IOWA CITY — You could pick any of a dozen Nebraska football players who shifted the tide in a strange-but-true, 37-34 comeback win over Iowa.
The backups filling in for key starters. The beaten-up quarterback, Tommy Armstrong, who offset struggles with wonderful adventures. The wideout, Kenny Bell, who bounced back from a concussion. The freshman punt returner, De’Mornay Pierson-El, with the big smile, quick moves and clever lines. The safety, Nate Gerry, who saved more than a few touchdowns.
But defensive tackle Maliek Collins — fearsome and sturdy from the opening snap — best summed up Friday’s win, away from the rest, in a voice not much higher than his usual clipped, whisper.
“We got some dog in us,” Collins said. “We had that pit bull running through our veins until it was over. Right down to the last play.”
The Huskers spent most of three quarters clinging by their teeth to Iowa’s pant leg. They nearly let go after one of the ugliest punts in school history turned into a 24-7 Hawkeye lead. Nebraska didn’t quit, though, and when it finally bit, the teeth sank and Iowa recoiled. The Huskers surged — and finally celebrated — in overtime, at the floor of a stadium gone quiet, save the cheers of a few in red.
“I don’t know that I’ve been prouder of a group of guys than the guys in that (locker) room,” said coach Bo Pelini after the game. “The character they showed, the fight. Lot of guys down, lot of things going against us. And they kept fighting. That’s all you can ask as a coach.”
Even Pelini admitted that a 17-point, third-quarter deficit — with a makeshift offensive line and the defense missing two key starters (Randy Gregory and Corey Cooper) — looked hard to overcome. Especially after Husker punter Sam Foltz booted a ball into the back of a teammate — which led to a 31-yard punt and 12-yard touchdown “return,” if you will, by Iowa defensive end Drew Ott — and Iowa blocked a Drew Brown field goal that Husker fullback Andy Janovich, having picked up the ball, did not advance toward the end zone.
“I thought I was in the ‘The Twilight Zone’ for a minute,” Pelini said.
In front of 66,897 chilled fans at Kinnick Stadium, Nebraska hadn’t yet reached its own zone, the one it sometimes finds under Pelini, a combination of resiliency and playmaking. But with 1:35 left in the third quarter, here it came with a wave of memorable plays:
» On third-and-7 from the Iowa 34, Armstrong rolled hard to his right, waited and found wideout Taariq Allen floating behind the defense, in the end zone. Touchdown. 24-14 Iowa.
» The defense forced five straight punts. Iowa’s relative success running the ball in the first half disappeared. Pelini said tweaks were made up front to how Nebraska played the run. Collins — seven tackles, one sack — and Vincent Valentine — six tackles and a sack — were stalwarts.
» Early in the fourth quarter, Pierson-El, the best punt returner in the Big Ten by a wide margin, returned an Iowa punt 41 yards, taken down only by the punter, Dillon Kidd.
» One play later, Armstrong heaved a play-action pass to the end zone. Bell, who suffered a concussion last week and had to pass several tests just to play, leaped up, caught it in traffic and got a foot down for a 32-yard touchdown. Nebraska had cut Iowa’s lead to 24-21.
Armstrong saw that play as the turning point.
» Bell preferred Pierson-El’s next punt return. Eighty yards, zig-zagging through traffic, for a third straight Nebraska touchdown.
Yes, Iowa punted to Pierson-El three times. The nation’s leader in punt return yardage. Iowa did that. Even after he returned one 41 yards.
“Once they kicked it to me again, I was like, ‘Seriously? Again? OK. All right,’?” Pierson-El said, drawing laughs. “I’m thankful for it. Thanksgiving was the other day, so that’s what I’m thankful for.”
Said Pelini: “He loves to play. He doesn’t act like a freshman. He has a smile on his face. He loves the moment. And he wants the ball in his hands.”
And Bell: “I wouldn’t punt to that kid.”
On the touchdown return, Pierson-El had to beat the punter, Kidd, who had tripped him up on the previous return. The freshman was teased about that on the sideline from coaches and teammates.
“I beat him the first time. He just got lucky,” Pierson-El said. “That was a good play by him, hats off to him, he got me one time. I wasn’t letting it happen a second time. I made sure of that.”
Said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz of punting to Pierson-El: “We had a plan. It didn’t exactly work the way we hoped.”
Nevertheless, the Hawkeyes (7-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten) drove 53 yards in 12 plays for a go-ahead touchdown with 1:49 left. Nebraska (9-3 and 5-3) appeared headed for its third straight loss overall and second straight fourth quarter disappointment.
Armstrong didn’t fold. Though he’s been battling injured ribs for a few weeks — and he left the game briefly in the first half after taking a big hit — he led NU in a successful two-minute drill to get into field-goal range. For the game, he completed 12 of 27 passes for 202 yards and four touchdowns. He threw two interceptions, too — and missed open receivers — but delivered when Nebraska needed him most.
“That was one of the guttiest performances I’ve seen in a long time from a quarterback,” Pelini said. “He ain’t perfect. He’s got a lot to learn and lot of things he could get better at, but there isn’t anybody who competes harder than he does.”
Said Armstrong: “It was nice. (Offensive coordinator Tim) Beck told me at halftime: In order to win the game, you’re going to have to throw the ball. You’re going to have to make smart decisions. You’re going to have to put your teammates in the right positions to win the game. We believe in you.”
And Pierson-El: “He just went off. He had passion in his eyes. We trusted him. He trusted us.”
Nebraska finally won the game in the first overtime. The defense held Iowa to a field goal. On NU’s possession, Armstrong converted a third-and-6 by firing the ball into Bell for a 12-yard gain. Next play: Rolling again to his right, Armstrong first looked for a tight end, then scanned the backside of the field for an open receiver in the end zone. Nobody open. By then, Bell had shook his defender and found himself open, right in front of Armstrong, in the short corner of the end zone.
Armstrong fired, Bell caught the ball and NU’s sideline erupted. Hugs everywhere. Several seniors found the Heroes Trophy and held it up. Left guard Jake Cotton had it first. Linebacker Zaire Anderson carried it off the field.
“I was over there freaking out, throwing my helmet, just going crazy,” linebacker David Santos said. “... That was a great feeling. I haven’t felt that in a while.”
Indeed, Bell said, back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota had worn on these Huskers. Bell said losing is “cancerous” and “frustrating” at Nebraska. Until last week, the Huskers hadn’t lost back-to-back regular season games since 2009. Through most of Friday’s game it appeared Nebraska would lose three in a row.
“A lot of people would roll it in, right? There’s no Big Ten championship, there’s no accolades or awards for winning this football game,” Bell said. “We just rolled up our sleeves and went to work. We kept fighting — like we always do. That group of guys in there is unbelievably resilient.”
Nebraska secured its seventh straight nine-win season under Pelini and won this game with a variety of players banged up or held out.
Pelini was asked if he’d had any conversations with Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, who is notoriously circumspect on most matters, but especially the football program during the season.
“I haven’t had any conversations,” Pelini said. “That’s the furthest thing from my mind.”
What did Friday’s win say about his team and his staff? Pelini demurred there, too.
“I know what we have going,” he said. “People can make their deductions any way they want. And they’re going to say whatever they want. I (couldn’t) care less.”
On that note, Pelini left the press room to do an interview with the Big Ten Network. He was all business throughout the postgame atmosphere.
But players — including Bell — couldn’t suppress smiles.
“Happy. Joyful,” Bell said. “I’m not much of a thesaurus, but I’m pretty excited.”
|Yards per carry||2.8||5.2|
Nebraska is 29-18 all-time against Iowa.
|Florida Atlantic||Aug. 30|
|McNeese State||Sept. 6|
|Fresno State||Sept. 13|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 20|
|Michigan State||Oct. 4|
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