Huskers clinch Big Ten title berth with 13-7 win
IOWA CITY, Iowa - It may have been one of the ugliest games of the season, but it ended up a thing of beauty for Nebraska when game clock finally hit zero.
With 40 mph winter wind gusts creating havoc for both offenses all day long, the Huskers made just enough big plays to get out of Iowa City with a 13-7 win over Iowa on Friday, clinching the Legends Division title and a berth in next week's Big Ten Championship.
After trailing the bulk of the game before taking the lead in the third quarter, Nebraska (10-2 overall, 7-1 Big Ten) didn't seal the win until linebacker Alonzo Whaley intercepted Hawkeye quarterback James Vandenberg with just over two minutes left in the game.
The Huskers were able to grind out the clock from there, and will move on to play Wisconsin for a chance at their first conference title since 1999.
"Well, that was hard," head coach Bo Pelini said. We knew it was going to be that way... With everything Iowa had going on with it being their Senior Day and the whole deal, and those were tough conditions out there. I don't know if we played our best, but we did what we had to do. We got it done."
The wind tremendously impacted the course of the game in the first half, as the first quarter saw just two pass plays combined and just 18 total passes in the half. Nebraska struck first on its opening possession, marching down the field on a 16-play, eight-minute drive with 15 runs before settling for a 26-yard field goal by senior kicker Brett Maher into the wind.
The drive marked NU's longest scoring drive of the season in terms of time and plays.
The Hawkeyes followed the same formula on their opening possession, though, riding senior running back Mark Weisman eight times on a 12-play drive and scoring on a 1-yard run by quarterback James Vandenberg at the end of the quarter.
That would be all of the scoring for the half, as the second quarter was filled with mistakes by both teams and ended with a missed 41-yard field goal into the wind by Mike Meyer with just four seconds left before halftime.
Nebraska had trouble staying out of its way after its first drive, as it fumbled yet another punt, lost a fumbled handoff between quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Ameer Abdullah, gave up a key third-down sack and dropped a potential interception in the end zone
Martinez did complete 5-of-6 passes in the half but for just 24 yards, as the Huskers managed just 92 total yards on 29 plays. However, Martinez's five completions tied him with Zac Taylor for the school's career record with 470, which he eventually broke on the sixth play of the third quarter.
Weisman had 16 of his 29 rushing attempts in the first half for 55 yards, and he finished with 91 yards.
"It was difficult," Pelini said. "It was a game of field position. I thought we did a really good job, other than the first drive, defensively. We did pretty good. We played physical. That's a physical team."
Just like the start of the game, Nebraska got on the board on its first possession of the third quarter, which included the return of senior running back Rex Burkhead. Behind a key fourth-down conversion run by Burkhead, who saw his first action since re-injuring his knee against Northwestern on Oct. 20, the Huskers cut the lead to 7-6 with a booming 52-yard field goal by Maher.
The Huskers had a chance to reclaim the lead after a juggling interception by safety Daimion Stafford - his fourth in the past five games - that gave them the ball at the Iowa 49, but a quick three-and-out put an end to those hopes.
Finally, after a three-and-out stop by the defense, Nebraska's offense came alive late in the third quarter. With an 19-yard pass to tight end Ben Cotton and an 18-yard run by running back Braylon Heard, Burkhead barreled his way into the end zone to put the Huskers up 13-7 with 3:10 left in the third.
The touchdown was Burkhead's first since NU's win over Idaho State back on Sept. 22.
"I told the team in the locker room before the game it was going to be about winning on the line of scrimmage and being physical up front on both sides of the football," Pelini said. "We did that well enough to win the game."
The teams traded punts six times from there, and Iowa eventually ended up with a chance to take the lead at its own 31 with 3:31 left in the game. Three plays into the drive, however, Whaley stepped in front of a slant route and picked off Vandenberg's pass to give NU the ball at the Hawkeye 35.
A couple tough runs from Burkhead gave the Huskers more than enough to chew up the remaining time on the clock and complete their third 10-win season in five years under Pelini.
"It's huge," Burkhead said of the victory. "We're excited for this win, we're happy for this win, but at the same time, our goal right now is to win a Big Ten Championship. So we're going to have to celebrate today, celebrate tonight, and then get started again tomorrow.
Nebraska will now get ready for a rematch with Leaders Division champion Wisconsin in next Saturday's Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis, which is scheduled to kickoff at 7 p.m. CT. The Huskers rallied back to beat the Badgers 30-27 in Lincoln back on Sept. 29 in their Big Ten opener.
"I believe in this team, and honestly, I'm proud of those kids in the locker room," Pelini said. "We're not done. We have one left. I told them to enjoy it today, but we're looking for something more than winning our division. The team has come together and put ourselves in this position. After Ohio State, I thought that is what we were capable of doing. We're going to have to play well next week."