LINCOLN — Reporters waited longer than usual for Scott Frost to explain this one. The coach had a message of appreciation for his seniors and conviction that his Huskers will return to revive the program someday, one day.
Not Black Friday. The narrative-changing win exceeded Nebraska’s grasp again. Crouch down, lean forward on your toes and hold that position of anticipation for three long years. That’s Husker football after a 27-24 loss to Iowa.
“I’ve had too many of those conversations with these guys,” Frost said.
Different season, different Black Friday, same result. Same old gut-wrenching stuff.
A defense that gives up curiously big rushing plays? Check — to the tune of Iowa’s 45- and 55-yard touchdown runs in the first quarter.
A disadvantage in special teams so significant even the head coach wasn’t sure why Nebraska (5-7, 3-6 Big Ten) was kicking directly to a dangerous returner who proceeded to bust a 95-yarder for a touchdown? Check.
“I have to find that out,” Frost said when asked why NU did that two weeks after allowing a kick return for a score against Wisconsin. “I’m just being honest.”
The offense failing to score on a final drive or manage the clock correctly? Check. Quarterback Adrian Martinez ran out of bounds with less than a minute left, allowing Iowa to preserve a timeout it used to stop the clock on the next play, setting up the end game scenario, in which the Huskers’ defense — which hadn’t allowed points on eight straight series — checked off the last item on the list by allowing two twin 22-yard throws, down the middle of the field, by Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley.
They set up a 48-yard field goal by Iowa’s Keith Duncan, who leads the NCAA in makes. Frost tried twice to ice Duncan, to no avail. Into heavy, damp air, Duncan nailed the kick, turned to the Nebraska bench, wagged his finger, and finally blew kisses at the Huskers. Goodbye, bowl game. Goodbye, Heroes Trophy, which Iowa players picked up on their sideline and paraded over to their fans in the southwest corner of Memorial Stadium.
“It was just having some fun,” Duncan said. “Nebraska fans came for some entertainment and that’s what football is — it’s entertainment — so just having some fun with it.”
There is a kind of adventure — though it may stop one’s heart — in watching Nebraska play its 12th game under Frost decided by a touchdown or less. NU is 3-9 in those games, including two last-second losses to Iowa. In both Black Friday setbacks, Nebraska dug itself a big hole early. Iowa, the program that plays nickel slots with traditional, pro-style offense, found in NU a machine that kept paying out jackpots.
Ding, ding, ding! On Iowa’s second drive, after an 11-yard zone run to the short side of the field, the Hawkeyes (9-3, 6-3) called a reverse to Ihmir Smith-Marsette that faked out nearly every Husker defender but cornerback Lamar Jackson, whom Smith-Marsette outran for a 45-yard touchdown.
Ding, ding, ding! After NU’s Matt Waldoch hit a 41-yard field goal, Iowa answered with a two-play, 63-yard drive that featured Iowa running back Tyler Goodson gashing the Huskers on a cutback into open space. Iowa shoved Nebraska’s line backward three yards on the play, into inside linebacker Will Honas, who was shielded from Goodson’s path.
“It took guys too long to realize their run offense wasn’t what it has been in the past,” defensive end Ben Stille said of the Hawkeyes, who rushed for 225 yards and 7.3 yards per carry.
The biggest ding-ding-ding! came after Husker cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt’s 38-yard interception return for a touchdown that cut Iowa’s lead to 17-10. Smith-Marsette’s kickoff return for a score was every bit the “killer” that Wisconsin had delivered on a kickoff return for a touchdown two weeks earlier. And NU kicked the ball directly to Smith-Marsette despite using a pooch strategy for much of the game.
“We went into the game not wanting to kick to them,” Frost said. “We thought our coverage unit could do a good job. We were going to pooch the first couple. I just got done calling the (offensive) series and didn’t make it over to the kickoff team.”
Smith-Marsette caught the ball at his 5, accelerated to the 15 and immediately saw a closed lane. So he made his own, sharply cutting to his left and beginning a long, fast arc around the entire Husker coverage unit. Smith-Marsette, clearly the fastest player on the field, sprinted into the end zone and brought a lone finger to his mouth. Shhhh, he said to the Husker fans among 89,039 at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska didn’t go quietly. Although Martinez’s lone interception of the game killed a late second quarter drive for points, NU struck twice in the third quarter for touchdowns. The first was a 39-yard pass from Luke McCaffrey — who, along with backup Noah Vedral, had a small package of plays for Friday’s game — to JD Spielman. The other touchdown came at the end of a 13-play, 60-yard, nearly six-minute drive capped by senior Wyatt Mazour’s 9-yard score. That tied the game 24-24.
Most of the fourth quarter was a stalemate. Iowa repeatedly punted with the wind, pinning Nebraska three straight times deep in its own end. On all three series — led by Martinez — NU went three-and-out. The Huskers’ best starting field position in the fourth quarter came after Taylor-Britt recovered a Mekhi Sargent fumble. With 2:32 left, Nebraska had the ball at its own 30 with a chance to win or grind clock for overtime.
Neither happened. After an initial first down, Mazour ran for a 1-yard gain to the NU 45. Frost suddenly inserted McCaffrey back into the game, letting the game clock run as he did so, to see if McCaffrey could jump-start the offense like he had in the third quarter.
“Never know when your number’s going to get called,” said McCaffrey, whose 4-yard scramble was negated by a 15-yard illegal block penalty by Mike Williams.
Frost then took McCaffrey out and put Martinez back in. At that moment, Iowa had a single timeout left. NU had second-and-20.
“In my mind, it was either get a big chunk back and give us a chance on third down or keep the clock running with them having one timeout,” Frost said.
Martinez ran out of bounds.
“I thought we were still in attack mode and I think that’s on me,” Martinez said. “I need to have better awareness and realize we’re trying to force overtime there at the end.”
Iowa got the ball at its 26 and hit two 22-yard passes — both against the same inverted cover three zone defense, NU linebacker Mohamed Barry said — up the seam of the Huskers’ secondary.
“They found the money spot, basically,” Barry said. Cue Duncan, the finger wagging, the blown kisses, the Hawkeye prancing, the Husker regrets, same old, same old.
Iowa notched its ninth win of the year and its fifth straight win in the series.
“Proud of the staff,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Everyone hung in there.”
On Nebraska’s side, joy was in short supply. Appreciation, yes. Conviction, yes. Frost believes the team has covered a lot of ground this season despite a 5-7 record.
“The guys in the locker room know it’s coming, the coaches know it’s coming,” he said. “There’s no timetable for it. Sometimes it happens quicker than you think, sometimes it takes a little longer.”
Barry and Jackson said the team’s mindset changed in the last three games — losses to Wisconsin and Iowa, a win over Maryland — to working harder, having more fun and sharing the love.
“At the end of the day, for the most part, I feel like we won that game,” Jackson said. “Just morale, spirit, just how we played. We balled, you know what I’m saying? We balled. The only thing we came short was the W. And that’s three points.”
Three points equals 10 months. That’s when Nebraska is scheduled to play a football game that counts in the record books, barring some unlikely backdoor sneak into a bowl game. Until then, NU will simmer on a third straight losing season and another loss to Iowa. The progress gained in the 2019 season — with a plum home schedule — will not come with trophies.
“At the end of the day, we only have one more win than we had last year and no bowl game,” Stille said. “It’s nice to think that, but, at the end of the day, we have nothing to show for it.”
|Yards per carry||7.3||3.3|
Nebraska is 29-18 all-time against Iowa.
|South Alabama||Aug. 31|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 14|
|Ohio State||Sept. 28|
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