Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Before We Get to Nebraska’s Future, an Appreciation of the Huskers’ Present for a Day

November 25, 2022

In the present Friday, Nebraska’s future, reportedly, came into clearer focus, and its recent past felt that way for the first time this season.

Nebraska won a game, 24-17, against Iowa for the first time since 2014. You remember that one, right? It was the one after which Bo Pelini was fired with then-Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst saying, to paraphrase, “Cool, but is beating Iowa really that notable?”

The Huskers hadn’t beaten Iowa since, and they weren’t expected to do so on Friday in Iowa City. Nebraska had been an underdog 26 times since the start of Scott Frost’s tenure in 2018, and it was 2-24 in those games, including 0-6 this season. The Huskers had beaten Penn State as a 2.5-point dog in 2020 and Purdue as a 1-point dog that same season. That was it, two games in a wild year where the lines were off to the greatest degree in a decade.

Iowa, entering Friday, was a double-digit favorite with everything to play for on its home field. A win would’ve put the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game. Now, they’ll have to wait to see what Purdue does on Saturday. If the Boilermakers beat Indiana, Purdue’s in.

Edge rusher Garrett Nelson said the chance to spoil Iowa’s clean path to Indianapolis served as motivations.

Maybe not, however, as much as this.

“It’s just Iowa,” Nelson said. “For years, these guys have acted like our big brother, like we were lesser to them. We were tired of hearing that.”

For years, that was true. Iowa football wasn’t sexy or even easily explainable. Friday’s Big Ten Network broadcast opened with a segment saying, “There’s a simplicity to Iowa football,” and you could only absorb that as faint-but-earned praise. While anyone who pays close attention to football could understand how Iowa wins, nobody outside of Iowa City tends to appreciate it.

This 2022 season stood as perhaps the ultimate example of that divide. Kirk Ferentz took arrows all season for this offense, helmed by his son, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, and, well, treated it like combat. It was an indication, from the outside at least, that maybe even those in Iowa City were growing weary of the extreme minimalism with which Iowa won.

But, entering Friday, it looked like Ferentz would have the last laugh. All the Hawkeyes had to do was beat Nebraska, as it had done the previous seven times in this series, in its stadium as a decent favorite.

The past indicated, clearly, that Nebraska would somehow fall short. The future arrived shortly before kickoff with multiple reports from national writers saying Matt Rhule, who had turned around Temple and Baylor before heading to the NFL, was close to being named Nebraska’s next head coach.

That only left the four-or-so hours on Friday as an unknown, and, for once, the present turned out pretty pleasant for Husker fans. The Big Red jumped out to a 24-0 lead thanks to a big play—the sort that Iowa’s made its name on not allowing—and a 3-0 edge in turnovers.

The big lead, against a team that hadn’t come back from more than three points down all season, nearly didn’t hold because nothing with this Nebraska program has been easy of late. But it did hold, sealed by an interception from linebacker Chris Kolarevic, and that was important in way that went far beyond the Huskers finishing 2022 as a three-win team versus a four-win team.

In my view, interim head coach Mickey Joseph has undeniably made Nebraska grittier, for lack of a better term, during his time at the head of the program. That showed itself in spurts over the last month, but hadn’t resulted in any wins. This time, it did.

If this was the end of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s time in Lincoln, which seemed likely for a variety of reasons, he definitely went out doing it his way. Against the fourth-best passing efficiency defense in the country, Whipple had his guys throw it on eight of the first nine plays. Backed up at their own 13-yard line on the second offensive drive of the game, Nebraska threw it deep to Trey Palmer for the longest touchdown from scrimmage against the Hawkeyes in four years.

Palmer, an LSU transfer closely tied to Joseph, topped 1,000 yards receiving with his performance, becoming the single-season record holder at Nebraska. Quarterback Casey Thompson, a Texas transfer, threw zero interceptions for the second straight week, but this was against a defense that ranked 15th nationally in interceptions.

That’s before you get to the guys who have endured all or most of the pain Nebraska’s recent past has contained. Nelson recovered a fumble in what could be his final game, after being a fixture for four seasons. That fumble was forced by Eteva Mauga-Clements, who was starting in place of Luke Reimer, another fixture, and had the game of his career.

The reports around Rhule, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who follows Nebraska football, could’ve been the only takeaway from Friday if this game had gone as projected.

That it wasn’t, and the game didn’t, are a credit to everyone who’s here right now.

There will be plenty of time to talk about what’s next in the days ahead. It will be unavoidable.

For now, what happened at Iowa deserves its own appreciation. It came at the end of a forgettable stretch for Nebraska football, but maybe it served as a beginning, too.

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