How many ways are there to lose a football game?
Nebraska football’s departing class of 2021 has experienced just about all of them. Yet, there are always more.
On Black Friday, there was another. Nebraska surrendered 19 points in the fourth quarter sparked by a blocked punt in a 28-21 loss to No. 16 Iowa.
With the loss, Nebraska became the first team in college football history to lose nine games by single-digit margins. Nebraska head coach Scott Frost spoke to the attitude of his team after the game.
“Everything that we’ve been through as a team,” Frost said postgame. “99% of teams would’ve folded. There’s no quit in these guys.”
Everything was set for an epic finish to a destitute season. The weather was perfect. Memorial Stadium was packed once again. The game began.
Freshman quarterback Logan Smothers, who was announced as the starter on Monday due to a season-ending shoulder injury of junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, began the opening series with a delay of game. The ending of the first drive wasn’t reflective of its beginning of the Smothers era. He then led Nebraska on a 12-play 75-yard march to the end zone and was 2-of-2 for 47 yards while adding 20 yards on the ground including a 2-yard touchdown.
“My message to him was simple,” Frost said. “Go out there, make plays and don’t turn the ball over.”
Iowa quickly responded. The Hawkeyes simply fell one yard short. Iowa had third-and-goal on the 13-yard-line when junior running back Tyler Goodson took it to the Nebraska 1-yard line. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz decided to go for it.
The play-action pass from sophomore quarterback Alex Padilla to junior tight end Sam LaPorta was originally ruled a catch. But, the ball squirted out between LaPorta’s legs late and several Husker defenders adamantly made their case for an incomplete pass. That case was backed up by replay review and the Huskers had a stop.
Both teams exchanged punts and the first quarter was at its end. Nebraska had a 7-0 lead and the Huskers had the ball back on their own 24-yard-line with a chance to flip the field.
A 32-yard punt by sophomore punter William Przystup failed to flip the field. Iowa started on its own 40-yard line and quickly got into field goal range after a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Nebraska junior outside linebacker Caleb Tannor.
Once again, it appeared as if Padilla and Laporta had connected for a first down on a third-and-4 , but those gains were wiped out by an illegal formation penalty. Padilla almost hurled an interception on the subsequent play but it fell harmlessly to the ground and Iowa had a field goal opportunity.
Senior kicker Caleb Shudak tied a career-long with a 51-yard field goal and Iowa cut into the Husker lead, making it 7-3 Nebraska with 10:39 remaining in the first half.
Then, the Huskers put together a statement drive. The drive spanned 13 plays, 75 yards and 6:19. That drive featured a fourth down conversion, two passing plays, seven carries by Smothers for 43 yards and a drive-capping 1-yard touchdown leap by freshman running back Jaquez Yant Jr.
Nebraska got 66 of its 75 yards on the ground on that drive and took a commanding 14-3 lead with 4:20 to go in the half.
Iowa scored another field goal before the half, this time from 48 yards. The drive was once again aided by Husker penalties as freshman defensive lineman Ty Robinson was assessed a roughing the passer penalty. The Hawkeyes capitalized and Nebraska led 14-6 at halftime.
“We played a really clean first half,” Frost said.
At the half, both the Husker and Hawkeye offenses were mirror images. Nebraska had 111 rushing yards, 64 yards belonging to Smothers and averaged 4.1 yards-per-carry (YPC). Iowa also had success on the ground in the first half averaging 4.2 YPC and Goodson had 63 rushing yards.
The passing attack was quiet for each team but for different reasons. Padilla struggled with accuracy for Iowa, going 6-of-14 for 76 yards in the opening half. Smothers simply didn’t have opportunity. Yet, those that he had, he made the most of going 5-of-5 for 58 yards.
Despite each Hawkeye drive ending inside the Husker 40-yard line and 135 yards of total offense, there were only six points to show for it. With that in mind, Ferentz elected to make a change. Leading the Hawkeyes out for the second half was junior quarterback Spencer Petras.
The result was the same.
Iowa once again drove deep into Nebraska territory before disaster struck. After carrying the ball eight yards, Goodson coughed up the football and the Huskers fell on it. Iowa was turned away for the fifth time inside the Nebraska 40-yard line.
Nebraska capitalized. After taking over on their own 6-yard line, the Huskers drove the length of the field with big passing plays to junior tight end Austin Allen and then junior wide receiver Omar Manning.Smothers punched it in from one-yard out and Nebraska took a 21-6 lead with 5:54 to go in the third quarter.
Another Iowa drive found its way inside the Husker 20-yard line. After surrendering three consecutive third down conversions, the fourth time was the charm for the Nebraska defense. The Huskers forced another Shudak field goal and the Hawkeye kicker was true for the third time. The Huskers still held a two-score lead 21-9 entering the fourth quarter.
The Huskers began the fourth quarter with a disaster of their own. A Przystup punt was blocked by Iowa junior defensive end Joe Evans and returned for a 14-yard touchdown by Iowa sophomore linebacker Kyler Fisher. Just like that, it was a one-score game as the Husker offense took the field with a 21-16 lead and 14:16 to play.
“The blocked punt was the game,” Frost said.
That disaster wouldn’t be the last for the Huskers. Smothers made his first costly mistake of the game when he fumbled on the ensuing drive. In the span of less than five minutes, the Hawkeyes had gone from down 21-9 to a potential go-ahead drive down 21-16.
Yet, the Husker defense stood strong and forced an Iowa punt. The drive for Iowa was the first drive that ended in its own territory at its own 44.
Once more, Iowa’s defense answered. Smothers was tackled in the end zone as he limply launched the ball. The penalty was intentional grounding and Iowa was within three points at 21-18.
A short drive later and the Hawkeye’s tied it up on Shudak’s fourth field goal of the day. Iowa had scored 12 unanswered fourth quarter points and the game was tied 21-21 with 7:21 to play.
Nebraska was forced to punt once again and Iowa had yet another opportunity to take the lead. Six plays later, the Hawkeyes had it.
It was a six-play, 76-yard drive that gave Iowa its first lead of the game. All 76 of those yards were obtained on the ground as Petras put the Hawkeyes ahead with a 2-yard scoring scamper. That touchdown was the first offensive score of the game for Iowa as it held a 28-21 lead with 2:58 left on the clock.
The final chance for Nebraska lasted 2:15 but it felt four times longer. Two lengthy replay reviews on catches made by Nebraska receivers on the sidelines made for a long lasting final drive.
Nebraska had second-and-10 on the Hawkeye 28-yard line with 43 seconds remaining. Smothers dropped back to pass and he looked towards senior wide receiver Levi Falck. Falck ran his option route one way and Smothers threw it the other. The pass was intercepted by Iowa sophomore defensive back Jermari Harris and the game was over.
“I’ve bet we have 3,000 reps of that,” Frost said.
Nebraska fell to 3-9 with the 28-21 loss.
“It’s kinda been death by paper cuts this year,” Frost said. “The same thing happened today.”
Now Nebraska begins a long off-season that is once again extended without a bowl game. There will be many changes in the coming weeks. From coaching hires to departures and additions, the upcoming off-season will leave the program seriously changed. But, Frost is still optimistic about the future.
“The young core of this team is good enough to win,” Frost said. “We’ve got to do the little things right to make sure we are on the right side of these close games.”
The initial departing seniors were made clear on Friday. Also included in that group are junior tight end Austin Allen and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. As Frost reflects on the 2021 season and the outgoing class, one statement sticks out above the rest.
“Sometimes life teaches you good lessons and you get the breaks and sometimes it teaches a tough lesson,” Frost said. “I appreciate the fight in those guys and the commitment they’ve had.”