Of course the season ended in a rainstorm.
A wild season filled with plenty of promise, but even more frustration, ended with one final heartbreaker for the rebuilding Huskers.
Nebraska wanted this win badly. That much was clear by how the team played the final 20 minutes. Despite their desire to win, and despite how they outplayed Iowa in the fourth quarter, falling just short will do a lot for this program next season.
Nebraska had plenty of bounces go its way down the stretch of this season. Most of them were earned by the work the Huskers put in since head coach Scott Frost arrived in December. By coming up heartbreakingly short against an Iowa team that outran them 266 yards to 140 yards, this team learned while it is competitive again, it still has a lot of work to do to be a championship contender.
The Huskers had plenty of impressive moments in their loss on Black Friday, but there were tons of moments that showed why Nebraska went 4-8..
The thing that stood out most about this game was Nebraska’s fight. The Huskers shown it before, but never quite like they did today. When Nate Stanley found Mekhi Sargent for a wide-open touchdown to go up 28-13, it felt like a repeat of the last two games in this series was imminent. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that a blowout was occurring once the Hawkeyes forced a three-and-out on the ensuing drive then drove down the field inside the Nebraska five-yard line.
But that’s when Iowa learned this isn’t Mike Riley’s Nebraska. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz got greedy and ran a fake field goal, which senior linebacker Luke Gifford snuffed out immediately. Once Nebraska caught a break, it immediately punched back unlike the previous three meetings. Iowa thought it forced a three-and-out, but it was Gifford again that made the heroic play. In his final game for his hometown team, he got the ball on a fake punt inside the Huskers’ 10-yard line and ran for the first down, sacrificed his body on a slide and drew a 15-yard penalty on a late hit.
From there, Nebraska had to fight for every yard, and it did. It took three fourth-down conversions, but the Huskers drove 98 yards down the field for a touchdown to pull within eight. Their defense then stepped up on multiple occasions. First, they broke through into the backfield for a rare negative-yardage play for the Hawkeyes, which forced them into a three-and-out. Then, after a costly Adrian Martinez interception, the Huskers stood tall in their red zone and forced a field goal that Iowa missed.
Then, Martinez provided the last memorable play of the season for the Huskers, as he tied the game on a two-point conversion where he found fellow freshman Kade Warner in the back of the end zone for the completion.
The entire comeback took toughness and guts. The Hawkeyes abused Nebraska up until the fake field goal, then in an instant the Huskers had Iowa completely gassed and dominated the fourth quarter. That hasn’t happened in an Iowa-Nebraska game since 2012 (2014’s comeback was primarily special teams.)
Unlike the Michigan State or Michigan games, the Huskers proved they could move the ball and finish drives against physical opponents. That’s certainly a promising sign for the future.
The discouraging part of today’s loss was how poorly Nebraska played in the trenches. From the opening drive the Huskers were outmatched by Iowa’s front seven and offensive line. Iowa’s rushing attack ranked tenth in the conference, but gashed Nebraska with ease for nearly six yards per rush. A lot of that is due to conditioning.
Frost frequently lamented in the offseason about how out off shape the team had gotten under Riley. After all, in his first offseason training session three players had to be hospitalized with Rhabdomyolysis.
Nebraska isn’t part of a Rocky movie. One inspirational training montage won’t get it up to speed with the best of the conference. That much was clear in its games against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa, as well as at the end of the Northwestern game. It’s something that will take another offseason of workouts, if not longer, to fix.
And that’s why today’s loss may be valuable in the long run. It won’t be valuable just because of the outcome, it will be because of how they lost. After blanking the Hawkeyes the entire quarter, they allowed them to drive down the field and out-tough them to win the game. They allowed their rival to ruin the send off for an inspirational senior class, and that’s something the younger players are likely to remember during workouts and practices this offseason.
Just because its new system has been fully implemented and had success doesn’t mean that Nebraska will automatically win championships of any kind. It’s going to take plenty of work in both the weight room and in their preparation to continue to improve.