Nebraska goes into its final game of the regular season on Friday at Iowa with several questions to be answered.
The big one on every Nebraska fan's mind is who will be healthy enough to start at quarterback.
Senior Tommy Armstrong Jr. missed last Saturday's 28-7 win over Maryland with a hamstring injury. Backup Ryker Fyfe took Armstrong's place, but come to find out he broke a bone in his left wrist and had surgery on Sunday to repair it.
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Armstrong said Tuesday after practice that he will be able to play. Coach Mike Riley said Fyfe might be available. If neither can go, Nebraska is left with No. 3 quarterback Zack Darlington.
“We have a good feeling that Tommy's going to be able to do something,” Riley said. “We have a good feeling that Ryker is going to be able to do something.”
Riley would feel even better if any of the quarterbacks could help the 16th-ranked Cornhuskers (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) come away with a victory at Iowa (7-4, 5-3) in Kinnick Stadium (3:30 p.m., ABC). That would give Nebraska 10 wins — a significant turnaround from a 5-7 record in Riley's first season in 2015.
Nebraska is also playing for a chance at a Big Ten West Division co-championship and an outside shot at the conference championship game next week in Indianapolis. To get there, the Cornhuskers need to take care of business against Iowa and hope for a Minnesota upset of Wisconsin, leaving them alone atop the standings.
If Nebraska and Wisconsin win this weekend, they tie for the division title. But the Badgers get to advance based on their 23-17 overtime win over the Cornhuskers on Oct. 29.
“I think it would be awesome to get the 10th win. It's not that common,” Riley said. “There's not going to be that many people in the picture of double digit wins during the season.
“There's lots of reasons to win this game. It's Iowa, it's a rival game, it's a chance to win the division to get to the Big Ten championship game. It's 10 wins. It's a better bowl game. There's a bunch of reasons.”
Nebraska's record against Iowa since it joined the Big Ten in 2011 is 3-2. The road team has won the last four games, including the Cornhuskers' epic rally to beat Iowa 37-34 in overtime two years ago in Kinnick Stadium.
“It seems like a really great natural rivalry that will just do nothing but grow and become bigger and bigger,” Riley said. “I mean, just the proximity, kind of the like-mindedness, I just think it's a perfect fit that way.”
Last year, the Hawkeyes won 28-20 in Lincoln to cap a perfect 12-0 regular season. Iowa is nowhere near that level this year, but they still could tie for the Big Ten West title with a win and a Wisconsin loss, which would create a four-team logjam at the top.
“At the end of the day, it's what happens at game time,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the rivalry game. “Doesn't matter if you've been playing for the last hundred years or haven't played. It's about what happens at game time and how that thing goes.”
Iowa seems to have found its identity the past two weeks by relying on an airtight defense and a run-heavy offense. The Hawkeyes claimed their first Big Ten shutout since 2009 with a 28-0 victory at Illinois last Saturday.
Iowa followed a similar formula the week before against Michigan in the stunning 14-13 upset that handed the Wolverines their first and only loss of the season. A pride-bruising, humiliating 41-14 loss to Penn State three weeks ago seemed to jolt the Hawkeyes into suddenly playing their best football of the year at the tail end of the schedule.
“We've got our work cut out, and we'll see what we can do this week,” Ferentz said. “It's going to be a big challenge for us.”
Nebraska can expect to see play of Iowa's two running backs. Senior LeShun Daniels Jr. and junior Akrum Wadley are taking turns leading the Hawkeyes in rushing.
Two weeks ago, Wadley carried Iowa against Michigan with 112 yards rushing. Last week against Illinois, Daniels ran for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
Both backs are closing in on 1,000 yards for the season. Wadley has 861 yards and Daniels is right behind with 855. With Friday's game and a bowl game remaining, both could get there.
“We've got two guys that we have confidence in,” Ferentz said. “The best thing is they complement each other. They're different, yet they can kind of play off each other a little bit, and there is certainly room for both.”
Iowa is surviving on nothing more than simple, straight-ahead, power football. In November when the temperatures turn colder and the snow sometimes flies, ground and pound can often be a winning strategy in Big Ten country.
Good defense also wins games this time of year in the cold north country. Iowa's defense has played lights out the past two weeks. After giving up 599 yards in the debacle at Penn State, Iowa has regrouped and allowed only 399 the past two weeks.
“(We) just came together and told ourselves that can't happen anymore,” Iowa linebacker Bo Bower said of the defensive effort against Penn State. “Some teams can go down the drain. Some teams can pick themselves up.”