The Huskers had a chance to end the season on the right note. In the face of incredibly high early season expectations being dashed, the relatively modest goal of making a bowl game was in Nebraska’s sights. In the end, Nebraska was unable to achieve that, too.
Here are three takeaways from Nebraska’s end-of-season loss to Iowa:
Nebraska’s offense couldn’t start the right way
Of Nebraska’s seven drives in the first half, four started with a play that ended up going backwards or for no yardage at all. This proved to be indicative of Nebraska’s languid offense in the first half. Of those seven drives, only one ended in points for Nebraska, and those points were a field goal.
“I think it put coach Frost in a tough spot,” sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez said about the first-down mishaps. “It puts our offense in general in a tough spot when you don’t get positive plays to start a drive against a really solid defensive team.”
If the Huskers hadn't caught a lucky break with a pick-six halfway through the second half, then the offense’s lack of production would’ve been even more stark.
Much of Nebraska’s offensive woes in the first half came down to poor play calling and a lack of execution or singularity of focus which would’ve made use of some of Nebraska’s athleticism. Martinez was forced to create while scrambling, which Iowa was able to lock down well. In the first half, Martinez’s nine rushing attempts averaged 3.4 yards per attempt, with a long of eight yards.
Without a consistent offensive threat, be it the run, the scramble or the pass, Nebraska was effectively defanged in the first half.
With three minutes left in the second quarter and Nebraska down 24-10, the Huskers had a chance to bring the game back into contention. The Huskers would get the ball back in the second half, so scoring a touchdown would bring the game back to one possession.
The team started well, driving for a pair of first downs. This was followed by Martinez throwing an interception to end the half. This further made the task at hand seem that much more out of reach.
Blackshirts both lose and redeem the game for Nebraska
Without the ability to outpace Iowa in the first half, Nebraska was forced to look to its defense to keep the game close and make a second-half comeback feasible. Unfortunately, the defense was only partly able to do this.
The game mostly came down to two plays, two long touchdowns from Iowa which nearly sealed the game before it began. These two long touchdowns were largely aberrations for a similarly poor Iowa offense. In drives where Iowa scored a touchdown, it took an average of two plays for it to do so. In drives with more than two plays, Iowa did not score a touchdown.
With the score 17-3 and the game threatening to get out of hand, the Nebraska defense was able to stop the rot with its pick-six. This helped spring Memorial Stadium into life once again after it had started to lose hope of any chance for a comeback.
The very next Iowa play being a 95-yard kick return for a touchdown did not help things for Nebraska. This was another play which the game hinged upon. Iowa would not score another touchdown in the game as the defense was able to largely stand its ground, but the momentum-dampening effect of Iowa’s kick return touchdown again demoralized the offense.
“The timing is a killer. We had everything rolling our way and give it right back,” head coach Scott Frost said about the kick return touchdown. “They have good special teams, our’s have to be better.”
Besides these three plays, Nebraska’s defense played a very solid game especially in the second half. In the third quarter especially, Iowa was only able to gain seven total yards on its three drives. The Blackshirts also forced a fumble, only the third turnover in the game, to set up the offense for a potential game-winning drive.
“Really, it was about three plays on defense in the first half. Our edge lost contain on the reverse. That can’t happen,” Frost said. “We got caught out on the backside of another one for another long run. Aside from that, I thought our defense held their own in the run game. They did a really good job against the pass.”
Huge third-quarter effort from Nebraska almost saves game
With such a poor first-half performance, Nebraska needed to save the game in the third quarter. The pressure got to the team in the first drive, gaining a couple of first downs but ultimately being forced to punt the ball away.
After that, the offense came out fighting. On second down, on Iowa’s 39-yard line, freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey found junior wide receiver JD Spielman for a touchdown. This brought the game back to a single score. Then, after forcing a three-and-out from Iowa, Nebraska drove down the field and tied the game up 24-24. This would be the last touchdown of the game, and the last score before Iowa’s last-second kick sealed Nebraska’s season.
This third-quarter comeback showed the kind of grit Nebraska has and its ability to come from an almost utterly dismal first half into something better. Without establishing momentum right at the start, Nebraska was still able to find a way to bring the game back into contention.
With a few better plays, and it might’ve gone from “bringing the game back into contention” to “leading Nebraska to its first bowl game in the Frost era.”