10 things we learned from Nebraska's loss to Iowa
1. Nebraska never gave up
When it comes to Nebraska’s second-straight 4-8 record without a bowl game, this season was nothing that head coach Scott Frost and his team had hoped.
But the gradual, steady improvement the Huskers made across the board throughout the year was by far the biggest reason for optimism about the program’s future. Even in a loss, Friday might have been one of the best examples of NU’s progress as anything.
Down 28-13 in the third quarter and Iowa about ready to slam the door shut on the game, Nebraska came up with a critical fourth-down stop. The Huskers converted multiple fourth downs, punched in the game-tying touchdown and two-point attempt, and had a chance to send the game into overtime in the final seconds.
The final result still ended in a 31-28 defeat, but the resolve and fight NU put forth against Iowa proved this team was ever-so-close to turning the program around.
“Disappointed, but very prideful,” Frost said of the mood in the locker room after the game. “I’ve got some fighters in there. We need fighters. We’ve been missing a little bit of that, and that team is getting to the point where they expect to win, hate to lose, and are going to fight to the end no matter what.”
2. Martinez shines once again
Adrian Martinez just keeps getting better every time he steps on the football field.
The true freshman quarter was a true X-factor once again for Nebraska, completing 26-of-38 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns while leading the team with 17 rushes for 76 yards and another score – all done on the road against a stout Iowa defense in less-than-ideal weather conditions.
The Fresno, Calif., native set a school record with his seventh 300-yard performance of the season, passing Joe Ganz (2008) and Tommy Armstrong’s (2015) previous record total of six.
He also finished fifth on the NU single-season list with 3,246 yards of total offense on the year, which stands as just the seventh 3,000-yard season in program history. His 2,617 passing yards also rank eighth on school’s single-season list.
“He’s going to be a lot better next year; there’s just no doubt about it,” Frost said.
3. Morgan goes out as one of Nebraska's best ever
Stanley Morgan Jr. came into Friday’s game on the doorstep of solidifying himself as one of the best wide receivers in Nebraska history. With seven catches for 81 yards, the senior broke multiple school records and ended his Husker career with a legitimate claim to that title.
Morgan set the NU season and career records for receiving yards, topping his own single-season mark with 1,004 yards, and broke Kenny Bell’s career total with 2,747. He also became the first Husker ever to eclipse the 1,000-yard receiving mark in a season.
His achievements didn’t end there, either, as he passed Johnny Rodgers with his 38th consecutive game with a catch, including hauling in at least three receptions in 23 of his past 24 games.
Morgan’s 70 catches on the season were just five shy of Marlon Lucky’s record of 75 in 2007 and put him at 189 receptions for his career.
“Stanley’s one of those special guys I hope I keep in touch with the rest of my life,” Frost said. “He’s a warrior; he’s always ready to compete. I talk to the guys about being the type of guy that has cleats and a ball and hoop shoes and golf clubs in the back of your car just in case any kind of game breaks out.
“Stan’s going to be ready to play. He’s going to fight to the end with you. Best thing about Stan is he’s always in a good mood, loves the game, and has fun doing what he’s doing. He’s been a great Husker, and this place will miss him.”
4. Run defense must improve in 2019
Because of the nature of its offense, Nebraska’s defense is inherently going to allow a lot of yards. But the manner in which Iowa was able to push their way up and down the field in the run game was as much of a factor in Friday’s loss as anything.
The Hawkeyes came in ranked 88th nationally in rushing, averaging 152.6 yards per game. They ended up running the ball 45 times for 266 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and two touchdowns.
Running back Mekhi Sargent posted only the second 100-yard rushing performance of the season for Iowa with a game and career-high 173 yards on 26 attempts.
Again, the defense is based around conceding yardage with the hope of creating game-changing turnovers. But for Nebraska to consistently compete in this conference, it cannot afford to be dominated on the ground that way.
On Iowa’s final drive, it ran the ball six times for 33 yards and threw it just twice to get into Miguel Recinos' range for the game-winning field goal.
“You’ve got to make those big-time plays in the critical times,” junior linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “Some plays weren’t made and should have been made, and those kind of plays should have been made next year.”
5. Jaimes, Farniok still have a lot of work to do
Friday was a day to forget for Nebraska’s offensive tackles.
While Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok had made very good strides over the course of the season in holding down the left and right sides of the line, respectively, their performance at Iowa was a big step backward.
Iowa defensive ends Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa had a field day rushing the passer off the edge, racking up a combined 10 tackles, three sacks, four tackles for loss, and laid some punishing hits on Martinez.
Combined with a mediocre running game, Nebraska’s inability to give Martinez time in the pocket against just a four-man rush played right into the Hawkeyes ideal defensive game plan.
6. Ferentz's gambles eventually paid off
There were a couple decisions made by Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz that looked like they could backfire and potentially cost the Hawkeyes the game.
Rather than kick an easy field goal and push the lead to 18 in the third quarter, Ferentz called for a fake that was stuffed for a turnover on downs.
Earlier at the end of the first half, he called consecutive timeouts to try and ice NU kicker Barret Pickering, but instead, an Iowa player jumped offsides on what would have been a missed 51-yard field goal. Pickering then drilled a 46-yarder to make it a one-score game going into halftime.
But Ferentz’s final gamble with the game on the line ended up hitting the jackpot. Facing a fourth-and-eight from the Husker 37, Iowa tried to use a hard count to draw Nebraska offside. It didn’t work and it had to use a timeout with 42 seconds remaining.
Rather than try a 57-yard field goal or even punt the ball away to force overtime, Ferentz decided to go for it, and quarterback Nate Stanley hit tight end T.J. Hockenson for a 10-yard completion and a first down. Two plays later, Miguel Recinos kicked a walk-off 41-yard field goal.
“That’s a gutsy decision for them. I give Coach Ferentz credit,” Frost said. “If they give us the ball back right there with 40 seconds or whatever’s left, I like our chances of hitting a couple plays and maybe getting an opportunity for a field goal. They rolled the dice there… Great play by them, and that was the difference.”
7. Spielman's absence was felt again
After being listed as questionable all week, JD Spielman gave it one last try to play on Friday when he suited up for pre-game warmups.
But it didn’t take long for the sophomore receiver to know his injured left ankle/foot was going to allow him to return, and he was forced to miss his second straight game.
Nebraska was able to compensate for Spielman’s absence much better than it did vs. Michigan State, utilizing guys like running back Maurice Washington and tight end Jack Stoll more in the perimeter passing game to keep Iowa’s pass rush in check. Washington ended up with seven catches for 102 yards, becoming just the fourth NU running back to post a 100-yard receiving day and the first since Lucky in 2007.
But the Huskers still clearly missed not having one of their most dynamic playmakers, as they weren’t able to stretch the field much at all and the punt return game managed just one return for one yard.
8. Stoll showed his potential
One of the biggest benefactors of Spielman being out was Stoll, who had one of the best games of his young career with four catches for 37 yards and a four-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.
Nebraska had wanted to get the tight ends more involved in the passing game all year, but Friday was one of the first games where he was a primary target for Martinez.
Friday featured two of the best tight ends in the country on the other side of the ball in the Mackey Award finalist Hockenson and projected future first-round NFL draft pick Noah Fant.
But Stoll is emerging as a player who could also be a legitimate threat at the position down the road.
9. Nebraska has its kicker of the future in Pickering
After a dismal start to his Nebraska career, Pickering went from almost a liability in the kicking game to a dependable weapon this season.
A week removed from his breakout three-field goal game in NU’s 9-6 win over Michigan State, Pickering was again perfect on both of his attempts at Iowa, connecting from 27 and 46 yards.
The true freshman has now made his past 10 attempts since his last miss at Northwestern, and his range has been growing by the week. Watching him during pre-game warmups, the ball was booming off of his foot with the same sound that past Husker kickers used to make.
There was a point earlier this year where you questioned whether Pickering was the long-term answer, but his impressive turnaround this year should help leave NU’s kicking game in good hands for years to come.
10. A crucial offseason awaits
As much progress as Nebraska made since the start of the season, Friday’s loss highlighted the one major difference between its program and the upper half of the Big Ten Conference.
The Huskers were dominated in the trenches by Iowa on both sides of the football, and it showed that no matter how dynamic of an offensive scheme you have, you’re not going to win in this league without winning at the line of scrimmage.
When Frost and Co. took over last December, they basically had to start from scratch with their strength and conditioning program. They made noticeable gains in just a few months, but once the season got rolling and the level of competition increased, it became clear they still had a long way to go.
With its season officially in the books, Nebraska will take next week off before returning for a week of pre-winter conditioning workouts. The players will then go home for winter break and come back for the start of the offseason strength program.
Frost has repeatedly called strength coach Zach Duval the best at his job in the country, and he’s going to have to live up to that title to get Nebraska at the level physically to compete in the trenches in this league.
“What disturbs me is, right now, Iowa is a bigger, stronger football team,” Frost said. “That’s right now. I never I’d hear that or say that about a Nebraska football team. That we can fix. We can get bigger; we can get stronger.”