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Steven M. Sipple: Battered and bruised, NU must match 'oomph' that Iowa puts into rivalry
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Steven M. Sipple: Battered and bruised, NU must match 'oomph' that Iowa puts into rivalry

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Iowa vs. Nebraska, 11.29

Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost talks with Iowa football head coach Kirk Ferentz before the 2019 game at Memorial Stadium. 

Love and hate. 

Pretty powerful stuff.  

You're lying to yourself if as a Nebraska player you don't feel a little extra juice entering the Iowa game, Husker senior defensive lineman Ben Stille says.

Of course, it's a subjective discussion. Some players feel more juice than others. 

"I think there's, you know, a little more hatred that goes toward each other on both sides of the ball," says the Ashland native, one of seven Husker seniors who will be honored before Friday's game as part of Senior Day ceremonies.

It's my perception that Iowa's side regards the rivalry with a bit more "oomph," although Nebraska's level has risen during Scott Frost's four-year tenure as Husker head coach. Again, that's just my perception.  

As evidence of ample oomph, Iowa has won six straight in the series. The Hawkeyes hammered the Huskers 40-10 in 2016 and 56-14 in Lincoln in 2017, Mike Riley's final season in charge of NU's program. Those losses were, well, embarrassing. 

Iowa's last three wins have been by margins of three, three and six points. 

Judging by Nebraska players' comments this week, Stille isn't alone in feeling something extra about this game. 

"It's obviously a big rivalry around here," says freshman left tackle Turner Corcoran, who will long remember the empty stands last November in Iowa City, a result of COVID-19.

Consequently, Corcoran hasn't experienced the rivalry in full force. But he will Friday. Nebraska's team intensity level has remained consistently high despite its record of 3-8 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten. What's more, there should be plenty of juice in Memorial Stadium for the 12:30 p.m. kickoff, as Husker fans have continued to fill the joint and maintain their usual level of intensity even amid intensely difficult times for the program.  

Parker Gabriel delivers the latest Two-Minute Drill from Memorial Stadium.

For Nebraska, it's been a remarkable season of close-shave losses against ranked teams that inhabit a wickedly difficult schedule. That NU opened this week as a four-point favorite against 16th-ranked Iowa (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) — before news broke of Adrian Martinez's season-ending injury — speaks to the remarkable nature of the Huskers' season. 

This is my 27th season of covering Nebraska football on a full-time basis. Each season is interesting and unique. This season is especially unique because despite the Huskers' disappointing record, they have continued to garner respect nationally. Vegas clearly respects this team.

Nebraska essentially has left opponents with no choice but to respect it. Using an aggressive, pass-heavy game plan, Frost's crew last week rolled up 452 yards of total offense against Wisconsin's top-ranked defense before falling 35-28. Meanwhile, the Huskers' injury-plagued defense faltered as hard-charging freshman Braelon Allen rushed 22 times for 228 yards. 

The previous week, Ohio State, currently ranked second in the College Playoff Playoff poll, escaped Lincoln with a 26-17 win. The Buckeyes' point total was 21 less than their season average. 

So, it's difficult to imagine Iowa, in contention for first place in the Big Ten West Division, overlooking Nebraska. In fact, it's easy to imagine the game going down to the wire. Yes, again. 

If you're a Nebraska fan, you're obviously concerned about injuries on defense. Nose tackle Damion Daniels played sparingly last week and his status is uncertain for Friday. Same goes for linebacker Caleb Tannor, who was injured in the first quarter and didn't return to the game. Pheldarius Payne, prominent in the linebacker rotation, didn't play at all. 

Versatile backer JoJo Domann, who underwent season-ending hand surgery during Nebraska's second bye week, was missed sorely last week as Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson caught eight passes for 92 yards. Domann is adept at covering tight ends. Don't look now, but Iowa features Sam LaPorta with a team-leading 37 receptions.

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Nebraska fans would feel a degree of comfort if senior safety Deontai Williams returns from this three-game absence due to a knee injury. He was close to being ready last week, according to Frost.

Of course, all eyes will be on Nebraska quarterback Logan Smothers. Martinez, the four-year starter, underwent surgery Wednesday on his throwing shoulder. So, the shifty 2020 freshman Smothers will make his first collegiate start against a defense that specializes in interceptions -- 11 different Hawkeyes have picked off passes. That's right, 11. 

Iowa is ordinary offensively but ranks ninth nationally in points allowed per game (16.9). The Hawkeyes likely will play with their usual high level of discipline and count on Nebraska to make more mistakes. The Huskers have too often obliged.

Perhaps this time will be different. Most of all, if you're a Nebraska fan, you want to see Huskers' match the Hawkeyes' level of oomph. Yeah, this is a rivalry. It's already pretty hot. It may just get hotter if NU could ruin the Hawkeyes' bid to win the division.

Embrace the hate (but keep it under control). 

Love, however, is what largely has kept this Nebraska team together. Love can provide a level of oomph that pushes the Huskers over the top Friday. 

One more try for Frost's group. The border rivalry supplies a nice stage.

Pretty powerful stuff, is my read.

Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost speaks during a news conference on Wednesday.


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