LINCOLN, Neb. – As historic games go, this was not one for the Iowa history books.
The Hawkeyes started slow in the inaugural Heroes Game against Nebraska, their new trophy-tilt rival, and pretty much fizzled out from there.
They lost 20-7 Friday in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates, and they’ll head into the bowl season with a 7-5 record, which isn’t what they had in mind when they woke up the day after Thanksgiving.
It wasn’t Iowa’s worst performance of the season or even the most disappointing, but it was so very unexpectedly one-sided. It was the trip to Penn State all over again without the mountains. And judging by the somber mood afterward, it seemed to sting every bit as much.
“We got outplayed by Nebraska in all areas,” said Kirk Ferentz, Iowa’s coach.
Kind of like the way Nebraska got outplayed, 45-17, by Michigan the week before. Nebraska bounced back from that disheartening performance in Ann Arbor, but where were the Hawkeyes? They spent most of the game within striking distance without firing a shot.
After holding the ball just 18 minutes and 39 seconds against the Wolverines, the Huskers kept it twice as long against the Hawkeyes, which was devastating.
“It was big,” said Bo Pelini, the Nebraska coach. “I always say, ‘the best defense is when you’re standing on the sideline watching your offense go.’ “
When the game was over, senior Jermarcus Hardrick, a 6-foot 7-inch, 320-pound offensive lineman, picked up the trophy and walked it directly to Pelini, a former Hawkeye assistant. To hear the coach tell it, his time in Iowa City was “a couple centuries ago.”
The trophy stroll wasn’t what the Hawkeyes were hoping to see, but it was no surprise. The Huskers had the better resume coming in and the ranking.
They came in with one more victory than Iowa and one fewer loss while playing a less forgiving schedule. But you never know how these things will turn out until they do.
“It was a big deal today,” said Austin Cassidy, Nebraska’s senior safety. “For people in my senior class it really meant a lot, especially against a team like Iowa – a team that is obviously very good and a team a lot of these guys rooted against growing up. We wanted them to end up with a goose egg on the board.”
The way Nebraska was hogging the football and the way Rex Burkhead was chewing clock — with his 38 carries for 160 yards — it just as easily could have been a goose egg.
This isn’t usually a fun place for visiting teams. Michigan State, the first Legends Division champion, lost a game much like Friday’s a month ago.
Yet the Hawkeyes felt good about their chances. Northwestern won in Memorial Stadium. Why not Iowa?
A victory would have sent the Hawkeyes into the bowl season on a Big Red high, but victory never so much as peeked a head in the door. The defense was on the field way too long. The offense wasn’t on the field anywhere near long enough.
James Vandenberg, one of the most consistent Hawkeyes all season, somehow lost his passing touch. Marvin McNutt, his favorite target, was hounded by preseason all-American Alfonzo Dennard and couldn’t help Vandenberg find it.
Though Ferentz called his vanishing aerial attack the “story of the game,” there were many stories of the game. For Iowa, converting a third down was like scaling Mt. Everest. Stopping Nebraska from converting one was like scaling Mt. Everest while wearing ankle weights.
You kept waiting for the Hawkeyes to mount some kind of challenge. Any kind of a challenge. They almost always do. By the time they did, trailing 20-0 late in the fourth quarter, it didn’t matter.
Even in victory, Nebraskans are still unhappy about their team failing to make the Big Ten title game. Prognosticators and other lost souls kept telling them before the season that was their destiny.
Though they fell short, Friday helps make up for it. The victory pushes Nebraska to 5-3 in the conference and keeps Husker hopes for a 10-win season alive.
The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, finish the regular season with four Big Ten wins and four losses, which is where many objective observers had them back in August. They took some twisting, winding, unfamiliar back roads to find 4-4, but here they are.
They’ll play in a bowl game. It won’t be as good as Nebraska’s bowl game now. But there’s a decent chance it will be the bowl game they deserve.
Register sports columnist Marc Hansen can be reached at (515) 284-8534 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/marcdmr.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football