IOWA CITY — “Well, that was hard,” coach Bo Pelini said minutes after Nebraska’s 13-7 win over Iowa in Iowa City on Friday.
Hard may have been putting it mildly. Nebraska lost its starting center Justin Jackson and defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler early in the game while a fierce northern wind kept the temperature, as well as points and yards, to a minimum. Iowa and Nebraska combined just for 463 yards of offense on the day, 15 yards short of what the Huskers were averaging coming into the game. But it was still enough to guarantee Nebraska a share of a division title for the fourth time in five years under Pelini and punch the Huskers’ ticket to Indianapolis for next week’s Big Ten championship game.
Nebraska (10-2, 7-1) had the look of a future division champion on the game’s opening drive. The Huskers ran the ball on 14 of the game’s first 15 plays and gained yards on all of them. But the 16th play was perhaps the first sign of the trouble to come. Ameer Abdullah was stopped for a 1-yard loss, forcing a 26-yard Brett Maher field goal and Nebraska was done scoring – and, essentially, moving the ball – for the rest of the first half.
The next four Nebraska drives, comprising 13 plays and one fumbled handoff, covered just 19 yards. But with Iowa playing into the wind, the Hawkeyes were unable to capitalize on Nebraska’s post-holiday good will.
Iowa’s last three drives of the second half all ended in Nebraska territory but resulted in zero points to keep the score locked at 7-3. It was a familiar feeling for the Huskers who, for the fifth time in eight Big Ten games, trailed at the half.
“With all the comebacks and stuff like that, we knew going into halftime at 7-3 we’re perfectly fine,” quarterback Taylor Martinez said. “We’ve been down way worse than that and we just (had) to come out strong in the second half.”
Enter Rex Burkhead. The senior running back made his return to the Nebraska lineup for the first time in five weeks on the Huskers first play of the second half.
“I thought it would be a mental boost for us,” Pelini said. “I talked to him, and I talked to the trainer. I went into the game thinking I was only going to play him if we needed him, and I thought we needed him at that point.”
Burkhead carried five times on the Huskers’ opening second half drive and Nebraska got a 52-yard field goal from Brett Maher to cut the lead to 7-6. Two drives later, following a short Iowa punt into the wind that set the Huskers up at the Hawkeyes’ 43-yard line, Burkhead plunged in for a 3-yard touchdown run giving the Huskers a 13-7 lead.
From there, the Blackshirts took over. With the wind at the Hawkeyes’ backs – 17 of the 20 points scored in the game were with the wind – Nebraska’s defense forced three straight Iowa punts before senior linebacker Alonzo Whaley stepped in front of a James Vandenberg slant pass for the first interception of his career.
“(Iowa) ran the same exact play the play before that, so we had a zero pressure going and I knew that the ball would come out pretty fast, so I was just thinking: Be aggressive,” Whaley said. “I jumped the route the first time, but didn’t come up with the results that I came with the last time. They ran the same exact route and I kind of played it the same exact way and found, I guess, an early Christmas present.”
The turnover put a cap on a spectacular fourth quarter for the Blackshirts. Nebraska held Iowa to just 13 yards on 12 play, allowing the offense to possess the ball for more than 10 minutes in the final quarter. Burkhead picked up 60 of his team-leading 69 yards rushing in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
“I missed being out there,” Burkhead said follwoing the game, “just getting out there and having fun with the guys and most importantly putting a ‘W’ on the board.”