IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa made it an emphasis to keep Nebraska’s offense off the football field. The Huskers had one possession in the first quarter and it yielded seven points. Nebraska had nine drives and got points from five of them. Yeah, Iowa made sure this game wouldn’t be decided by Nebraska’s offense.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz played the odds and said Nebraska’s defense was less likely to win the game than its offense.
It turns out he was right, but after a 31-28 loss to the Hawkeyes (8-4, 5-4 Big Ten) ended Nebraska’s season and officially forced the Huskers (4-8, 3-6 Big Ten) to turn the page to 2019, a lot of the vibe postgame was about how Ferentz’s gamble won’t be so easy in the coming years.
Iowa ran the ball and ran the ball and ran the ball some more, opening up quarterback Nate Stanley to hit key throws out of the play-action with easier windows. Running back Mekhi Sargent went for a season-high 173 rushing yards and the Hawkeyes — held to sub-40 percent success rates on the ground in seven of their 11 games entering the day — hit for 60 percent against the Blackshirts.
Nebraska couldn’t get off the field when it needed to. Iowa was 7-for-13 on third downs and 2-for-3 on fourth downs, including the play that ultimately decided things.
On fourth-and-8 from the Huskers’ 37-yard-line with 42 seconds left in a 28-28 game, head coach Scott Frost and company expected a punt. Then Iowa came out and tried to hard count the Huskers into jumping offside. Nebraska didn’t flinch and Ferentz called time, Frost thinking a punt was all but surely coming now.
Then it didn’t.
Nebraska blitzed the house, Stanley stood in the pocket and delivered a strike near the right hash to tight end TJ Hockenson. They needed 8 and got 10. Iowa ran the clock down to three seconds with a 4-yard run, then kicked a game-winning field goal as time ran out.
Iowa kicker Miguel Recinos took off racing toward the south end zone as the rest of his teammates tried to catch him.
Nebraska was left to just walk off the field for the last time with another sunken feeling.
“We didn’t go out the way we wanted to go out,” cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said. “We wanted to go out with a win, send these seniors off right and we didn’t do that today.”
There’s plenty to take away from the game and the season. Nebraska turned an 0-6 start into a 4-2 finish with the two losses coming by a combined eight points, both on the road against Big Ten heavyweights. Against the Hawkeyes on Friday, Nebraska was down 28-13 and scored 15 unanswered, fueled by big plays from Adrian Martinez and stops from the defense.
But the defense is in a weird spot. Adjustments were made in the second half and Iowa was slowed, but the Hawkeyes still hit key plays when they needed to. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s scheme is about getting those plays that Nebraska didn’t get. The Huskers got out-muscled by Iowa, whose gameplan was obvious, bland and frustratingly successful.
“What disturbs me is right now Iowa is a bigger, stronger football team,” Frost said. “That’s right now. I never thought I’d see or hear that or say that about a Nebraska football team.
“I want to get to a point where I don’t look across at another team’s o- and d-linemen and think they’re bigger than us. That shouldn’t happen when you’re at the University of Nebraska.”
Adding talent was an emphasis from both Frost. Even Bootle referenced recruiting more playmakers into the system. But it’s not all about talent.
The Blackshirts had their best game of the season one week ago against Michigan State. Eight pass break-ups, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and two takeaways; none of which was present Friday against the Hawkeyes. Nebraska had three negative plays, one break-up and no takeaways.
Taking that next step as a defense will be about finding the right guys, but also, as senior safety Tre Neal told the guys in the locker room, just trusting in the system.
“I think you saw it a lot more the last six games because that’s when we started having success,” Neal said. “Once they trust it, it’ll be Year 2 next year. The simple stuff we ran that they might have gotten confused with, they’re going to know it so they’re going to be a little bit faster, a little more knowledgeable of what’s going on.”
And despite all that — the rushing struggles, the missed coverages, the late assignments and the third time in four games the defense has given up 30 — the defense still feel like there’s momentum on their side.
Safety Antonio Reed said the Huskers brought more energy into Friday’s game than they have for a while. Without it, he said, the Huskers wouldn’t have hung around.
There’s the one fourth-down stop the Huskers did get. Iowa had that 28-13 lead and a first-and-10 at the Nebraska 11 late in the third quarter. Sargent got stood up on second-and-3 to bring up a third-and-2. Iowa threw to the left corner of the end zone but couldn’t connect. Then they faked a field goal on fourth-and-2 and Nebraska held.
“If they would have kicked the field goal, it would have been a different game,” Reed said.
Most teams take field goal block off, Bootle says, but Nebraska knew it needed to be ready for anything. Linebacker Mo Barry said quit isn’t in the team vocabulary this season. Bring a dog mentality every play.
“First-and-goal for them, down two scores already, not looking very good in the third quarter, they could have quit,” Frost said. “I heard about how Nebraska quit in some of these games last year and there was no quit in our guys.”
The message from Frost in the postgame was mostly an optimistic one. Nebraska showed pride. The mistakes that cost the team the game will hurt, but the future is bright. “This team’s good enough to beat a lot of people,” Frost said. He mentioned the postgame press conference following the 56-10 loss to Michigan on Sept. 22, one in which he said Nebraska had hit rock bottom.
“To our kids’ credit, they swam like hell for the surface and have just kept improving,” he said.
Outsiders checking in on Nebraska this offseason will see the 4-8 record and think “Frost did exactly what Mike Riley did last year.” Inside though, the number is where the similarities between this year’s team and last end, especially on defense.
“Last year we won some games early and fell flat,” Bootle said. “A lot of guys weren’t trying to fight back. A lot of guys weren’t trying to make something happen. We were just going through the games and at times it felt like we were just waiting for the clock to run out so we could just go on about our day.
“This year, we started out flat, 0-6, and at the halfway point we had to look ourselves in the mirror and really question ourselves and ask what type of team do we want to be.
“We want to be the type of team that fights. These past six weeks, we’ve been in every game. We won four of the last six but we could have very well won six of the last six and be a 6-6 team right now.”
The key Saturday was another slow start. Iowa got its ground game rolling early and Nebraska was on the counter from that point on. Senior wideout Stanley Morgan Jr. said the message to guys coming back next year is “Start fast, start now and let’s get this rolling.” Barry said Nebraska won’t have excuses next season — the plays that didn’t get made this year need to be made next year.
“If this loss doesn’t make you hungry for more, I don’t want to go into next season with you,” Bootle said. “This loss should make you extremely hungry for more. We don’t have another game next week but I want to go out and play next week, just so I can right my wrongs, just so I can go out there and put it on the line for Nebraska again.
“If I want this thing to go the way I say I want this thing to go, I can’t just sit back and let it happen. I have to be proactive in getting it done.”
That’s a fighter. That’s what Nebraska needs, ultimately.
“The light is at the end of the tunnel,” Neal said. “I know it seems dim now but we’re getting closer and closer and this thing’s going to be bright.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.