IOWA CITY — Hardly a true freshman anymore, Adrian Martinez had a reckoning Friday afternoon.
The Nebraska quarterback’s final two plays of the season — in a 31-28 loss to Iowa — were a touchdown run and a 2-point conversion that erased the last of a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit. Epic stuff, silencing a hostile crowd.
But it’s a gutpunch watching the Hawkeyes salt the rest of the clock, successfully gambling on a fourth down and winning as the time hit all zeroes on a 41-yard field goal. Iowa players rushed the field, found the Heroes Trophy and carried it off. Nebraska finished 4-8, losing its fifth game by less than a touchdown. Tough guys broke down. Another declared next season a failure if NU doesn’t win a Big Ten title.
The finality of coach Scott Frost’s first year hit them all in different ways.
Martinez put his thumb and forefinger inches apart.
“There’s just this much, a little bit, plays here or there, that could make a difference and win us a lot of those ballgames,” he said after accounting for 336 yards and three touchdowns.
Hope, frustration, pride, pain. Swirl them up and you get Nebraska’s season in full, its final game and even a single play, when for a moment in the cold rain, it looked like a rivalry’s pendulum might swing to the west side of that big, muddy river.
Iowa had a fourth-and-8 at the NU 37 with 42 seconds left. An attempt to draw NU offside failed. Frost thought — as did his players did — that if the Hawkeyes failed there on fourth down, the Huskers were going to win in regulation. NU defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, alerted by the press box that Iowa was keeping quarterback Nate Stanley in the game, called for an all-out “zero” blitz. Bring the house.
“You wouldn’t want to go out any other way,” outside linebacker Luke Gifford said. “You want to attack.”
Iowa wanted Nebraska to show just that look, Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz intimated, so Stanley turned and completed a 10-yard pass to his top pass-catcher T.J. Hockenson right in front of safety Antonio Reed. First down.
“Antonio did fine, it just happens, it’s football, it’s a good play,” Gifford said.
Said Frost: “That’s a gutsy decision for them.”
Guts the glory. Two plays later, Iowa won its fourth straight in the series when kicker Miguel Recinos split the uprights with a field goal.
Frost and players were left with that swirl of emotions. Hope for the future. Frustration from falling just short again. Pride that Nebraska didn’t quit when Iowa lined up a gadget play for the killshot. Pain in losing. When apathy disappears, agony is an option.
These Huskers are going to have to stew in their juices for a while.
“I’ve got some fighters in there,” Frost said. “We need fighters. We’ve been missing a little bit of that. That team is getting to the point where they expect to win and hate to lose.”
So when Nebraska’s defensive front seven was getting outmuscled by Iowa’s offensive line and tight ends — Frost said he was “disturbed” that Iowa (8-4, 5-4 Big Ten) was the bigger, stronger team — NU didn’t pitch in the towel. Trailing 28-13, Nebraska (4-8, 3-6) snuffed out a fake field goal attempt — the Hawkeye holder flipped a pass to Hockenson, who was stopped 1 yard short of the first down — and marched 98 yards for a touchdown, converting three fourth downs in the process.
And when Martinez threw an interception on NU’s ensuing drive — Martinez guessed wrong on where a cornerback covering receiver Stanley Morgan might be — the Husker defense bowed up enough to force a missed field goal.
“Quit is not in our vocabulary,” said Mohamed Barry, who led NU with 11 tackles.
Martinez then drove Nebraska 80 yards for a touchdown and tied the game with a 2-point conversion pass to Kade Warner, who was running in the back of the end zone. Martinez improvised the throw and Warner got a foot in bounds before he was smacked.
“He made something happen, and he’s capable of doing that a lot,” Frost said.
Nebraska had three timeouts. Iowa had 3:22 left on the clock and used every last second.
First, Mekhi Sargent ran for 16 yards on third-and-1, part of a 173-yard day for the Iowa Western transfer. Whenever the Hawkeyes needed a rushing yard Friday, Sargent and Iowa’s line seemed to provide it.
“I’m looking forward to the day we get that fixed, where we’re not going to be pushed around by anybody,” Frost said.
Then, Iowa faced that fourth down. Like Northwestern and Ohio State before them, the Hawkeyes made the play. Nebraska didn’t.
Barry, somber after the game, lamented Nebraska’s failure in the moment.
“We’ve got to make those big-time plays in the critical moments,” Barry said. “Some plays weren’t made and should have been made. Those kind of plays need to be made next year.”
A game isn’t won or lost on a moment — and Iowa squandered multiple chances to put the game away on its own — but Nebraska was often slightly on the wrong side of the ledger this season.
NU produced a 1,000-yard receiver — Stanley Morgan became the first player in Husker history to reach the milestone — and a 1,000-yard rusher in Devine Ozigbo, but allowed 28 sacks, including three on Friday. NU’s young players flashed impressively — Washington had 102 yards receiving — but made youth mistakes, as well, such as Washington’s decision to kneel at his own 7-yard line during a kickoff return.
NU’s fast-break, no-huddle style gave it a chance to come back on Iowa, but even Frost admitted the Hawkeyes’ huddle-and-march approach kept the ball away from the Huskers and a little out of rhythm.
So Iowa, headed somewhere warm for a bowl, is a coda for Nebraska’s season. NU has closed the gap — but there’s still a gap.
Davis, Barry and Martinez, all of whom return next season, suggested in their own ways that Nebraska will close that gap. Barry expected nothing less than a league crown.
One outgoing senior, Gifford, stood in a small room underneath Kinnick Stadium and watched Martinez talk about the seniors. This is rare.
NU football players usually talk one by one and take turns with the media. But Gifford ended up in there, waiting and listening.
“Just listening to that guy, Adrian, sit up here and talk, I can’t even really put it into words, to be honest,” Gifford said, his voice catching. “I’m so happy for these guys. They’re going to win a ton of games here. And I’m thankful for them — just the way they embraced us and looked up to us as captains.
“They’re good kids, they work hard. Coach Frost is awesome and I can’t wait to come back and watch them.”
Nine months from now.
|Yards per carry||5.9||4.2|
Nebraska is 29-17 all-time against Iowa.
|Troy (formerly Troy State)||Sept. 15|
|Ohio State||Nov. 3|
|Michigan State||Nov. 17|
Nebraska has played 23 games on Nov. 23. See them all »
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