IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Huskers traveled 330 miles down Interstate 80 to lift the Heroes Trophy on Friday for the first time in eight years. In the end, the last 100 yards were the hardest.
Interim head coach Mickey Joseph told his Nebraska team they had one mission left. With one game remaining before an offseason of uncertainty, they could ruin their rival’s aspirations. The spoiler became the victor. When Nebraska’s 24-0 lead vanished to a single possession, the defense finally closed the door. Nebraska senior Chris Kolarevic intercepted backup Iowa quarterback Alex Padilla on a 4th down throw in Iowa territory with 42 seconds left. The Huskers took one knee and darted for the far end zone and the Heroes Trophy. 24-17 on Black Friday. Long time coming.
The Huskers (4-8, 3-6 Big Ten) stormed the Heroes Trophy and carried it along the Nebraska sideline as Husker fans chanted “Go Big Red” and Iowa fans emptied Kinnick Stadium. Junior edge Garrett Nelson grabbed the trophy from Myles Farmer and carried it to the remaining red crowd.
“Made sure every Husker fan touched it, and we’re going to keep it,” Nelson said. “Show up through the good and the bad, support us no matter what, it’s for the state. It’s for those guys. It’s for us. It’s for the state of Nebraska.”
The team captain lugged the 30-inch-tall wood and bronze trophy across Duke Slater Field towards Nebraska’s locker room. He’d already done some of the heavy lifting, shutting out Iowa in the first half. That allowed the Huskers’ offense ample time to score. And score they did, just over 7 hours after standout Trey Palmer said he “woke up more pissed off than ever.” He said after the game it’s because he doesn’t like certain opponents. Not Wisconsin. Not Iowa (7-5, 5-4).
“And you seen what happened when I woke up pissed off,” Palmer said.
He exploded like a roman candle on a short fuse. On the first play out of Nebraska’s second drive, Casey Thompson dropped back delivered a deep ball over the top. Palmer ran under it and outran everyone else into the end zone. The 87-yard strike put the Huskers in front after the initial drive ended in a missed field goal. That was the third pass of over 50 yards the tough Iowa defense allowed all season.
Iowa’s arial offense, meanwhile, couldn’t keep speed. Cornerback Quinton Newsome came off the edge and strip sacked quarterback Spencer Petras. Freshman linebacker Ernest Hausmann ran down the loose ball and scooped it in with one arm in Iowa territory. Unable to replicate the splash play, the Husker offense chipped away. Rahmir Johnson rambled forward into prime territory but Thompson couldn’t connect with Travis Vokolek in the end zone on third down. Timmy Bleekrode nailed a 21-yard chip to make it a two-possession game.
Padilla came on for the injured Petras, who finished 1 of 6. He initially moved the chains on a designed quarterback sneak, but when he dropped back Nebraska’s Eteva Mauga-Clements strip sacked him as well. Nelson scooped the loose ball and ran to the Iowa 39. Less than a minute of game time later, Thompson found Palmer over the middle into the end zone for an 18-yard score. That touchdown not only expanded Nebraska’s lead to three possessions, it etched Palmer’s Husker debut season into history. He broke the school record for most receiving yards in a single season, which was previously set by Stanley Morgan’s 1,004-yard 2018 campaign. Palmer finished with 165 in the game, 1,043 for the season.
“All I seen was they can’t guard me,” Palmer said. “Or they can’t run with me. So that’s what I did.”
Nebraska’s final drive of the first half ended in Iowa territory when Joseph thought there should have been a second left. Instead, momentum carried into the second half when Iowa stopped Nebraska’s opening drive but couldn’t catch Brian Buschini’s punt. Alante Brown hopped on the muffed ball at the Iowa 18. Three plays later, Marcus Washington snagged Thompson’s frozen rope over the middle for a 14-yard strike.
Washington’s catch proved valuable insurance. Over 37 minutes into Friday’s game, the Hawkeyes finally responded. Running back Kaleb Johnson broke an initial tackle at the line of scrimmage and hit the seam for a 44-yard run midway through the third quarter. Two drives later, Padilla engineered a drive that ended in tight end Luke Lachey stretching into the end zone with two defenders clinging to his back. Iowa stripped Johnson on the first play of the next drive but settled for a 45-yard field goal from Drew Stevens when the offense couldn’t move a yard on Nebraska.
Without valuable field position again, Iowa couldn’t score. The Huskers forced five incompletions on seven passes during Iowa’s first potential tying drive. Joseph, on the ensuing drive, sent out the punt unit and the Nebraska defense to clinch victory. And they did. Padilla’s one completion went for 2 yards and his 4th down throw went into the hands of a Husker playing his last game.
“We going to give them all their Blackshirts back and let somebody else deal with it,” Joseph said after the game. “I trusted in what they’ve been doing. They played lights out the last couple of weeks, so we trusted we could put them back on the field and make a stop.”
The Huskers now cart the trophy back to Lincoln having snapped a seven-game losing streak to Iowa. Awaiting Nelson and similar teammates is a Blackshirt and uncertainty. But those questions can be answered another day, he said. He’s focused on enjoying the win and carrying that proof of success back to Lincoln so everyone in red can lay their hands on it.