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IOWA CITY, Iowa - Luke Lachey bobbled the ball for a second, and was just pulling it into his chest with two hands when he got belted by Minnesota’s Tyler Nubin.

But Nubin’s hit didn’t separate Iowa’s sophomore tight end from the ball. The 33-yard reception, the biggest of Lachey’s budding football career, put the ball on the Minnesota 12 and set up Drew Stevens’s game-winning walk off field goal last Saturday.

“That was my main thing, making sure we had possession of the ball at the end of the play,” Lachey said. “Because I knew we could probably make a field goal from there. My hands are kind of big, and I just held (the ball) to my chest. It was a big hit, but I didn’t really notice it too much.”

It was the career-best fifth catch of the game for Lachey. His 77 career receiving yards were another career high.

The stakes get bigger Friday, when the Hawkeyes meet Nebraska in the regular-season finale at Kinnick Stadium with the Big Ten West Division title and the Heroes Trophy on the line.

And Lachey, who has played in the shadow of senior tight end Sam LaPorta the past two seasons, will step front and center for the first time in his college career.

LaPorta, Iowa’s leader in receptions (53) and yards (601), was knocked out of the Minnesota game in the first quarter with an injury and is not expected to play Friday

“I don’t know what’s going to happen for sure,” Lachey said of LaPorta’s status. “But I’m ready. You gain confidence with every game. I feel after 11 games I’ve gained a lot of confidence.”

Lachey is expected to to start in place of LaPorta against the Cornhuskers, with true freshman Addison Ostrenga backing him up.

“Sam is Sam, arguably our best guy on offense,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “The good news is Luke has done a good job. Ostrenga did a good job jumping in there. We’ll have to play him more. We have to find a way to get it done.”

Next Man In, Iowa football’s mantra in the 24 seasons Ferentz has been head coach, will be on display Friday.

“We’re not going to reinvent things,” quarterback Spencer Petras said. “Big surprise. Next man in. It’s a cliche, but it’s so real. If Sam can’t go, someone has to. Someone has got to make plays. I have confidence in these guys.”

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Petras watches video every Thursday at Iowa’s football complex. Every time he walks in, he stops in the tight end room. LaPorta and Lachey are always in there, watching video together like teacher and student.

“I think Sam has been mentoring him the last two years,” Petras said.

Those film sessions have been invaluable in Lachey’s growth as a tight end.

“Sam has really taught me how to watch film,” Lachey said, “along with Coach Brian Ferentz and (tight ends coach) Abdul Hodge. They’ve taught me what to look for, as far as what coverages other teams are in.”

On Friday, the student will be replacing the teacher.

“He’s been second fiddle to Sam, but I’d be the first to tell you he's a really talented player,” Petras said. “I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Petras said Lachey, a big target at 6-6 and 252 pounds, has improved his route running and he’s started to break tackles and pick up extra yardage.

“I think last year he never broke any tackles,” Petras added. “Time will tell what his ceiling is, but I think he’s a really good player.”

Lachey’s blocking skills, mandatory for an Iowa tight end, have also improved. When he played at Grandview High School in Columbus, Ohio, Lachey lined up on the outside and didn’t have to block at the line of scrimmage.

“That’s definitely been the toughest thing for me, and I’m still working on it every day,” said Lachey, a pre-business major who has a 3.67 grade-point average and earned Academic All-District honors earlier this week. “You can never be satisfied with that kind of stuff.”

LaPorta has helped groom Lachey with that aspect of the game as well.

“I just watch him, and try to do what he does,” Lachey said. “Because he does such a great job on his routes and his blocking. He does a lot of little things that really help him out. Just trying to emulate him has helped me.”

On Friday, Lachey will likely see the most extended playing time of his college career.
“We know this game has two championships on the line,” Lachey said. “We’re definitely anxious for that, but we’re confident going into it. And we know it’s their last game, and they’re going to bring everything they have. We've got to make sure we give them our best.”