By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Maybe I should’ve seen it as a red flag, no pun intended with Nebraska the opponent on Friday at Kinnick Stadium.
But I didn’t give any consideration to Iowa losing to the Cornhuskers, who entered Friday’s game with a 3-8 record and with a five-game losing streak.
I assumed that Iowa would win the game at home, and as a result would win the Big Ten West Division for the second year in a row.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong as Iowa self-destructed pretty much from start to finish, and did so in all three phases of the game, while losing 24-17 to the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska, in addition to ending a seven-game losing streak against the Hawkeyes, has also most likely kept their border rival from winning the Big Ten West Division.
It doesn’t make up for Nebraska finishing just 4-8 overall, but it’s something to build with Matt Ruhle reportedly set to be hired as Nebraska’s head coach, according to multiple reports.
The Cornhuskers also ruined Iowa’s Senior Day, which started with the 27 seniors on the team being honored just moments before kickoff.
“It’s tough,” said Iowa sophomore tight end Luke Lachey who started for injured senior tight end Sam LaPorta on Friday. “You never want to lose to Nebraska in the Heroes Game.
“It’s hard. The seniors played very tough all year long, and they’re a great group of guys. It’s disappointing that we couldn’t get it done for them.”
The game started horribly for Iowa from an injury standpoint as star cornerback Cooper DeJean was knocked out the game literally in the first quarter on a vicious, but legal block.
Iowa senior quarterback Spencer Petras was also injured in the first quarter and then spent the rest of the game watching from the sideline with his right arm in a sling.
Petras had only completed 1-of-6 passes for nine yards when he was injured.
Junior Alex Padilla replaced Petras and then helped to engineer a comeback in the second half, only to fall short at the end.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Padilla, who completed 16-of-33 passes for 141 yards and one touchdown. “We had a goal coming out of the Ohio State game, we wanted to win five and had an opportunity to win today, but didn’t play well enough.
“Turned the ball over and you can’t do that against teams in the Big Ten.”
Padilla was referring to Iowa’s 54-10 loss at Ohio State on Oct. 22 when Iowa committed six turnovers in what was its third consecutive loss.
The season appeared on the verge of unraveling, but the players and coaches regrouped and then won four games in a row, and were just a victory over Nebraska from winning the West again.
But it just wasn’t meant to be on this beautiful late November afternoon.
“I think the reality is we made the hill too steep to climb and part of it was self-inflicted,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
Much of it was self-inflicted as Iowa committed four turnovers, including a fumbled punt by Arland Bruce on special teams where Iowa rarely makes mistakes.
The best thing you could say about Iowa’s performance on Friday is that players never gave up.
“Can’t say how proud I am of our guys,” Kirk Ferentz said. “They’ve been consistent all the way through the season, given great effort. Never gave up tonight. They fought really hard, especially in that second half. So proud of that.”
Iowa still had a chance to win the game, or force the game into overtime when the offense took over at its own 20-yard line with 1 minute, 5 seconds left to play.
But the drive ended when Nebraska linebacker Chris Colarevic intercepted a pass thrown by Padilla in the closing seconds.
There still were a few seconds left on the clock when the Nebraska players sprinted to the north end zone to reclaim the Heroes Trophy, which hasn’t resided in Lincoln since Nebraska last beat Iowa in 2014.
Iowa still has an slim chance of making the Big Ten Championship game, but it would take Illinois losing to 1-10 Northwestern and Purdue losing to 4-7 Indiana.
You never say never, but the odds of Illinois and Purdue both losing to opponents with losing records would seem pretty slim.
Perhaps the most frustrating and befuddling thing about Friday’s loss is the lack of urgency that Iowa showed on offense in the second half while trailing by double digits.
It made no sense for Iowa to take as much time as it did between plays in the third quarter. It wasn’t until about midway through the fourth quarter when Iowa finally started to push the tempo on offense.
Iowa finished the regular season 7-5 overall and 5-4 in the Big Ten, while Nebraska finished 4-8 and 2-7 in the conference under interim head coach Mickey Joseph.
Iowa still has at least one game left to play in a bowl game, but that is little consolation right now.
Nebraska deserves credit for coming out aggressive on offense and for taking the Iowa crowd out of the game in the first half.
The crowd really didn’t have much to cheer about until Iowa finally rallied late in the second half.
Nebraska dominated the first half from a scoring and from a statistical standpoint as it led 17-0 at the break.
Nebraska had 240 yards in the first half, while Iowa only had 72 yards and lost two fumbles.
Nebraska also took advantage of DeJean’s injury by completing an 87-yard touchdown pass from Casey Thompson to Trey Palmer with 8:45 left in the first quarter.
Palmer made a move on true freshman cornerback T.J. Hall and then Thompson hit a wide open Palmer in stride for the touchdown.
The Cornhuskers expanded the lead to 24-0 on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Thompson to Marcus Washington with 12:15 left in the third quarter.
Iowa then finally crossed the goal line when Kaleb Johnson broke loose for a 44-yard touchdown run with 8:32 left in the third quarter.
Iowa then forced Nebraska to punt on its next possession and you could feel the momentum shifting ever so slightly.
However, the drive stalled near midfield and Kirk Ferentz chose to punt with less than one minute left in the third quarter.
Iowa cut the deficit to 24-13 when Padilla connected with sophomore tight end Luke Lachey for a 14-yard touchdown with 6:49 left to play.
Drew Stevens made the point-after kick to trim the deficit to 10 points.
But it would prove to be too big of a deficit for Iowa to overcome.
Nebraska 10 7 7 0 – 24
Iowa 0 0 7 10 – 17
N -Trey Palmer 87 pass from Casey Thompson (Timmy Bleekrode kick)
N – Bleekrode 21 FG
N – Palmer 18 pass from Thompson (Bleekrode kick)
N – Marcus Washington 14 pass from Thompson (Bleekrode kick)
I – Kaleb Johnson 44 run (Drew Stevens kick)
I – Luke Lachey 14 pass from Alex Padilla (Stevens kick)
I – Stevens 45 FG