At the end of a long season, Nebraska football gave a perfect sendoff.
Narratively, at least. Because the team at the end showed that which it always was. Despite leading 21-9 heading into the fourth quarter, the Huskers squandered it in incredible fashion.
Turnovers, controversy, pitiful special teams play — what makes Friday so remarkable is that despite losing a two-score lead in the span of a quarter, with enough odd plays to fill up highlight reels on their own, Nebraska’s loss against the Hawkeyes was wholly unsurprising.
Here’s position grades from Nebraska’s loss to Iowa:
Freshman quarterback Logan Smothers was given the unenviable challenge of playing one of the Big Ten’s premiere defenses in his first start and, by the end of the game, had done just about as well as one can expect from anybody in that position.
That being said, his performance was certainly of two halves, mostly by virtue of the mistakes he made in those few minutes of play where everything unraveled.
First, the positives. Smothers was both an accurate passer and solid runner on the game, ending 16-of-22 through the air along with 64 yards and two touchdowns on 24 rushing attempts.
In the first half in particular, Smothers demonstrated poise and stability for an offense that desperately needed it. But, as said, this was the first half.
Smothers didn’t necessarily play worse in the second half, but gave up a number of critical errors which cost the team. First, on the Iowa 41-yard line in the fourth quarter, Smothers went for the option run and promptly dropped the ball, under little duress.
This mistake, though it will go undermentioned, eventually set up the safety to make the score 18-21. Said safety was less Smothers’ fault, more a problem of play calling a play-action in Nebraska’s own endzone, but the fumble which preceded it was no less important in that event only a few plays later.
Then, the interception. Driving deep into Iowa territory down seven, the Huskers had a shot to possibly send the game to overtime. Unfortunately for the Huskers, like it had done so many times this season, Smothers flung the ball straight into Iowa’s defense for the interception.
It’s hard to discern what happened on that play. There was likely some sort of miscommunication, but it’s hard to see Smothers, who had done so well in the game up until that point, airing the ball so listlessly into the opposition.
Smothers could barely keep his head up after the throw, an unfitting end for the game.
Running Backs: C-
Despite relying heavily on the run game, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost worked little with his actual running backs Friday afternoon, a unit which overall did just about what it was asked to do.
Nebraska’s running back personnel against Iowa was a bit of a wild card. After firing his assistants, Frost against Wisconsin opted for the likes of sophomore wide receiver Brody Belt, freshman running back Marvin Scott III and sophomore running back Markese Stepp as his options, unseating the likes of freshman running back Jaquez Yant Jr.
However, Yant returned to the starting lineup against the Hawkeyes and did well enough. On 13 attempts, he managed 44 yards with a touchdown, the touchdown being a rather athletic dive over both the offensive and defensive lines.
Belt also had a couple of attempts from the backfield, ending with 14 yards.
More than anything, Nebraska this season has been carried off the back of its receivers, and it was again the receivers who nearly led the Huskers to victory against Iowa.
The two main receivers worth noting were also two who played their last game for the Huskers: senior wide receiver Samori Toure and junior tight end Austin Allen.
At the end of a 55-yard performance for the Huskers, Allen had broken the school’s record for most yards from a tight end in a single season. Toure also gained 68 yards during the game, the longest going for 28 yards.
Junior wide receiver Omar Manning was also important against the Hawkeyes. Early in the third quarter, Manning broke free at Iowa’s 9-yard line and caught a deep Smothers pass, eventually ending right on the Hawkeyes’ doorstep. At 40 yards, Manning’s sole reception was Nebraska’s longest completion on the day.
Offensive Line: C
Nebraska’s offensive line is bad, almost incredibly so. Any discussion of its performance against the Hawkeyes starts with this.
The unit gave up two pressures and a sack, which is fine given Iowa’s defensive acumen. That being said, responsibility for the safety lies squarely at the feet of the offensive line, which collapsed far too quickly for the play to develop.
The line never quite recovered from the loss of freshman offensive lineman Teddy Prochazka, and will need to improve significantly next year.
Defensive Line: B-
Though Nebraska’s defensive line folded late, it did everything it could to ensure a win.
Iowa junior running back Tyler Goodson had 155 yards on 23 carries, but that was significantly buoyed by a 55-yard run late after momentum had already shifted considerably.
At the same time, the defensive line put considerable pressure on both sophomore quarterback Alex Padilla and junior quarterback Spencer Petras. By the end of the game, the unit had accrued a couple of sacks for itself courtesy of senior defensive lineman Ben Stille and freshman defensive lineman Ty Robinson.
Junior defensive lineman Deontre Thomas also grabbed the fumble off of Goodson in the third quarter, a sequence that eventually set up Nebraska’s last touchdown of the game.
The linebackers were fine against the Hawkeyes. Freshman linebacker Nick Henrich managed eight total tackles, two solo on Friday, while sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer hit seven total tackles, six of which were solo.
Reimer was also responsible for two forced fumbles, one of which was recovered by the defense.
Defensive backs: B-
Though the defensive backs were incredibly solid overall, the main reason they didn’t receive a higher grade was because of the sheer number of passes they dropped.
Padilla was off his form in the first half, going a mere 6-of-14, but that number doesn’t communicate just how many of those were straight at Huskers or were otherwise catchable. Petras too, though he played better than Padilla, was shaking off some rust and looked poor at times.
That being said, the likes of senior safety Marquel Dismuke, who had eight total tackles, and sophomore cornerback Quinton Newsome, who managed two breakups, were crucial in Nebraska’s play against the Hawkeyes.
Special Teams: F
A minute into the fourth quarter, Nebraska was up 21-9 and cruising.
Yes, it had just gone three-and-out on its most recent drive, backed up in its own territory, but it just needed to punt the ball away to the Hawkeyes and let the defense take care of the rest. After all, the defense as a unit hadn’t yet conceded a touchdown.
So, sophomore punter William Przystup received the ball, went to punt and had it promptly blocked. Floating up in the air for what seemed like forever, none of the Nebraska kicking crew were seriously privy to what had just happened, and were left dumbfounded as sophomore linebacker Kyler Fisher walked the ball into the endzone.
It came at perhaps the perfect time for Iowa. Right at the start of the fourth quarter, everybody in Nebraska knew what was going to happen next.
Nebraska this season at every game had some kind of debt to incredible special teams mistakes. The game against Michigan State, the kick-off return to Wisconsin — even the start of the season against Illinois, with junior defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt’s fantastic touchback.
Those debts came due again against Iowa.