By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – “I did not see this coming.”
That’s what my colleague, Tyler Devine, whispered to me early in the fourth quarter as the Iowa football team continued its dominance over Nebraska on Friday.
And I’m sure he wasn’t the only person saying it.
A game that had close and competitive written all over it was anything but that as Iowa rolled to a 40-10 victory in the regular-season finale at Kinnick Stadium.
It was Iowa's third consecutive victory since the Penn State debacle on Nov. 5 and its first victory over Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium since 1981.
Iowa senior running back LeShun Daniels became the first Hawkeye to surpass 1,000 rushing yards since 2011, while senior quarterback C.J. Beathard improved to 21-6 as a starter and is seven for eight in winning trophy games. Senior tight George Kittle also caught two touchdown passes, while senior receiver Riley McCarron caught five passes for a career-high 108 yards, highlighted by a 77-yard touchdown catch late in the first quarter.
You couldn't have asked for a better script on senior day.
But you wonder if the situation had to get worse before it could better.
You wonder if the 41-14 loss at Penn State actually did more good for Iowa in the long run than bad.
And you wonder if Penn State running back Saquon Barkley lit a fuse when he more or less accused the Iowa players of quitting because the Iowa defense hasn't been the same since, allowing just two touchdowns in the last three games.
"Sometimes, it does take a game like that, a wake-up call," said Iowa defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie. "Unfortunately, sometimes you do need a beatdown like that to kind of get the motor going a little bit."
Iowa had its motor going from the beginning on Friday.
The Nebraska defense made Iowa’s much-maligned offense look like a well-oiled machine in the first two quarters. An offense that has struggled to make big plays all season scored touchdowns in the first quarter on a 77-yard pass from Beathard to McCarron and on a 75-yard run by Akrum Wadley.
Daniels also joined the fun with a 56-yard run in the second quarter and finished with 158 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. The Warren, Ohio native finished the regular season with 1,013 rushing yards, followed closely by Wadley with 966 rushing yards.
They have combined for 1,979 rushing yards, which is the most yards by two Iowa running backs in the same season.
Iowa offensive lineman Sean Welsh called it an honor to block for Daniels and Wadley.
"Those guys do a great job," Welsh said. "There are even plays where we screw up and they'll find a way to make it happen. It's certainly an honor. But I think you have to give them a lot of credit."
Wadley's 75-yard touchdown run actually came on a play in which half of Iowa's offensive line went one way, while the other half went the other way. It was essentially a broken play that worked to perfection.
"It was kind of a miss-communication deal, but it was checked into a run and it worked out pretty good for us," Beathard said. "That was kind of a lucky play to be honest with you."
Iowa made most of its luck in Friday's game by executing on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
It was almost big-play or bust for Iowa in the first half as strange as that might seem with this offense. Iowa racked up 295 yards in the first half, with 208 yards coming on three plays.
Iowa was just 1-of-5 on third-down conversions in the first half. So it wasn’t that Iowa had an answer for everything that Nebraska did on defense in the first two quarters.
It was a more a case of when Iowa did have an answer, it produced resounding results.
"It's been a long time coming,' said Iowa left tackle Boone Myers. "We've been working on it every day since camp and since spring ball and we've been close. We've had ups and downs.
"But these last three weeks I feel like we've really been starting to click and come together as a team, not just as an offensive line, but as a whole offense and a whole team, all three phases, special teams, offense and defense.
Myers also thinks that being humilated at Penn State helped to fuel the late-season resurgence.
"That was kind of a wake-up call, you can put it like that," Myers said. "Offensively, we knew we were close after the Penn State game. There were just little details that we needed to correct.
"That game really kind of hurt us. Anyone after that would want to get better. That's really all we did is just go back to work and focus on the little details."
Pride is a powerful motivator, especially in sports. Iowa's pride was tested after the Penn State loss.
"Everyone goes through that and has their pride tested," Myers said. "If you're in a sport and a competitor, even in life, jobs, you're going to get tested. If you have any pride, you're not going to just take that."
Iowa improved to 8-4 with the victory and is almost certainly headed to the Holiday Bowl for the first time since 1991. Four losses isn't what some fans had envisioned for this Iowa team, but the situation could be a lot worse. The players deserve credit for staying the course and for sticking together during tough times.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz also deserves credit for steering the ship through rocky waters. He didn't panic or make any drastic changes, as some had hoped, and now he's being rewarded, literally and figuratively.
Ferentz earned a $500,000 bonus for leading Iowa to eight victories as part of his new contract.
"We always talk to our football team about how important November football is, and you learn a lot about yourself in November," Ferentz said. "I don't know if we could have gone any lower than we did three weeks ago. We had a tough loss to open the month, but what these guys have done, day in and day out the past three weeks, it's really been amazing to watch."
One of the neatest moments during the post-game celebration was when Ferentz's two sons embraced on the field. Senior offensive lineman Steve Ferentz was overcome with joy as he wrapped his arms around his older brother, Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz. They shared an embrace that was more like a two brothers hugging than a player and his position coach.
This season is starting to look and feel like the 2008 season when Iowa finished 9-4 after being just 3-3 at the midway point. That team relied heavily on the running of 2008 Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, who set the school single-season rushing record with 1,850 yards that season.
Daniels and Wadley have shared Green's role as the featured running back this season and have gained more yards than Green did.
"It would be good to be undefeated, but it feels good just to finish out the way we did," said senior defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson. "We played our best football these last three weeks."
Johnson and his cohorts have played their best football since being called out at Penn State. That probably isn't a coincidence.