa team embraces?

Leistikow: "Definitely. Iowa’s offense has taken a big step back this year, so the Hawkeyes have been forced to grind out low-scoring games. The Hawkeyes will probably have to win this one with defense; it isn’t built to score like it has the past three years against Nebraska (38, 34 and 28 points). The offensive line has been decimated by injuries."

Some defenses have shut down Iowa’s running game this season. What was behind some of the run-game issues, and do the Hawkeyes feel they are past those struggles?

Leistikow: "The aforementioned offensive-line injuries have created a lot of inconsistency. All five linemen to play in Iowa’s season opener have missed at least one game due to injury. The line just doesn’t have that one star, either; a year ago it had two in center Austin Blythe and right guard Jordan Walsh. The last two weeks, Iowa has gone to heavier offensive packages — often using multiple tight ends and a fullback — to help move the line of scrimmage incrementally. It’s been a smart move, because Iowa’s pass blocking isn’t very good, and quarterback C.J. Beathard hasn’t been as mobile as he was a year ago. A lot of Hawkeye observers think he’s playing hurt, though he’d never admit it. I’d look for more of the same formula Friday: Slow the game down and limit Nebraska’s possessions.

In terms of overall offense, what have been some other contributing factors to Iowa’s low national marks?

Leistikow: "If one were to rank Iowa’s position groups, wide receiver would finish dead-last — and it wouldn’t be close. The broken foot suffered after Week 4 by senior Matt VandeBerg, the team’s leading receiver a year ago, has proven extremely costly. How bad is it? The Hawkeyes had 14 passing yards to wide receivers two weeks ago against Michigan. And Vandeberg still ranks fourth on the team in receiving yards. Fifth-year senior Riley McCarron, a former walk-on, is the only target Beathard seems to trust. Iowa’s receivers just don’t get open. That’s why the Hawkeyes have been trying to get true freshman tight end Noah Fant, an Omaha native, more involved in the passing game."

Do you sense some extra motivation in Iowa this week to prevent a third straight home loss to Nebraska?

Leistikow: "Not really. This Iowa team stays even-keeled. It’s one of the more impressive aspects of Kirk Ferentz’s program in 18 years, but also one of the most infuriating to the fan base. The players reflect the head coach, taking a very businesslike approach each week, no matter the opponent. TV sideline reporters often comment how the Hawkeye players lack emotion, but that’s just the way they always are. I do think that despite there being no chance to repeat as Big Ten West champion, Iowa has found motivation in finishing the season strong. After a 5-4 start, a 3-0 finish — with wins over top-15 teams Michigan and Nebraska — would be a satisfying way to conclude an otherwise unsatisfying regular season."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsCG.

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