Former Nebraska Athletics Director Shawn Eichorst showed continuous disrespect for border-rival Iowa throughout his short tenure, and current head coach Scott Frost and the rest of his program will continue to pay the price for that over the next several years.
Since Eichorst’s famous “We had to evaluate where Iowa was as a program” excuse for why beating Iowa didn’t save Bo Pelini’s job, the Hawkeyes dominated the Huskers for three consecutive games and the team continues to use that line for motivation every year.
In Frost’s first matchup against Iowa, his team mounted a miraculous fourth-quarter comeback to tie the game, only to allow the Hawkeyes to convert a fourth-and-seven and win the game on a field goal as time expired. In Frost’s second year, the stakes of reaching a bowl game for the first time in three years will continue to grow the intensity of the rivalry from last year’s classic.
Unfortunately for both programs and fanbases, Eichorst’s disrespect for Iowa may throw a slight hitch in the development of this new Black Friday tradition. Two years ago, just months before he was fired, he decided to quit scheduling games on the day after Thanksgiving, despite the fact that it gives Nebraska added national exposure.
Along with moving the season finale from Black Friday, Eichorst changed Nebraska’s final opponent from Iowa to Minnesota starting in 2020, with Wisconsin slated to take Minnesota’s place two years later. When Bill Moos took over, he managed to get all of Nebraska’s season finales pushed back to Black Friday, but was unable to secure Iowa as Nebraska’s permanent Black Friday opponent until 2022.
So as one of Nebraska’s only true rivalries in the Big Tenreaches new heights this year, it will be bittersweet knowing that the Huskers and Hawkeyes will settle for playing in early November for the next two years instead of on Black Friday.
As for the current rendition of the HyVee Heroes Game, it should be quite the doozy.
The Huskers are coming off by far their best performance of the season, a 54-7 pummeling at Maryland. The win snapped a four-game losing streak, and at 5-6, one more win would guarantee them a bowl game. A loss on Friday likely ends their season under .500 for the third consecutive year.
Both Iowa and Nebraska entered the 2019 season with high hopes of winning a division title. But once again, for the third time in the six-year history of the Big Ten West Division, it will instead be Wisconsin and Minnesota playing for a division title instead.
Most of the national media thought year two would be a fruitful one for Frost and Nebraska, given the play of quarterback Adrian Martinez in his freshman season. Instead, Martinez struggled to stay healthy, Frost’s offense couldn’t find a suitable replacement for top wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. and the offensive line had growing pains replacing three starters.
As for Iowa, the highest expectations came locally. Most of the media covering Iowa saw a team returning its quarterback for his senior season, a defensive end that will likely be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft and a running back that had two consecutive 100-yard performances to end the regular season in 2018.
Instead, Iowa’s running game got worse in 2019, going from 148 rushing yards per game and four yards per carry to 132 per game and 3.7 yards per carry. The only part of Iowa’s offense that improved was its kicking game, which went from 22 attempted field goals in2018 to 32 attempted field goals in just 11 games this season.
In Iowa’s eight conference games this season, the only time it topped 30 points was in a 30-0 win over Rutgers. The Hawkeyes have scored more than two touchdowns just twice in conference play, scoring three against both Rutgers and Minnesota.
Despite the anemic offense, the Hawkeyes will enter Memorial Stadium 8-3 and ranked 17th in the College Football Playoff poll. The main reason is their defense, which has had one of its best seasons in recent history.
Led by junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa and his seven sacks and three forced fumbles, Iowa’s defense has not allowed an opponent to score more than 24 points all season. Nebraska may have the best shot at doing so, especially if freshman phenom Wan’Dale Robinson returns after missing the past two games with injuries.
In a season where Nebraska struggled to find consistency on offense, the one consistent contributor has been Robinson. Prior to his injury, he compiled 326 rushing yards, 453 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Frost will not say if he is healthy enough to play, but he did hint at it after Wednesday’s practice, saying, “we also have some guys that have a chance to play who haven’t played lately.”
In Robinson’s absence, junior running back Dedrick Mills has stepped up. Mills ran for a career-high 188 rushing yards against Wisconsin’s top-10 defense, then added 84 total yards in limited playing time at Maryland.
It will likely take a combined effort from anyone and everyone who is healthy for Nebraska’s offense to succeed on Friday, but Frost believes his team is up to the challenge.
“Honestly, the whole team’s having fun,” Frost said. “The whole team’s anxious to play and excited to play. A lot of those guys want to send the seniors out the best way possible.”
Frost and Nebraska managed to send last year’s senior class out with a dramatic 9-6 win over Michigan State on senior day in the midst of a blizzard. With similar weather conditions looming and the stakes larger, another win on senior day could be significant for the growth of the program.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us against Iowa,” Frost said. “They’re going to make us earn it. We can’t have a good play every now and again, we have to be consistent.”
Friday’s game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. and can be seen on BTN.