Years ago, Nebraska was one of the best college football programs in the country, so strong that it could often only be bested by something known as “Sooner Magic.”
There’s no magic to how Iowa does it––more like Hawkeye Logic––which is worse if you’re a Husker fan. It has also been more effective.
Friday’s 28-21 win was Iowa’s seventh straight in the series. Once Bob Devaney arrived in 1962, Oklahoma never had more than a six-game winning streak against Nebraska. That streak started in Devaney’s final season, 1972, and carried over through Tom Osborne’s first five seasons as head coach.
“Sooner Magic” was coined after the 1976 game. Down four with more than 80 yards to paydirt and less than four minutes remaining, Oklahoma hit for 47 yards on a halfback pass. Then it executed a hook-and-lateral for 32 yards . . . on third-and-19. That’s magic.
I wasn’t alive then, but I’ve watched replays and perhaps the only more improbable, multi-event thing I recall seeing on a football field is Nebraska’s 2021 football season.
When Nebraska went to the fourth quarter with a 21-9 lead, it was the first time the Huskers led after three quarters against the Hawkeyes since 2012. Forty-four seconds later, Iowa blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown to cut Nebraska’s lead to five.
“The blocked punt was the game,” Scott Frost said.
The difficult thing here is that it was, and everyone who watched all of this Nebraska season, much less its recent history with Iowa, probably knew it.
But it didn’t have to be, and it didn’t even look like it in the immediate aftermath.
Nebraska hit for a 28-yard gain on its first play after the blocked punt. It rushed for 4 yards, then 2 to set up a third-and-4 on the Hawkeyes’ half of the field. Quarterback Logan Smothers, excellent to that point in his first career start, fumbled on the third down.
Nebraska even survived that, forcing a three-and-out. It wasn’t until an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone on the ensuing Husker drive and a field goal on the drive to follow that Iowa was finally back to even. It was 21-21 and the Blackshirts had yet to give up a touchdown.
As improbable as that sequence of events might sound—even for Iowa, and that’s a compliment towards the Hawkeyes—the lasting memory of 2021 will be that it felt inevitable.
“With what we’ve been through it’s human nature to have it in the back of your head, ‘What’s going to go wrong? And when one goes wrong, what else is going to go wrong?’” Frost said. “A lot had to go wrong in a row.”
Yep. That’s essentially the epitaph for the season as a whole. Per the telecast, Nebraska was the first team since 2000 to lose eight games by single digits.
Then the Huskers added one to the total.
Nebraska finishes the season with a +63 point margin while also going 3-9.
That's the highest point margin by a team that finished at least 6 games under .500 in the AP Poll Era.
— Sopan Shah (@SopanShah) November 26, 2021
For three quarters, the Huskers did everything they needed to do to be in control of the game. They got an early lead. They kept things manageable for Smothers, but still hit for some big plays. The defense allowed field goals instead of touchdowns. It was masterful.
If you live your life in red, the perfect ending to a frustrating season would’ve been the blocked punt still happening and Nebraska finding a way to escape what it’s been for the past four seasons with a win. The Huskers had earned that through three quarters. Do that and Nebraska fans could ride off into the sunset, still unhappy and justifiably so with 4-8, but constantly looking over their shoulder and wondering, “Was that the hump? The one that must be gotten over? It’s getting smaller as time goes on. Maybe that was it.”
And maybe it would’ve been.
But in reality, this was the only way this game could’ve ended in 2021—big, out-of-nowhere change, doubt creeps in, Nebraska loses.
It seems likely that the makeup of this team is going to change drastically before 2022. We already know there are four new coaches to hire, a big share of playmakers to replace on defense and the two pass catchers—wide receiver Samori Touré and tight end Austin Allen––who accounted for 47% of all the receiving yards this season. There are other high-profile decisions for players who would really help Nebraska in 2022 if they chose to return, and then the regular offseason attrition you can’t predict and that isn’t slowing down any time soon.
Before factoring any of that in, as a team that scored 14 more touchdowns than its opponents on the year while losing nine games, you’d expect Nebraska to be better in 2022. Attrition, however severe it may or may not be, diminishes that a little, but it can’t erase the shear improbability of what the Huskers just did in 2021.
“We’ve been so close, this thing has a chance to really take off,” Frost said. There’s a lot of statistical evidence for that, which I won’t bore you with here. We’ve got an entire offseason ahead for that.
Frost also said this: “It’s criminal our record is what it is. I’ve got to do a better job. Coming this close in that many football games and not getting any is heartbreaking.”
There’s a lot of evidence for that, too.
Nebraska will have a lot of new in 2022, some of it voluntary, some of it involuntary, none of which on its own is likely to answer the only question of consequence: How will it not be the same?
“Wins take care of that,” Frost said. It was a similar sentiment to what he expressed after the season-opening loss at Illinois. Everything that happened in between, hard as it was to believe much less watch if you have any respect at all for the hard work good people put in, was at least elegantly scripted.
If Nebraska’s 2021 season wasn’t unprecedented, it was pretty close to it, something the cosmic script-writers have rarely, if ever, had the guts to even try.
For lack of better options, Husker fans now turn their attention to the season ahead.
How does Nebraska stop losing in this agonizing, improbable way? The only answer on offer so far is, effectively, it wins more. The result is the process, for better or worse.
I don’t know. A single win over Iowa wouldn’t have changed that, though things would’ve felt a lot better for the next nine months. Maybe a lucky bounce at the right time someday provides the win that erases the Huskers’ house-of-cards nature of late.
Maybe magic would do it. Maybe that’s the only way to do it. If the opponent is not Iowa or Wisconsin or Ohio State or Purdue or Minnesota or Michigan, but human nature, well, human nature doesn’t lose a whole lot.
It almost never loses games like this.
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.