LINCOLN — Eight Nebraska turnovers Saturday made it hard for anybody to dare try to pinpoint one being more damaging than another.
One, however, might have best told the story as Iowa State stunned the Huskers 9-7 at Memorial Stadium.
There was hope: junior receiver Niles Paul taking a long pass from Zac Lee, eluding the last ISU defender and heading for a touchdown.
Followed by dismay: Paul, without contact, losing the football and seeing it bounce down the field.
Then a twist of fate: Paul scrambling to get it back, retaining it for a moment and then losing it into the hands of the Cyclones.
In summation: a positive play, a mistake, a second chance, another mistake. Repeat cycle.
“I don’t know if I've ever been around that in my coaching career,’’ said NU coach Bo Pelini, cerebral in his postgame press conference. “It’s pretty obvious you can’t win a football game like that.’’
Nebraska couldn't overcome itself no matter how hard it tried — and how Iowa State seemingly teased it to do so — before a crowd of 85,938.
In tying the single-game school record for turnovers, NU may have made some fans forget about Shawn Watson’s offense, Roy Helu’s health and any blossoming quarterback controversy.
Instead, they left shaking their heads much the same as Pelini and his players and staff.
“Man, they all hurt,’’ Watson said. “They all hurt, especially when you’re taking it down and get down there and you got points on the scoreboard ... and something like that happens. We’ve got to fix it. It’s our job: fix it.’’
By “points on the scoreboard’’ Watson was referring to the fact that four of the first five turnovers came inside the ISU 5-yard line. Paul and Helu each had one that the Cyclones recovered in the end zone, even denying Nebraska the chance of pinning ISU deep to start a drive.
If any of the four had simply reached fourth down, a short Alex Henery field goal might have averted a second straight home loss for Nebraska (4-3, 1-2 Big 12).
Both tight end Mike McNeill and tackle Mike Smith said the offense kept going back out with a confident attitude, helped by the defense giving it the football in places like the ISU 42, 41 and 35 — the last of those after Ndamukong Suh blocked a fourth-quarter field goal and Sean Fisher returned it 34 yards.
“We all thought we’d come back,’’ McNeill said. “We were down two points. We thought: one drive. It’s not like we ever thought we were out of it.’’
Iowa State (5-3, 2-2) hadn't won in Lincoln since 1977 and was playing without starting quarterback Austen Arnaud and Big 12 rushing leader Alexander Robinson. The Cyclones played carefully with freshman Jerome Tiller directing the offense, protecting the football and throwing it on just 19 of 67 plays.
At times, it was almost as if the Cyclones were banking on punting the football and getting it back via the turnover.
“Strange, strange day,’’ ISU coach Paul Rhoads said. “Maybe somebody thought 32 years was long enough and we needed to come out of here victorious.’’
Never did it seem more in the cards for Iowa State than on the play involving Paul.
After Helu lost a fumble on the first play from scrimmage, Nebraska had made at least some offensive headway on each of its next three series.
Its lone touchdown came when freshman I-back Dontrayevous Robinson scored on a 3-yard run with 3:26 left in the first quarter.
Not long after ISU used a fake punt to set up its go-ahead touchdown midway through the second quarter, Paul beat Cyclones cornerback Leonard Johnson for what looked like it could be a 73-yard TD pass. Johnson made one last swipe at his feet, Paul struggled to tightrope the sideline and then fumbled just inside the ISU 15. He tried to recover it around the 5 and ultimately had to watch James Smith locate the football in the end zone with 3:31 left before halftime.
“We moved the football,’’ said Pelini, whose team finished with 362 total yards. “We didn't finish off drives. Like I said, you have to execute.’’
What followed coming out of halftime was more proof: Helu fumbled into the end zone after a 12-yard run to the ISU 3, and then Robinson coughed it up after a 13-yard run to the ISU 5.
Each time, ISU defenders kept pawing at the football as the Husker I-backs tried to fight for extra yardage.
“Everybody does it,’’ Watson said. “They do a really nice job of it. You could see it on film, absolutely. That’s why we worked the way we did on securing the ball this week.’’
Pelini and Watson said Lee played well after a week of people wondering if freshman Cody Green should get a shot. Lee was intercepted twice in the final three minutes, but one pass went through Curenski Gilleylen’s hands and the other was a fourth-and-10 from the NU 18. Lee finished 20 of 37 for 248 yards.
“He managed a great game, guys, I’m telling you,’’ Watson said. “He was perfect, as far as getting us in the right plays and doing the things we asked him to do in this game plan.’’
Watson said NU never considered inserting Green, and Pelini mentioned that the freshman still isn't 100 percent ready.
“I don’t think we played well around Zac,’’ Pelini said. “I think Zac was the least of our problems today.’’
|Yards per carry||2.9||4.1|
Nebraska is 86-17 all-time against Iowa State.
|Florida Atlantic||Sept. 5|
|Arkansas State||Sept. 12|
|Virginia Tech||Sept. 19|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 17|
|Iowa State||Oct. 24|
|Kansas State||Nov. 21|
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