Good Enough to Win
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Good Enough to Win, Poor Enough to Lose: Nebraska’s Cruel Calculus

November 30, 2019

On its sixth play from scrimmage, Iowa got 45 yards on the ground. A stretch run concept that picked up 11 yards one play earlier set up a reverse that initially looked like a copy of the concept prior. The next drive, the Hawkeyes went three-and-out. 

On its 11th play, Iowa got 55 yards. 

On its last two offensive plays, Iowa gained 44 yards. 

The two runs resulted directly in two touchdowns. The two throws led to the game-winning field goal. Collectively, they were enough to propel No. 19 Iowa (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten) to what was essentially a second-straight walk-off win over Nebraska (5-7, 3-6 Big Ten), this time 27-24. 

“We keep coming up just short,” head coach Scott Frost said when asked what he told the team after.

“I’ve had too many of those conversations with these guys.”

It’s probably enough to break, or at least crack, even the strongest of wills. Almost cruel. How do you keep coming up short yet continue to square the pain with optimism? 

Because there’s optimism to be had. On the 43 plays sandwiched between Iowa’s 11th and Iowa’s last, it gained 138 yards as an offense. Good for 3.2 a play. It produced just six points. 

“We just figured it out,” said senior defensive tackle Darrion Daniels. 

“It took guys too long to realize their run offense wasn’t what it has been in the past,” added junior defensive end Ben Stille. “That all took too long. The two scores in the first quarter where a guy got cut out of his gap, and on the reverse someone didn’t do their job. Aside from that, when people do their job, you saw what we can do.”

Iowa once again out-gained Nebraska in the rushing department—a trend for the last five games that means as much to the five-straight series losses for the Huskers as any single stat—but after the two chunk runs early the Hawkeyes hit for just 4.4 yards per carry the rest of the way. 

“I felt like we stepped up today,” senior defensive end Khalil Davis said. “They didn’t score the whole second half until the field goal. I can’t ask anything else of the defense. We executed. We got them to third down. We fought. The seniors that played today gave everything they had.”

Nebraska’s defense largely played well enough to win a football game. The Hawkeyes had 11 total yards in the second quarter. They had 7 in the third quarter. 

“I thought our defense held their own in the run game, they did a really good job against the pass,” Frost said. “The defense kept stepping up.”

When it mattered, the others didn’t.

Special teams was again—excruciatingly—an Achilles heel. Twice in three weeks Nebraska has followed up an offensive touchdown by giving up a return touchdown on the immediately-ensuing kickoff.

Nebraska’s offense had 44 yards on 19 plays in the first quarter. It had 39 yards on 15 plays in the fourth. Swing passes were non-starters because the perimeter blocking struggled to offer any daylight. Receivers didn’t get open when quarterback Adrian Martinez had time to throw, and when he didn’t it’s because Iowa’s AJ Epenesa was bullying Husker offensive linemen. 

Nebraska got the ball with 4:32 remaining in a tied game, with 80 yards between it and the end zone, momentum on its side following another midfield stand from the defense. The Huskers were flagged for a false start on first down, then ran . . . something . . . on second down. A third-and-14 ended in a sack. 

A takeaway manufactured by the Blackshirts gave Nebraska a second chance at its 30 yard-line less than a minute later. The Huskers got 19 yards on their first four plays before a block in the back penalty killed the march. With under a minute to play, Martinez ran out of bounds on second-and-20 after picking up 1 yard. 

The score was tied. Iowa had only one timeout remaining, and was able to use it to stop the clock after a 4-yard run on third down. Nebraska punted with 40 seconds on the clock and Iowa started from its own 26-yard-line with 32 seconds on the clock.

That was enough.

Does any of that happen if the runner stays between the white lines and the clock keeps ticking down? 

“That can’t happen,” Frost said. “A lot of things went right, and quite a few things went wrong for us at the end.”

Frost has gone through another season of saying he’s tired of finding moral victories in defeat, tired of finding positives to build on in games influenced by negatives. 

The progress is there and the direction is clear for those who know how to decipher it, but all that growth amounted to one extra win in the record book and another close-out game where the seniors walked off the field feeling like they’d taken a punch to the face. 

Senior linebacker Mohamed Barry lingered. Senior corner Lamar Jackson cried out in frustration. 

“I told the seniors I just felt bad for them,” Stille said. “Everything they’ve been through. I was just sorry we couldn’t get it done for them.”

It’s hard to keep going through the same process. Playing well enough to win a game in one respect and poorly enough to lose two and three times over in others.

“At the end of the day, we only had one more win than we had last year and no bowl game,” a somber Stille said. “Nice to think that but at the end of the day we have nothing to show for it.”

That’s a hard way to end a Year 2. 

A handful of plays were the difference between that and finally tasting jubilation, finally getting back to the college football postseason. It’s fitting. That’s been the case for Nebraska all season.

Football can be cruel like that. 

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