A week after losing out on its Big Ten Conference title dreams, Nebraska came out like a team with everything on the line against Iowa on Friday.
Behind 160 yards and a touchdown on a school-record 38 carries by junior running back Rex Burkhead, the Huskers simply overpowered the Hawkeyes in a 20-7 victory to close out their first ever Big Ten regular season.
While the score might not suggest it, Nebraska was in control from the opening kickoff. When all was said and done, the Huskers had out-gained Iowa 390-270, picked up 25 first downs and held the ball for more than 37 minutes of time of possession.
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On a day where NU's 20 seniors played their final game in Memorial Stadium, the Huskers had more than enough to play for on Friday.
"It was a big game for us," head coach Bo Pelini said. "Our team was very upset with ourselves for the way we played in that Michigan game. Just because we didn't play our best football. No one on our football team made an excuse. No one pointed a finger. Everybody, on a short week, came back and approached it the right way. And for that, that's why I say I'm proud of our team."
After a scoreless first quarter that saw 20 combined running plays and just three completed passes, Nebraska got on the board first on a 40-yard field goal by junior kicker Brett Maher with 11:22 left in the second quarter.
Iowa was then able to drive into NU territory to get just outside of field goal range, but the Huskers forced a punt and took over on their own 20 with 6:30 left. That would be the last time the Hawkeyes would touch the ball until the final seconds of the half.
Following a pass interference call on the first play of the Nebraska's ensuing drive, the Huskers marched 80 yards on 15 plays, with 13 of those being runs. Quarterback Taylor Martinez capped off the drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyler Reed on a gorgeous zone read play fake to put NU up 10-0 with just 32 seconds left before halftime.
"I thought it was a huge drive, a big drive," Pelini said. "I thought, not only did it give us great momentum going into the half; it gave us a two-score lead. I really like how we were playing defensively. That's why I thought right at that point, that's why I went for it on fourth down. I thought that could be a statement drive for us, and really big going into the half. Fortunately, we got it on fourth down and we executed right down the field. That was a great drive for us."
The Huskers ended up with 29 rushes for 134 yards in the first half, with Burkhead accounting for 79 of those yards on a whopping 18 carries. Running back Marcus Coker highlighted Iowa's offense in the first half, carrying 11 times for 62 yards. The two teams ended up combining for just 10 completed passes for 98 yards.
"That happened to be the game plan today, kind of pound the rock and get off play action passes when we needed to," Burkhead said. "The offensive line did a tremendous job up front, Tyler Legate at fullback, tight ends and the wide outs out wide did a tremendous job opening up holes."
Nebraska was the first strike in the second half as well, as Maher connected on another field goal from 21 yards out to make it 13-0 with 4:42 left in the third quarter. Settling for three wasn't exactly what the Huskers were hoping for, as they had marched 82 yards on 12 plays all the way down to the Iowa 4-yard line but were unable to punch it in.
Iowa gave Nebraska another great chance to put more points on the board on its next possession, as Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz hauled in a 21-yard reception to midfield, but senior linebacker Lavonte David came up with his second strip and recovery of the season to give NU the ball at its own 48.
"I felt the guy push off and I kind of got angry as I was going down, and I was like 'I have to do something to make up for this,'" David said. "I didn't know they threw the flag for pass interference. I just saw the ball hanging out and I took a shot at it. Fortunately it turned out great for us."
The Huskers moved the ball down to just outside of the Iowa 30, but a costly chop block penalty killed the drive and forced them to punt.
The Blackshirts forced another three-and-out to give Nebraska the ball back at its own 20-yard line. This time, the Huskers would not be kept out of the end zone.
With another physical, run-dominated drive, Burkhead barreled his way in for a touchdown from two yards out on his school record-tying 37th carry of the game, giving NU a commanding 20-0 lead with 11:25 left in the fourth quarter.
Iowa's offense was left scrambling the rest of the day, as Vandenberg threw a terrible pass on the run and was intercepted by sophomore cornerback Andrew Green at the Nebraska 23 on the Hawkeyes' next drive.
Iowa was finally able to break the shutout on a two-yard touchdown run by Coker with 3:26 remaining in the game, but it was too little, too late for the Hawkeyes at that point. A failed onside kick attempt following the score let the Huskers run the clock down inside of 2:30, and Iowa had one last chance with no timeouts to make a comeback.
An incomplete pass on a fourth-and-10 from Iowa's own 38 put an end to those thoughts, though, as Nebraska burned out the remaining minute and a half.
"I think our resolve was something special," Pelini said. "I loved the approach our football team had today. They had a never say die attitude. That was a well-earned win."
With the win, Nebraska ends its first regular season run through the Big Ten at 9-3 overall and 5-3 in conference play. The Huskers likely won't officially know their bowl destination until after the completion of Saturday's games, but it's widely speculated the CapitalOne Bowl in Orlando, Fla., or the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., are the most likely options.
***Burkhead was actually stuck at 37 carries until Nebraska's final drive of the game, when he came back out, took a handoff and immediately took a knee. It turns out Burkhead wanted no part of breaking the single-game carries record in that fashion, but his coaches and teammates convinced him to do it.
"Yeah, I heard there was one more carry to get the record," Burkhead said. "I didn't want to have to do it in that fashion really. I thought it was not a good way to get it, just taking a knee, but after the first play Marcel (Jones) and the rest of the lineman came up to me and told me they wanted me to do it for them because they would be a part of it and they were seniors. So I said, "alright I'll do it for you guys."
***Senior safety Austin Cassidy the fact that it was Senior Day and that it was the first game in the Nebraska-Iowa Big Ten rivalry was all the motivation the Huskers needed.
"It was a big deal today," Cassidy said. "Not only was it the first of this rivalry game, we had to start it off on the right foot, but for people in my senior class it really meant a lot. Especially playing a team like Iowa. A team that is obviously very good and a team that a lot of these guys rooted against growing up. It was fun to go out there and win. Obviously we wanted to win bad. We wanted to end up with a goose egg on the board, but it didn't end that way. It went pretty well for us today."
***Senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was matched up with Iowa receiver Marvin McNutt, the Big Ten's leading receiver, for the majority of the game on Friday, and he held McNutt to four catches for just a season-low 29 yards.
"I'm a competitive guy so I wanted to go against the best every single time," Dennard said. "When they told me I was going to go against McNutt the whole game I just said I'm up for the challenge."