Mercifully for Nebraska fans, the season has come to an end. Nebraska was up 21-6 in the third quarter, until it wasn’t. Iowa came storming back when it needed to the most, dropping 22 unanswered second half points, for its seventh straight victory over the Huskers.
Here are five takeaways from Nebraska’s historic eighth one-score loss of the season.
The dropped interceptions were huge
Until its fourth quarter scoring explosion, Iowa only had nine points all game. All nine of those points came on field goals following a dropped interception. Without those field goals, Nebraska would have had a three-possession lead instead of a two-possession lead going into the game’s final moments.
In the first half, sophomore quarterback Alex Padilla was at the helm for the Hawkeyes. In the first quarter, Iowa was facing a 3rd-and-9 after an illegal formation penalty took away its previous conversion. Padilla floated a pass that a jumping freshman safety Isaac Gifford had a chance to make a play on. It was a difficult play to make, but the ball was in his hands before slipping through and falling incomplete. Senior kicker Caleb Shudak drilled the ensuing 51-yard kick for Iowa’s first points.
With the clock ticking down in the second quarter, a sack by sophomore defensive tackle Casey Rogers set Iowa up with a 3rd-and-10. Padilla threw an ill-advised pass over the middle right into the hands of junior outside linebacker Caleb Tannor, who bobbled and dropped the would-be pick. Iowa knocked in the subsequent field goal to end the half with points.
Late in the third quarter, Iowa had benched Padilla for junior quarterback Spencer Petras, who had been the starter all year until getting injured in the Northwestern game on Nov. 7. Petras was slightly more accurate than Padilla on his passes, but still flirted with danger on a few passes.
Petras missed his target on a 3rd-and-11 from the Nebraska 18, and senior safety Marquel Dismuke was just a smidge late getting his hands up for the interception, with the ball bouncing off them onto the turf. Iowa made the field goal to cut the lead to 21-9, with those three points mattering in the Iowa comeback.
Both Tannor and Dismuke would have had space to run on the return, potentially swinging the points even more. The defense did a decent job stopping Iowa’s passing attack, but those missed turnovers that turned into points swung nine points in favor of Iowa in a seven-point victory.
Penalties played a large part in hurting the Huskers
Similar to how the Iowa field goals came off missed interceptions, all three also involved defensive penalties against Nebraska.
Tannor’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the first quarter set Iowa up 15yards down the field into field goal range. Dismuke’s personal foul on the following drive vaulted the Hawkeyes into Husker territory.
Both Tannor and Dismuke had solid days outside of the dropped interceptions and penalties, making multiple defensive stops, but the mistakes spotted Iowa points. While those field goals pale in comparison to the 19-point Iowa fourth quarter, they represented Nebraska letting Iowa hang around when it didn’t need to, and how that eventually came back to haunt it.
Nebraska had 50 yards off six penalties, continuing a pattern from some of its past losses.
Logan Smothers showed potential, but didn’t win himself the job
The big story heading into the game was freshman quarterback Logan Smothers making his first start in place of the injured junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, Nebraska’s primary starter for the past four seasons.
Smothers looked the part at times, particularly on the Huskers’ three touchdown drives. On its touchdown drives, Nebraska ran the ball with Smothers 16 times, with Smothers capping off the drives with two rushing scores.
Smothers showed great ability rushing the football, rarely losing yardage and showing proficiency in running the option. His throwing skills weren’t too shabby as well, as he completed his first seven passes including a 28-yard completion to senior wide receiver Samori Toure. Smothers also held tough in the pocket and delivered a 40-yard strike to junior wide receiver Omar Manning in the third quarter to set up a touchdown run.
However, freshman mistakes were present, removing the idea of Smothers being an instant upgrade over Martinez. In Iowa territory, leading by a score at the start of the fourth quarter, Smothers fumbled the ball on a quarterback run, giving Iowa great field position.
After the defense forced a three-and-out, Smothers one-upped his previous mistake. In the shadow of his own goalpost, Smothers made an ill-advised scramble yards deep into the endzone, where he was promptly tackled and his desperate throw-away attempt resulted in a safety.
On another potential game-tying final drive, a spot where Martinez had yet to lead a Husker drive to points this season, Smothers led a promising start. He completed six passes for three first downs.
However the mind-boggling turnover was the result all the same, with Smothers finding sophomore defensive back Jermari Harris for the game-ending interception with no Huskers in sight.
With Martinez potentially not returning, Smothers had a shot to secure his spot as the future starter, but couldn’t string together a consistent enough performance to get it done.
The defense eventually broke
The defense was holding the game together for Nebraska when the offense started to stall out. Even though the field goals were preventable, holding Iowa to just nine points after five trips into Nebraska territory was a big win.
On Iowa’s opening drive of the game, the offense trudged its way down to first and goal. A false start parked it at the Nebraska 13, but junior running back Tyler Goodson gained 12 yards back on a third down carry. Iowa lobbed a pass to junior tight end Sam LaPorta that sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer broke up at the last second, keeping Iowa points off the board.
In Iowa’s opening second-half drive, it was moving the ball extremely well until Goodson fumbled at the Nebraska 6-yard line, which was recovered by junior defensive lineman Deontre Thomas.
With the offense continually spotting Iowa short fields in the second half, playing with fire eventually burned the Husker defense. With the game knotted up at 21, Goodson broke a game-high 55-yard run, setting up a Petras quarterback sneak touchdown.
While it wasn’t the primary reason Nebraska lost, the defense could not hold when it absolutely needed to.
It happened again
Nebraska went up 21-6 in the third quarter, scoring on its opening offensive possession and forcing a turnover on its opening defensive possession. The Huskers held Iowa to a field goal on its next drive, keeping the lead at two possessions, 21-9. After the kick went through with 27 seconds left in the third quarter, Nebraska held a 94.6 percent chance of winning.
Then, the special teams, which had been non-disastrous so far, knocked down the house of cards. Iowa brought the house on the ensuing punt, with junior defensive end Joe Evans breaking through the line to block the punt. Sophomore linebacker Kyler Fisher housed the punt to cut the Nebraska lead to 21-16.
The Huskers’ latest one-score loss seemed all but inevitable at that point, with similarities to previous games that slipped away from them being squarely present. Nebraska did nothing to quell those fears after the following fumble and safety by Smothers. In a point in the game where nothing could go wrong for Nebraska, everything did. Nebraska lost the fourth quarter 19-0, a new leaf of ineptitude from an already subpar fourth quarter team.
In a season where Nebraska had lost so many close games, it one-upped itself with its largest blown lead of the year for the finale.
Nebraska ends the year 3-9, while simultaneously having its first season without a loss by 10 or more points since 1999.