IOWA CITY — Won out. One more.
Accepting and fulfilling coach Bo Pelini’s challenge to control its destiny, Nebraska won its last six regular-season games, clinched a share of the Legends Division title and secured a berth in the Big Ten championship.
Michigan and probation-shackled Ohio State play Saturday for posterity — and nothing more. The Huskers advance directly to Dec. 1 in Indianapolis, where they’ll play Wisconsin for the conference title. Winner goes to the Rose Bowl.
“We had a tough road, but we bowed up,” a grinning Will Compton said. “We got the wins.”
“We’ve been through a lot as a team to get here,” coach Bo Pelini said.
And win No. 6 in the streak — a 13-7 slugfest over Iowa on Friday — was a lot all on its own. Pelini suspected it would be and warned his players all week not to take their families’ Big Ten title ticket orders before they were punched. He was right. The four-win Hawkeyes played their proverbial bowl game before a chilled crowd of 69,805 at Kinnick Stadium and led for nearly three quarters.
>> A wicked, swirling 26-mph north wind played tricks with the ball and froze quarterback Taylor Martinez’s hands before the game, forcing him to wear gloves. The wind ruffled the red “Huskers”-embroidered scarves of NU cheerleaders, flapped Iowa’s team flags and danced as both offenses stood still, trying like heck to contend with it.
“By far the coldest game I’ve ever played in,” Martinez said.
>> Nebraska also lost its starting center (Justin Jackson) and top defensive tackle (Baker Steinkuhler) to injuries. Pelini expects neither to return for next week’s game.
>> And to add insult, NU gift-wrapped two fumbles in the first half for Iowa, which controlled the tempo and led 7-3 at halftime.
It was, in other words, business as usual for the Huskers during this win streak.
“It felt like we were ahead,” Pelini quipped.
Not yet. But NU’s coach made calculated choices to help get that lead.
Pelini chose to play with the wind for the third quarter, which required the Blackshirts to get a stop on Iowa’s opening drive. They did.
And then Rex Burkhead trotted onto the field.
Burkhead — sidelined for nearly five games with a left knee sprain — sat out the first half. He started the second.
“We’re only going to play him if we needed him,” Pelini said. “I thought we needed him.”
Pelini asked Burkhead if he was ready to go.
“Absolutely,” Burkhead said. “Let’s do this.”
Burkhead converted a fourth-and-1 on his first series. That drive led to Brett Maher’s 52-yard field goal.
Two drives later, the Huskers churned out their only touchdown. Martinez started it with a 19-yard pass to Ben Cotton. Sophomore Braylon Heard ripped off 18 yards to get NU to the Iowa 6. And Burkhead finished off the game-winning drive with a 3-yard run.
But Burkhead saved his game-defining runs for Pelini’s most nervous moment in the fourth quarter, when a Hawkeye punt, pushed by the wind, rolled to the Nebraska half-yard line.
Just get me one first down, Pelini thought.
Burkhead helped the Huskers get two. He carried several Hawkeyes 9 yards for a first down. Next play: 8 more yards. NU had room to punt.
“It was a game of field position with the wind and all, so it was nice to get out of there,” Burkhead said.
The Blackshirts did the rest. Pelini thought NU would have to pitch a second-half shutout to win, and it did, holding the Hawkeyes to 70 second-half yards.
Any holes running back Mark Weisman had on Iowa’s first-quarter touchdown drive gradually disappeared, as Nebraska adjusted to the Hawkeyes’ three- and four-wide-receiver sets with more defensive backs who could tackle in space. Safety P.J. Smith finished with eight tackles, while defensive backs Daimion Stafford and Andrew Green finished with seven.
NU’s pass defense swallowed up Iowa’s outside receivers and intercepted two James Vandenberg passes in the second half to help the seal the win. The second of those picks came on the Hawkeyes’ final drive, when Pelini unleashed back-to-back blitzes that he’d held back all day.
To bring pressure, Pelini relied on linebacker Alonzo Whaley to cover an Iowa tight end man-to-man. When Vandenberg threw the ball, Whaley jumped the route, intercepting the ball with 2:21 left in the game.
“Good job by him taking the coaching and not backing up out of there, because in that situation you don’t have any help behind you,” Pelini said of Whaley, who finished with 11 tackles.
Nebraska held Iowa (4-8, 2-6 in the Big Ten) to just 200 total yards and a 33-percent conversion rate on third downs. Eric Martin had a sack, three tackles for loss and two hurries, harassing Vandenberg throughout the game. Martin carried the Heroes Trophy off the field while a throng of cold-but-thrilled Husker fans cheered around him.
In the locker room, NU players had boxes of Chick-fil-A sandwiches and another present waiting: black Legends Division Champions hats. Many Huskers emerged from the locker room with the reward earned for winning their last six games — three on the road — and making good on the statement Pelini had made in the wake of a 63-38 loss to the coach’s alma mater, Ohio State.
That night, Pelini twice said Nebraska had to “win out” to secure a berth in the Big Ten title game. It was a proclamation, a challenge, a dare, a gamble.
“You guys all kind of looked at me like I was a crazy man,” Pelini said Friday. “I probably thought I was a crazy man that night. But I believe in this team.”
And Nebraska players believed they’d pull it off. But as the wind continued to whip its way through the tunnels under Kinnick Stadium, the Huskers had already adjusted their gaze toward the Badgers. Compton said he and Martin might just sleep in the film room this week. Offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles summed up the accomplishment — and new goal — in a sentence.
“It’s great to be wearing this hat,” he said. “But it’s not the hat I want to wear.”
|Yards per carry||2.8||3.8|
Nebraska is 29-18 all-time against Iowa.
|Southern Miss||Sept. 1|
|Arkansas State||Sept. 15|
|Idaho State||Sept. 22|
|Ohio State||Oct. 6|
|Michigan State||Nov. 3|
|Penn State||Nov. 10|
Nebraska has played 23 games on Nov. 23. See them all »
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