Friday’s game had a chance to be the first signature win of the Scott Frost era. With a bowl berth hanging in the balance, a rival on the schedule and momentum building from improved performances in past weeks, it felt like maybe this could be the time Frost got the Huskers over the hump.
Instead, the Huskers were left with a feeling that was all too familiar as Iowa’s kicker Keith Duncan split the uprights on a 48-yard field goal with one second remaining to give the Hawkeyes a 27-24 win. That feeling is something Frost is tired of talking about.
“I’ve had too many of those conversations with these guys,” Frost said.
Friday’s game felt similar in many ways to last year’s contest between the two teams. The Huskers trailed by two scores in the second half of both contests, came back to even the score line while Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz was aggressive in the final minutes of both games which resulted in game-winning, last-second field goals for Iowa.
Iowa got into position to make that final kick by way of two 22-yard completions that moved the ball from the Hawkeye 26-yard line to the Husker 30-yard line. From there, the rest was history.
Although the Huskers lost, it could have been much worse had they not fought back after being blasted out of the gates. Most of this was because the Huskers could not stop the big plays from the Hawkeyes.
In the first quarter, the Huskers were gashed for a pair of 40-plus yard runs that resulted in touchdowns. Before today’s game, Iowa had one such play the whole season.
The first long run came on Iowa’s second possession of the game when wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette took a reverse all the way to the house on a 45-yard touchdown run.
The Huskers responded two drives later with a 41-yard field goal from sophomore Matt Waldoch which capped a seven-play, 13-yard drive.
On Iowa’s next possession, the Hawkeyes had their second 40-plus yard rush of the first quarter, this one a 55-yard touchdown rush from Tyler Goodson. Iowa added a field goal a few minutes into the second quarter and the game sat at 17-3.
Nebraska had no life as its offense was sluggish, only having gained 44 yards at that point. After another three-and-out, the game looked to be headed toward blowout status. Instead, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley gave the Huskers the help they needed throwing a bad pass into double coverage. After ricocheting off a teammate, the ball landed in sophomore defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt’s hands and he took it all the way to the endzone. The play gave the Huskers momentum and a sense they were back in it.
That momentum lasted all of one TV timeout as Iowa returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. Special teams, which were an issue all year, came back to bite the Huskers and sucked the momentum out of Memorial Stadium.
Thankfully for the Huskers, the bleeding stopped there as the rest of the half consisted of trading punts, leaving the score at 24-10 at the end of the first half.
“Really it was about three plays on defense in the first half,” Frost said. “Our edge lost contain on the reverse. That can’t happen. We had an assignment error. We got cutout on the backside of another one for another long run. We missed a tackle on another one.”
At the half Frost made adjustments mentioning the Huskers were “too cute” on offense in the first half. The fixes helped, as the Huskers had their best third quarter of the season. The comeback started with the Huskers’ defense, which gave up seven total yards in the third quarter after allowing 203 yards through the first two quarters.
Nebraska’s offense took advantage of the defensive stops, going on two long touchdown drives to even the score. The first touchdown came via a 39-yard reception from junior wide receiver JD Spielman. True freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey was subbed in for the play and delivered as the Hawkeye defense bit on the run fake from him.
“With the runner Luke is, we figured a team might come running up to stop his run and give us a big play, and it happened,” Frost said.
After the defense held the Hawkeyes to a three-and-out, the Husker offense went right back to work with a methodical 13-play, 60-yard drive capped off by a nine-yard touchdown scamper from senior running back Wyatt Mazour.
This quarter was where junior running back Dedrick Mills did most of his damage as he ran for 69 of his team-high 94 rushing yards in the quarter.
When the game flipped to the fourth quarter, the game came to a grinding halt. For much of the quarter, both teams traded punts, not doing much on offense. This changed when Iowa got the ball with just over three minutes left in the contest.
On the first play of the drive, Hawkeye running back Mekhi Sargent ripped off a 30-yard run putting the Hawkeyes in field goal position. Then, on the next play, Nebraska took the momentum, stripping Sargent and recovering the football (Taylor-Britt was on the recovery because of course he was).
Nebraska then began to drive down the field picking up one first down. Its momentum was all but stopped after a blind-side block penalty on senior wide receiver Mike Williams. A critical mistake came on the next play when Martinez ran the ball out of bounds instead of staying in bounds and letting the clock wind down as there was a slim chance of converting the third-and-long.
“In my mind I was thinking still attack, but hindsight was get to overtime and that’s pretty much it,” Martinez said.
That mistake allowed the Hawkeyes to use their last timeout to give them one last possession. The resulting possession ended with the game-winning field goal.
This loss was gut-wrenching, especially for the seniors on their final game at Memorial Stadium, although the style of loss was perfect encapsulation of what they experienced in their time with the Husker program.
“I really appreciate the opportunity and Husker Nation accepting me and I think what I’ll remember the most is a team that fought,” senior defensive lineman Darrion Daniels said.
This team did fight Friday, but fight wasn’t enough to get the victory.