For the third year in a row, Nebraska fell one score short of topping its rival, the Iowa Hawkeyes. This year’s Black Friday game ended 26-20 and, unlike the past two matchups, without a walk-off field goal for an Iowa victory.
The Huskers were handed a loss, instead, to the tune of a nine-yard tackle for loss causing junior quarterback Adrian Martinez to fumble away both the ball and Nebraska’s hopes of a possible game-winning touchdown. Something seemingly familiar to Husker fans.
Here are three takeaways from this loss:
The two-quarterback system (and Martinez) returns
Martinez isn’t going to hand over his startup quarterback to redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey without a fight. And the junior quarterback proved why he is a genuine contender to be the man under center in Nebraska’s 26-20 loss to Iowa. He went 18-of-20 for 174 yards, also tacking on 28 rushing yards and one touchdown.
After losing his starting job to McCaffrey for the two previous games, Martinez started in Iowa City. His status was challenged almost immediately, however, as he was forced to hand over the reins to McCaffrey after the Huskers’ first two drives ended in punts.
McCaffrey led Nebraska to field goals on the next two drives, keeping the Huskers in the game: 10-6 Iowa. He went 3-of-5 for 22 yards and 42 yards on the ground and provided Nebraska with a heightened pace.
In Nebraska’s season opener against Ohio State, they utilized both McCaffrey and Martinez to keep the Buckeye defense on their toes and occasionally had both quarterbacks on the field. For a Nebraska team that is trying desperately to gain footing in the extremely physical and talented Big Ten, using both McCaffrey’s speed along with Martinez’s ability to throw and veteran decision-making could be the ticket to winning the remaining two games.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said that he has two great quarterbacks and expressed how difficult it was for him to choose one. Whatever the now 1-4 Huskers are doing clearly isn’t working. As shown, committing fully to playing both McCaffrey and Martinez could allow Frost to not only open up his playbook but also put more stress on defenses.
In the Husker loss to Iowa, Martinez proved that he is capable of running Nebraska’s offense, a question mark for the last few weeks, but the offensive line needs to do a better job of snapping the ball and protecting whoever is behind them.
Special teams needs to improve
Nebraska’s defense forced a three-and-out at the beginning of the fourth quarter with Iowa up 23-20. Iowa punter Tory Taylor punted 46 yards to a waiting junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt at Nebraska’s 35-yard line, setting up seemingly good field position for the Huskers. However, the ball fell through Taylor-Britt’s hands and was recovered by Iowa.
If nothing else, this proved one thing. Though the kicking situation has improved dramatically since last year, there’s a lot of work to be done all around.
This isn’t to ignore, however, the positives of the special teams. Sophomore William Przystup punted five times, averaging 37 yards a punt. Iowa’s offense started behind their 30-yard line once. They were forced to punt on that drive.
Senior kicker Connor Culp proved to be one of the most reliable kickers Nebraska has had in years. He made both PATs and completed 31-yard and 39-yard field goals in the second quarter.
Now, the return teams, both kicking and receiving, sunk the Huskers.
Junior running back Ivory Kelly-Martin ran back two kick returns for 40 yards. Junior wide receiver Charlie Jones returned a punt 31 yards to start Iowa’s touchdown drive at the Nebraska 46-yard line with four minutes left in the first quarter. Both were examples of poor covering by Nebraska’s special teams.
Nebraska’s special teams need to do a much better job of setting the defense up for success. Iowa, and sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras, were very capable of turning field position into points, and this punished the Huskers in the end. Their last two opponents will be no different.
Nebraska’s defense shows improvement
After an embarrassing showing in the Huskers’ loss to Illinois, Nebraska’s defense held Iowa to 10 rushing yards in the first quarter followed by 25 in the second. However, sophomore running back Tyler Goodson broke down the defensive line and earned 111 rushing yards over the course of the game.
Iowa averaged 2.9 yards per rushing attempt. In its last five games against Nebraska, Iowa has averaged 244.2 yards per game and 6.2 yards per carry. The Husker run defense is improving, but still has much more room to grow.
Sophomore linebacker and former walk-on Luke Reimer recorded a team-high 12 tackles and one tackle for loss for two yards in the second quarter.
The defensive game ball unofficially goes to Dicaprio Bootle for intercepting a pass intended for sophomore wide receiver Sam LaPorta at the beginning of the second quarter. Bootle’s turnover started a drive that resulted in a 39-yard field goal.
Iowa had opportunities to score on seven of their 10 drives: five field goal attempts (one doinked off the bottom crossbar in the fourth quarter) and two touchdowns. That is too many opportunities in total, but the defense was able to find a way to force field goal attempts.
Nebraska’s offense got the ball back with 2:02 left and down 26-20 after senior placekicker Keith Duncan missed a 51-yard field goal attempt. In the end, the Huskers didn’t take advantage of the final opportunity their defense created to score a touchdown and beat the Hawkeyes for the first time since 2014. The Husker offense needs to find a way to capitalize on small and big defensive victories when they come their way.