LINCOLN — Larded with 14 penalties, perhaps a dozen injuries and countless pulling guards, the first tilt in the new Nebraska-Iowa “Heroes Game” series won’t have any sonnets written about it. Artistic, it wasn’t.
The Huskers won 20-7, controlled all but the last few minutes of the game, ran 24 more plays and gained 115 more yards than the Hawkeyes, whose offense sputtered on third down and whose defense couldn’t stop Rex Burkhead.
But there was head coach Bo Pelini red-eyed, weary and emotional in his postgame press conference. First asked about Burkhead’s school-record 38 carries, he quickly veered into gratitude suitable for Thanksgiving Day, not to mention the day after it.
“That was a group of warriors today,” Pelini said. “We’re a beat-up football team. We have a lot of guys who were hurt. A lot of guys who had to play a ton of snaps because of other guys being hurt.”
More: “I think our resolve was something special. I loved the approach our football team had today. They had a never-say-die attitude.”
Just how “beat up” was Nebraska?
Defensive end Eric Martin didn’t play. Neither did tight end Ben Cotton. Quarterback Taylor Martinez wrenched his left ankle and limped around for three quarters. Starting defensive tackles Terrence Moore and Baker Steinkuhler played sparingly after first-half injuries. Starting offensive tackles Marcel Jones and Yoshi Hardrick were helped off the field.
Not necessarily a good sign when “the rallying cry all week,” defensive line coach John Papuchis said, was that the more physical team was going to win.
But fullback Tyler Legate — one of 21 seniors — saw his team plow through it.
“That’s what God gave us,” he said, “so let’s show them we’re Nebraska. That’s all we could do. That’s how the cards fell.”
So NU’s offense turned into a bunch of Burkhead runs (for 160 yards) and the occasional downfield Martinez pass to Kenny Bell, who caught five of his quarterback’s 12 completions for 93 yards.
Its defense relied on two turnovers, Alfonzo Dennard’s blanket job on top Iowa receiver Marvin McNutt (four catches for 29 yards) and the Hawkeyes’ general ineptitude.
And this is the way NU’s first Big Ten regular season ends: With the Heroes Game trophy held aloft by Moore and senior running back Curenski Gilleylen — cameras and reporters swarming them — before the giant Hardrick relieved them of their duties.
Hardrick kissed the trophy on its wooden base and walked, presenting it to a few of the 85,595 fans in Memorial Stadium. He cradled it as he walked through the tunnel back to the locker room and stopped just once to let the kids who line the tunnel touch the metal, garland-laced football that sits atop the base.
A few young boys did — and they freaked out with the kind of “o-ho-ho-ho-ho” laugh kids that age get.
“I had to put my hands on that trophy,” said Hardrick, a senior. “It wasn’t really about the ‘Iowa’ thing, it was about my last game here — and the trophy was involved in it.”
Hardrick was one of many seniors who shared their life stories with the team this week. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck set up the talk. Several brought the house to tears, including Hardrick, who grew up in poverty in Mississippi.
This senior seminar — coupled with a prove-them-wrong mindset that sprouted after a 45-17 loss to Michigan — provided the motivational glue for Friday’s slugfest.
“There’s a lot of doubters,” Beck said, repeating the phrase for emphasis. “You have one bad game where you don’t play very well, and all of the sudden you stink. All of our players and coaches — it was a challenge to them.”
Burkhead accepted it. Of his 38 totes, the only carry he didn’t want to take was the last, when he was reinserted into the game to break the school record with a kneel-down. He initially refused to touch the ball — “it was not a good way to get it,” he said — until Jones convinced him to do it for the seniors.
“All right,” Burkhead told them. “I’ll do it for you guys.”
The first 37 carries were a lesson in evading objects of brute force. With Martinez unable to fire his own jets, Burkhead was left to duck, dart and drive into holes.
Often using Legate or right guard Spencer Long as a lead blocker, he’d plunge into the middle of Iowa’s line or occasionally sweep around it with the Hawkeyes’ defensive ends getting pinned and turned.
This from a guy who spent Monday of practice week in a walking boot.
“He hurt us a little more than we were anticipating,” Iowa linebacker James Morris said.
His most important carry was a fourth-and-1 play late in the first half as NU led 3-0. In a game lacking drama, this play at Iowa’s 29 would have to do.
The Hawkeyes called time out before the play. Then Beck, not liking Iowa’s defensive alignment, called his own timeout. He dialed up his bread-and-butter — shortside toss play.
Burkhead needed one yard. He got two.
“He’s that guy you want in an alley,” offensive line coach Barney Cotton said.
Six plays later, Martinez hit Kyler Reed with a 6-yard “pop pass” for a touchdown. Martinez faked the ball to Burkhead, ducked down as if to hide, then flipped the ball to a wide-open Reed in the end zone.
“A statement drive for us,” Pelini said of the 15-play, 80-yard, six-minute march. The kind of drive Iowa (7-5 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten) never could put together.
The Hawkeyes ran just 12 plays in the third quarter and gained just one first down. A running game that showed some promise in the first half gained just 24 yards in the second. They converted just 2 of 12 third downs for the game. Nebraska (9-3, 5-3) tacked on a third-quarter field goal and a fourth-quarter touchdown fueled by Martinez passes to Bell (22 yards) and Quincy Enunwa (19 yards).
Iowa scored a late touchdown with the aid of two penalties, but failed to recover an onside kick. A final desperation drive fell short, too. In the wake of the win, the Huskers let their emotions show — just a little, for this remains a reserved bunch of coaches — after a long, trying, strange regular season.
The blowout losses at Wisconsin and Michigan. The historic comeback against Ohio State. The stunning loss to Northwestern. The masterpiece against Michigan State. The draining week before Penn State — and the game few Huskers will forget.
After all that, just for a day or two ...
“I’m going to plop my butt on a couch and relax a little bit,” Pelini said.
|Yards per carry||3.7||3.6|
Nebraska is 29-17 all-time against Iowa.
|Fresno State||Sept. 10|
|Ohio State||Oct. 8|
|Michigan State||Oct. 29|
|Penn State||Nov. 12|
|South Carolina||Jan. 2|
Nebraska has played 21 games on Nov. 25. See them all »
©2019 BH Media Group