Instant Analysis: Iowa tops Nebraska to finish regular season unbeaten

Three thoughts on Iowa’s win over Nebraska, which sealed the first unbeaten regular season in the Hawkeyes’ history and kept them alive for a playoff berth.
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LINCOLN, Neb. — Iowa stayed undefeated Friday with a 28–20 win at Nebraska. Here are three thoughts from the Hawkeyes’ 12th win:

1. Canzeri proves to be the difference

Iowa couldn’t seem to shake Nebraska until the Hawkeyes discovered the nobody-touches-Jordan Canzeri plays. In the third quarter, the sophomore tailback ran through gaping holes on the left side on consecutive possessions for touchdowns of 29 and 68 yards to give Iowa a cushion and help the Hawkeyes complete an undefeated regular season.

The Cornhuskers played stingy defense for a half, allowing only 4.3 yards per play and only letting Iowa run 26 plays. But winning the time of possession competition only goes so far. The Canzeri runs finished drives of two and one plays, and both took longer than Iowa linebacker Parker Hesse’s four-yard interception return for a touchdown after tipping a Tommy Armstrong Jr. pass to himself in the second quarter.

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As he has most of the season, Armstrong showed flashes of brilliance when turning broken plays into long gainers, but he also threw into danger with regularity. Iowa intercepted Armstrong four times, none more damaging than the one that turned into Hesse’s touchdown.

Armstrong wasn’t helped by some head-scratching play calls. Down 28–17 with about 6:45 remaining and facing fourth-and-less-than-one on the Iowa 19, the Cornhuskers coaches elected to line up Armstrong in the shotgun—they have a suite of under-center plays in the offense—and have him throw a fade into the end zone instead of simply trying to gain the distance to get four more downs.

Even the best fans in America couldn’t help but boo that call.

2. Big Ten title game, and potentially the playoff, on deck for Iowa

The Hawkeyes finished the regular season 12–0 and now must wait to learn the identity of their opponent in the Big Ten title game. If Michigan State beats Penn State on Saturday, the Hawkeyes would face the Spartans in Indianapolis. If Michigan State loses, Iowa would face the winner of Saturday’s Ohio State-Michigan game.

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Iowa’s path to the playoff appears simple. The Hawkeyes were ranked fourth in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings. By beating a top-10 team—all of Iowa’s potential Big Ten title game opponents are currently ranked in the top 10—Iowa should be able to remain inside the top four when the final rankings are released on Dec. 6.

The question is whether Iowa can beat a top-10 team. Next week will be the Hawkeyes’ first chance to answer that, because Iowa hasn’t played anyone currently ranked higher than No. 16 (Northwestern). (Of course, Alabama has only played one team currently ranked in the CFP selection committee’s top 20. That was No. 18 Ole Miss, which beat the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 19.) The Hawkeyes either will quiet their doubters in Indianapolis or prove them correct.

3. Nebraska could still be headed to a bowl

At 5–7, Nebraska will finish with a losing record for the first time since Bill Callahan’s final season in 2007. That doesn’t, however, mean Nebraska’s season ended Friday. The Cornhuskers still might make a bowl game because there probably won’t be enough teams with six or more wins to fill the 80 bowl slots available this season. The selection of those 5–7 teams could be tied to a team’s academic progress rate—an NCAA statistic that measures graduation rate—though no one seems to know how that process would work.

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If it is based purely on APR score, the Cornhuskers (985 APR) would be the first 5–7 team in line for a bowl berth. Nebraska coach Mike Riley likely would cherish the extra 15 practices after a miserable first season. Nebraska’s last 5–7 campaign got Callahan fired and Bo Pelini hired. Pelini never won fewer than nine games, but he was fired after last season because of his personality clashes with athletic director Shawn Eichorst and because those wins usually didn’t come against Nebraska’s best opponents. Eichorst hired Riley from Oregon State with the hope that Riley would win more big games, but Riley’s team suffered a series of heartbreaking, last-minute losses in the first half of the season.

Riley did win one big one when the Cornhuskers handed Michigan State its only loss to date on Nov. 7, but that might be outweighed by losses to Illinois and Purdue. Riley likely will get another month to develop young players, which might help his Cornhuskers have a better Year Two than Year One.