Football is the ultimate team game. It is almost always tough to separate out an individual performance given the way the sport is structured, but Nebraska’s previous trips to Iowa City have unfolded in ways that did exactly that.
When playing for the Heroes Trophy in Hawkeyes country, the Huskers have needed, and gotten, some hero-like performances.
In 2012, it was Rex Burkhead. On a frigid and windy day — the worst combo possible — Nebraska’s offense, the best in the Big Ten that season, couldn’t get anything going at all. The Huskers had 92 total yards at halftime, 68 of them on the ground, and trailed 7-3.
The answer to those woes? Burkhead, who had missed the previous four games and didn’t take a snap in the first half. Nebraska ran 38 plays in the second half, 30 of them runs, 16 of those by Burkhead. None of those runs was longer than 15 yards, but they averaged 4.3 yards per carry, which, in that game, mays a well have been 10. Burkhead ended up with 69 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. Nebraska doesn’t win without him.
The 2014 game was crazier. Iowa turned the ball over on its first three possessions — an interception at Nebraska’s 7-yard line, a fumbled punt and a fumble at the Huskers’ 5. If the Hawkeyes cash in either of those first two opportunities, bit may have been a blowout because Iowa built a 24-7 lead in the third quarter anyway.
Nebraska hung around just enough, however, to set the stage for true freshman De’Mornay Pierson-El. On the third play of the fourth quarter, Pierson-El broke lose for a 41-yard punt return. One play later, Tommy Armstrong Jr. hit Kenny Bell with a 32-yard touchdown pass.
Six plays after that, Pierson-El had an even more brilliant return, catching a punt in heavy traffic, somehow escaping and taking it 80 yards to the end zone. Nebraska would need overtime to beat Iowa that day, it didn’t end up mattering for Bo Pelini and none of it unfolds exactly that way without DPE.
Today’s game looks like it could require a similar performance. At last check, Iowa was favored by 2 or 2.5 points. Both teams are banged up, as all teams are in late November, but the Huskers could play one of three quarterbacks in this game. Only one of those quarterbacks, the one that holds kicks and moved to wide receiver last spring, is totally healthy.
Who could be the Huskers hero on Friday? Don’t count out Armstrong. It would be fitting start to the final act of Armstrong’s career if he somehow played great in this game. Special teams could be a difference maker today. Maybe Pierson-El comes up with the big return at the right time. Maybe it’s Terrell Newby, who has been having very get-a-win-at-Iowa-like fourth quarters all year.
The fun part of football is that you never know.
The Grab Bag
- How can the Huskers beat the Hawkeyes? Adam Jacobi of Go Iowa Awesome spoke with our own Erin Sorensen to break down the game.
- Chad Leisitkow of Hawk Central writes that Iowa’s best path to victory today will be to keep things simple.
- Big Thanksgiving for LSU, which trounced Texas A&M last night amid reports that the Tigers also had their next head coach — Houston’s Tom Herman. LSU brass quickly refuted those reports because of course they did.
- Still trying to make a call between Ohio State and Michigan? Ray Hartnett breaks down the two teams’ performances to date.
Today’s Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.