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November 23, 2012

Final take: Huskers find way to gut one out

They aren't always going to be pretty, but what separates the good from the great programs is they find ways to win games when they aren't at their best.

With frigid wind gusts blowing up to 40 miles per hour on Friday at Kinnick Stadium Nebraska had to find a way to beat Iowa in a fashion they haven't done all season.

The wind and cold temperatures completely neutralized NU quarterback Taylor Martinez, which meant the Huskers stable of wide receivers were a non-factor. Friday's contest in Iowa City was a man's game and the Huskers found a way to walk out of there with a 13-7 victory.

In some ways it reminded me of Nebraska's 13-3 win at Oklahoma in 1994 against a 6-6 Sooner squad. It wasn't pretty, but just like on this Thanksgiving Friday the Huskers found a way to win on the road and advance to a championship game. At the end of the day that's all that matters. If Nebraska goes on to win a Big Ten Championship it won't say on the trophy they won an ugly 13-7 game at Iowa. It will say the Huskers are 11-2 and Big Ten champions.

"Those were some tough conditions obviously for both sides," head coach Bo Pelini said following Friday's win. "I wasn't exactly sure how it was going to affect us there for a while, but it was difficult. There were times on the sideline where you thought the wind was dying down, then you saw some of the tricks it was playing on the ball.

"That's what I told the team before the game. It was going to be about being physical and being a running football team. Those were really difficult conditions."

In some ways I thought Pelini's decision to insert senior running back Rex Burkhead into the game on Friday could define this championship run.

Pelini knew that Friday's conditions hampered his passing attack and it didn't really suit his other running backs strengths. Friday's game was about hammering it inside a crowded box of defenders and trying to get 4 yards a pop, which perfectly suited Burkhead's running style.

"He was chomping at the bit and I thought it would be a mental boost for us," Pelini said. "I talked to (Burkhead) and I talked to the trainer…I kind of went into the game saying 'I'm only going to play him if I need him.' I thought we needed him at that point and I said 'how do you feel about it,' and Rex said 'let's go.' Glad we did."

It will be one of those moments that could also define Burkhead's career. He's been a part of two teams before that lost conference championship games. He knew that his team needed him on Friday if they were going to make it to Indianapolis.

"We are excited about this one and happy about this win, but at the same time our goal right now is to win the Big Ten championship," Martinez said. "We are going to celebrate today and celebrate tonight and get ready for tomorrow. We need a great week of preparation to get ready to go."

On to the post game breakdown and grade out….


What I saw on Saturday

***The punt fielding adventures for Nebraska continue, but I will say the wind did some funky things with the football on Friday I have never seen before.

***Eric Martin solidified his spot on the All-Big Ten team on Friday with seven tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, one forced fumble and two quarterback hurries.

***If I was an Iowa fan, I'd be pretty upset with some of the decisions made by Kirk Ferentz today. I couldn't believe he chose to punt with 8:47 left to go facing a fourth-and-3 from the 49 yard line. With no bowl game or tomorrow to play for, what do you have to lose in that situation? After that moment the Hawkeyes only had the ball for three plays.

***Martinez said the conditions were so cold on Friday that he couldn't even grip the football, so he was forced to wear gloves, which he hasn't worn all season. I think that greatly hampered his ability to throw the football. Thankfully next week's game is in Lucas Oil Stadium, which should feature NU's offense at full strength.

***Tough to see seniors Baker Steinkuhler (knee) and Justin Jackson (ankle) go down with injuries on Friday that will probably keep them out for next week's Big Ten Championship game. NU's lines will greatly be tested next week without two of their emotional leaders up front against Wisconsin.

***I was impressed with walk-on Mark Pelini and how he stepped in for Jackson at center. I expected to see Cole Pensick move over, but that tells you what type of confidence they have in Pelini.

***How about these numbers. Nebraska won their final six games of the regular season for the first time since 1997 and they won seven conference games for the first time since 2001. People need to put that in perspective when looking at NU's body of work this season.

The final grades

Rushing offense: B

Nebraska found a way to get 200 yards rushing on 53 carries to win Friday's game. I felt like it was one of those games where whoever got 50 rushing attempts was going to win. Burkhead had 16 second half carries for 69 yards to give NU an emotional lift.

Passing offense: C-

Martinez really struggled to throw today in the cold and windy conditions. He said it was the coldest game he's ever played in and it showed. Marintez was forced to wears gloves, which affected his ability to throw the ball. The most important stat for Martinez was he didn't throw a single interception.

Rushing defense: A

Iowa knew that had to run the ball to win and the Huskers really buckled down in the second half to finish with 108 yards on 39 carries. The Hawkeyes had just 7 yards rushing the entire fourth quarter and 70 yards of total offense in the second half.

Passing defense: A

Nebraska's secondary was able to force two interceptions as quarterback James Vandenberg finished 11-of-24 with just 92 yards.

Special teams: B+

Brett Maher gets my game ball and an A+. He made a field goal into the wind and kicked a 52 yarder with the wind behind him. He also had six punts for a 43.2 yard average, including a 61 yarder that rolled inside the 5 yard line. I downgraded NU to a B+ for the muffed point and didn't knock them down lower because that mistake didn't result in any points. Iowa ended up losing the ball on downs during that possession.

Sean Callahan can be reached at sean@huskeronline.com and he can be heard each day at 6:50 am and 4:50 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 TV in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap Tuesday's at 7 pm.


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