All things considered, Nebraska should be a healthier football team with a healthier offense Friday against Iowa than it was last weekend in a 54-7 win against Maryland.
There are still some unknowns — freshman Wan’Dale Robinson’s status as he works back from an early-November hamstring injury, for example — and NU knows it won’t have senior wide receiver Kanawai Noa (meniscus surgery) against the Hawkeyes. But after that, it’s shaping up to be a more stable week.
In the run-up to playing against the Terrapins, head coach Scott Frost and company didn’t know if Dedrick Mills or JD Spielman would play due to illness, and the Huskers had other moving pieces as the week went along.
“The travel roster was a mess last week,” Frost said Monday. “We were making decisions all week and it changed about eight times, including the day before the game with a couple people sick and not able to travel and guys getting healthy and being able to travel. It was definitely a little bit of a moving puzzle last week, but the guys responded well.”
The defense clearly did, allowing just seven points and 206 total yards to Maryland. The offense continued to trend upward as well, even though there were more question marks on that side of the ball.
“We played some other guys Saturday,” Frost said. (Freshman wide receiver) Darien Chase was supposed to play and he was a little nicked up Saturday, but he’s going to be fine. (Freshman) Chris Hickman got some play outside and at tight end. Obviously we played Luke (McCaffrey). We’ll hopefully get other guys healthy again.”
Added sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez, “We found a way throughout the week, and we translated it on the field. We had a good night, a good win for the team. It was fun for us to be together there on the field.”
The pieces will continue to shift and move around this week. Chase, for example, should be available and has one game remaining under the new redshirt rule.
So, too, do Hickman and McCaffrey, who could be used in any number of ways after he completed 3-of-5 for 32 yards (including a 28-yard reverse pass he threw after lining up at receiver), ran 10 times for 83 and a touchdown, and caught a pass for 12 yards.
“I’m sure we’re giving some people some things to think about and look at with him out on the field,” Frost said. “There’s a lot of options for us with him out on the field. That was kind of part decision and part reaction to where we were with skill positions. We knew (No. 2 quarterback Noah Vedral) probably wasn’t going to be 100% going into the game and we didn’t want to risk Luke too much, but he’s a really good football player. He can run, he can throw, he can catch. He loves it.
“So he’s going to be a good player around here for us for a long time and we thought it was smart to get a guy like that on the field.”
It seems safe to say McCaffrey will be in the game plan again this week in some capacity.
“I just look forward to however we use him,” junior tight end Jack Stoll said. “Whether that is how we did last week or if that’s at quarterback, wherever he’s needed, but he’s a hell of a ball player and I can’t wait to see him in the future.”
Freshman back Rahmir Johnson (67 yards and a touchdown) played well against Maryland but won’t play against Iowa unless an emergency arises, Frost said Monday, leaving Mills and a cast of walk-ons that includes senior Wyatt Mazour and redshirt freshman Brody Belt.
But the Husker running game has ramped up the past two weeks even with the shifting around, totaling 578 yards (6.1 per carry) and six touchdowns against Maryland and Wisconsin. Of that, Mills has piled up 256 and two touchdowns and Martinez has 186 and two scores.
“I think it starts with the offensive line,” Martinez said. “They’ve done a great job and moving the line of scrimmage and controlling that aspect of the game. That’s something they should be proud of. Dedrick has done a good job as well. I’ve stayed consistent in my reads.”
Add in a second-half surge from junior wide receiver JD Spielman — 104 yards and two TDs against Maryland and 395 yards over the past four games — and you have the driving forces behind Nebraska’s offensive improvement.
The skill group has turned into something of a M.A.S.H. unit and NU is thin at running back, but its averaged 7 yards per play over the past two weeks and 6.5 over the past four games, which would land at No. 22 nationally this fall.
A sizable challenge awaits Friday in a Hawkeye defense that has held their past 15 opponents to 28 points or less dating to Nov. 3, 2018, and is allowing 12.5 points per Big Ten game this fall, second only to Ohio State. Iowa has only allowed four rushing touchdowns all season.
NU’s offense, though, has been more up to challenges recently.
“I’m very optimistic of where we’re at,” Martinez said. “We need to get better this week and carry what we’ve done the past two weeks.”