It was brutally ugly out there most of the day in Iowa City, but in the end, yet another second half comeback means Nebraska is heading to Indianapolis as the Big Ten's West division champions. The game started out fast as the Huskers pounded the ball all the way inside the Iowa ten yard line before having to settle for a field goal. 16 plays, 75 yards, eight minutes off the clock. It looked like Iowa was mailing it in on defense.
Except Iowa's offense wasn't quite ready to fold. They answered with an impressive drive of their own. The Iowa offensive line was blowing huge holes in the first quarter for Mark Weisman. Add in a fingertip catch by tight end A. J. Fiedorowicz, and the Hawkeyes stunned Husker fans with a first quarter touchdown and a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Then, it was back to the Three Stooges comedy of errors in the second quarter. Ameer Abdullah fumbles a punt. Taylor Martinez can't make up his mind whether to hand off to Abdullah or keep it on one play. Runs into fullback Andy Janovich on another play. 14 plays, 10 yards of offense on the quarter. Even with the benefit of the wind, the Huskers couldn't do a dog-gone thing on offense. Fortunately, the Iowa offense was only modestly less incompetent. The Hawkeyes managed to work their impersonation of a two-minute offense all the way inside the Nebraska 20 yard line, then somehow managed to get an illegal substitution penalty coming off a timeout. How does that happen? The wind pushed the field goal wide left, and the Hawkeye lead remained 7-3 at halftime.
Apparently Nebraska was hoping to keep Rex Burkhead on the sideline unless it was absolutely necessary. That first half pretty much made it necessary, and in came Burkhead. Sparked Nebraska's opening drive, which cut the Iowa lead to 7-6, then scored on a toss-sweep to put the Huskers up 13-7. Now, it's just a case of holding onto the ball and holding the lead against an Iowa team that wasn't doing much of anything positive in the second half. Well, other than hitting Fiedorowicz for a clutch completion for a stay of execution.
Taylor Martinez ran an option to Rex Burkhead, seemingly to gain a first down. But Nebraska apparently didn't realize that the pitch could have gone forward, and gave the replay booth enough time to signal for a review. That goes on Tim Beck, who should have seen that from the press box and immediately signaled into a quick play to save the first down. Instead, the penalty wiped out the gain, and Martinez's poorly executed quarterback draw went absolutely nowhere to force Nebraska to punt. It was that type of day for Nebraska's quarterback; quite possibly his worst performance of the year.
Hence, the need for Burkhead today. The Blackshirts forced Iowa into a three-and-out, but the wind-aided punt was downed just outside the goal line. That's when Burkhead cemented his spot as a Husker Legend. On second down from the NU three yard line, Burkhead powered his way for a four yard gain. Or so it seemed at first...the pile just kept moving with Rex at the bottom of it. A nine yard gain got Nebraska out of deep trouble and a first down. Then he did it again, pushing another pile forward for an eight yard gain. Fans cringed when Rex left the game, but fortunately, it was only to adjust the knee brace. Two plays later, he was back in.
Facing third and three, Tim Beck had a Bill Callahan moment. Rex Burkhead is taking control of the game, and Nebraska is trying to run clock. So what's the play call? Just like against Texas in 2006, a pass play. A good pass by Martinez, mind you. But Janovich drops the ball, the clock stops, and Nebraska's forced to punt. Fortuately for Nebraska, Greg Davis and the Iowa offense had no plans to take advantage of their last chances. Three Mark Weisman rushes up the middle? That's all Iowa had left? The Huskers ate three minutes of clock, but punted the ball back to Iowa with three minutes to go.
Again, Iowa must have thought there were three hours left, but frankly, with the way the Hawkeye offense was performing, they could have had the ball for three days and not threatened to score. After a Weisman run for a first down, the Hawkeyes lazily huddled the ball and took their sweet time getting the next play off. Maybe they already knew what was going to happen next: James Vandenberg's pass was picked off by Alonzo Whaley to seal the Husker win. All that was left was for Rex Burkhead to run out the clock.
It was a great performance by the Blackshirts in the second half, especially Eric Martin and Whaley. Martin was unblockable at times in his pursuit of Vandenberg. That explains why Iowa wanted to try to run the ball today, but as the clock wound down, Weisman was never going to make it to the endzone by himself. That's a great testament to the defensive line, who had to go without Baker Steinkuhler most of the game. And with Steinkuhler leaving on crutches, Nebraska will have to find a way to stop Wisconsin's running backs next weekend without him as well.
After the Ohio State debacle, Bo Pelini said Nebraska had to win out. Mission accomplished. Pelini found a way to make the defense serviceable this season, and that's a testament to him and his staff. There are still lingering questions about the future of the defensive line, especially considering how little playing time the non-seniors have been seeing as of late. But that's a question to discuss in the winter and spring. Right now, Nebraska's off to the Big Ten championship game.
Three conference title games in five years for Bo Pelini; that's a pretty good record at most places. Except at Nebraska, where we set our expectations a little higher. And we should. But with Nebraska at 10-2, all those Bo Pelini critics need to tip their caps off to Nebraska's head coach.
But not the players and team...there's one thing that needs to be accomplished first. Beat Wisconsin...and get to Pasadena. It's time to add a post-2000 date to the facade on the skyboxes at Memorial Stadium.