LINCOLN — In the waning seconds of Nebraska’s 28-20 loss Friday to undefeated Iowa, fans in black and yellow stationed all over Memorial Stadium hugged while Husker fans, hushed and crushed, headed for the exits.
On NU’s sideline, wideout Alonzo Moore was next to quarterback Tommy Armstrong.
Man, it’s my fault, Moore recalled Armstrong telling him.
Armstrong had thrown four interceptions — one of which Iowa had returned for a touchdown — that helped negate the fact that Nebraska outgained Iowa by 183 yards and ran 39 more plays. In a soul-searching, stream-of-consciousness postgame press conference, Armstrong would say as much to the media.
But Moore consoled and corrected Armstrong. It was a team loss, Moore told him, and many Huskers played their part.
“Just because you threw four interceptions, it’s not your fault,” Moore said.
Moore added, in a fit of faint praise: “The game was full of mistakes.”
Nebraska made almost all the big ones.
For all the good things the Huskers did — holding Iowa to zero third-down conversions and quarterback C.J. Beathard to 97 measly passing yards — they otherwise did what they’ve done for, well, years now.
If you wrote a book entitled “Big Games in Nebraska Football since 2002” you could plaster on the front cover a picture of this game. Yes, this cold loss fits the narrative. Most of the 90,830 in attendance — the quiet ones in red, anyway — would agree.
But Iowa is now 12-0.
“I’m a little bit speechless on that,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It is just an unbelievable accomplishment.”
Iowa did what top teams do: It let the mediocre team screw up. Which 5-7 Nebraska did. Many times.
“We really shot ourselves in the foot,” coach Mike Riley said.
Three of Armstrong’s four interceptions came in Iowa territory — two were thrown right to Hawkeye defenders. The other interception, tipped by Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse and returned 4 yards for a touchdown, was an unmitigated disaster. In the teeth of an Iowa blitz, Armstrong threw a back-footed pass toward running back Terrell Newby that Hesse pawed at first.
“If I would have put a little more air on it,” Armstrong said, “I get it over his head.”
Hesse was in the way because left tackle Alex Lewis couldn’t successfully deliver a cut block to Hesse’s knees. Lewis, instead, sort of aimed for Hesse’s feet and missed the mark.
“The defensive end is supposed to be aggressively blocked and we didn’t get to him fast enough or aggressively enough to keep him from having his hands into it,” Riley said. “And then it’s a touch pass for sure. It’s got to be over the top.”
Hesse’s pick-six put Iowa up 14-7, and the Hawkeyes led the rest of the way. It’s almost a game with Iowa, its ability to let a team stay close while keeping the foe at arm’s length.
When Nebraska cut Iowa’s lead to 14-10 and 21-17, for example, Iowa answered with touchdowns. Both scores were long runs by back Jordan Canzeri. Both runs, for 29 yards and 68 yards, were to the left, both outside power plays. Both times Canzeri ran unabated to the end zone.
NU defensive coordinator Mark Banker — whose unit held Iowa to 250 total yards but again gave up big plays — said the defense just got “(expletive) creased” on the first touchdown and didn’t adjust to one of Banker’s sideline calls on the second touchdown.
Both runs occurred after safety Nate Gerry had been ejected for “targeting” Iowa wideout Tevaun Smith late in the first half. Gerry’s penalty was one of four personal fouls called on the Huskers. One — a hands-to-the-face penalty on defensive tackle Kevin Williams — negated a Beathard fumble. Another — a late hit called against punter Sam Foltz — aided an Iowa touchdown drive. For the game, Nebraska committed eight penalties for 95 yards.
Nebraska’s offense piled up 433 yards and converted 9 of 16 third downs against a stingy Iowa defense. But NU failed to convert two fourth-down plays in Iowa territory. The second of those — a 4th-and-1 at the Iowa 19 midway through the fourth quarter — is the kind of play that will give ammunition to critics of Armstrong and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf.
NU trailed 28-17, and Langsdorf called a pass play with four receivers heading out for routes. One of those receivers, tight end Cethan Carter, was wide open in the flat for a first down. Armstrong never looked at him. He threw instead to wideout Brandon Reilly on the far side of the field, Reilly ran a fade route to the end zone. Armstrong went for the touchdown. The pass fell incomplete.
“I don’t think that’s the worst decision ever,” Langsdorf said. “You’d like to continue to be able to pop it to Cethan and get a first down. But you’ve got our best guy (Reilly) going against a press corner with no help and he took a chance and he threw it downfield and we didn’t get it.”
Said Riley: “There are times you could take that fade and you could hit it, but, at the same time, there were other options out there.”
Armstrong passed for 296 yards and ran for 46. He made his share of notable plays — converting two key third downs on a third-quarter touchdown drive, for example — but the costly interceptions won’t easily be forgotten. Armstrong has thrown nine in his last three games. Including Ryker Fyfe’s four interceptions at Purdue, that’s 13 in the last four games. Both Riley and Langsdorf made faces when told of NU’s turnover struggles.
“The emphasis has to be on taking care of the ball,” Langsdorf said.
Armstrong took the loss hardest by far, though. When the junior plays poorly, the weight is clear in his voice and on his face. He spoke in a low, disappointed rumble unabated for several minutes.
“If it’s anybody’s fault it’s mine,” Armstrong said at the start. “Our defense played well. Our receivers caught well. Offensive line blocked well, put us in great positions to win the game. I just didn’t take care of the football. I gave them seven points and put them in great position to win the game. It’s something I gotta fix.”
He returned to that theme during his marathon answer.
“I gotta become a better quarterback, a better decision-maker and just a better overall player and a better leader for these guys,” Armstrong said.
Running back Imani Cross watched Armstrong’s media session, and tried to soften the blow once he arrived at the podium.
“It’s the quarterback’s job when you win to give out all the glory, and it’s the quarterback’s job when you lose to take all the shame,” Cross said. “That position demands a lot of humility. I think Tommy has that.”
All of Nebraska’s coaches and players do now. It was a humbling season. NU may still back its way into a bowl game — with 40 of these postseason extravaganzas, teams with six wins can be hard to come by — but it would have done so after finishing the Big Ten with a 3-5 record. The Huskers were just 1-5 against the Big Ten West.
That’s losses to Illinois, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Purdue and now Iowa. The Huskers had a minus-12 turnover margin in those five games. If you add up the total offense for both teams in those five games, NU had 16 more yards.
It is very hard to cumulatively outgain five teams that beat you.
Nebraska managed, though. It was a long regular season.
“I’m thinking about going and having a drink right now to take the pain away,” Banker said.
|Yards per carry||5.5||3.6|
Nebraska is 29-16 all-time against Iowa.
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|Miami (FL)||Sept. 19|
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