IOWA CITY -
Iowa football coach Hayden Fry has something to say to the guy who wrote, "It's not whether you won or lost, it's how you played the game."
Fry would change that to, "It's not how you played the game, it's whether you won or lost."
Hayden's Hawks continued to play surprisingly well Saturday, leading Nebraska 21-7 late in the third quarter. But they still lost 24-21 on Dean Sukup's 30-yard field goal with 5:52 left.
The loss before 60,055 at Kinnick Stadium dropped the Hawks to 0-3. Sure, they may be the best winless college football team in America. They've battled down to the wire with No. 3-ranked Oklahoma and No. 7 Nebraska. THey've done just about everything — except win.
But Fry, largely critical of the Hawks' showing in last week's 21-6 loss at Oklahoma, couldn't help but praise them after Saturday's near-miss.
After all, before Saturday, Nebraska had clobbered six straight Big Ten teams by 69-17, 31-13, 45-13, 45-0, 54-0 and 49-7 margins over the last five seasons.
"This is a different situation from last week," said Fry. "We didn't perform very well in the second half at Oklahoma. In this game we did. We not only improved today, we looked like a football team for the first time.
"Our football team played with a great deal of courage, no question about it. We have improved with each ballgame, and we showed more intensity for a full ballgame than we did against Oklahoma or Indiana."
An Iowa victory would have ranked alongside the greatest upsets in Hawkeye history. Especially after it was learned three days before the game that starting quarterback Phil Suess was sidelined with a kidney injury.
The Hawks couldn't quite pull it off, of course, but the Cornhuskers were Big Red-faced for a long time.
And Fry said quarterback Pete Gales, who hadn't played all year, "was outstanding. He played a super ballgame."
Gales completed eight of his first 14 passes for 118 yards before Nebraska's defense stiffened in the final 20 minutes. He finished with 10 completions in 25 attempts for 154 yards.
Gales directed Iowa to a 21-7 lead with 5:21 left in the third quarter. But Nebraska scored two touchdowns and a field goal in the final 17 minutes to raise its record to 2-0.
Iowa's hard hitting and Nebraska's stone fingers combined for six Husker fumbles, and five of them were recovered by Iowa and two of those led to Iowa touchdowns.
The Hawks' two Nebraska-born defensive ends, Jim Molini of Norfolk and Bryan Skradis of Omaha, each forced a fumble. Molini also recovered two and totaled nine tackles. Skradis recovered one fumble and had 10 tackles.
Other outstanding Iowa defenders included right linebacker Todd Simonsen, who had 12 tackles and a fumble recovery; left linebacker Levin Weiss, 14 tackles (11 solos); right tackle John Harty, nine tackles and a forced fumble; and free safety Bobby Stoops, who had 10 tackles.
Skradis recovered an I.M. Hipp fumble at the Nebraska 14 early in the first quarter, leading to Iowa's first score. Three plays later, fullback Dean McKillip went 2 yards for the first of his two touchdowns.
Waterloo freshman Reggie Roby, taking over both the placekicking and punting chores, kicked the extra-point to give Iowa a 7-0 lead with 11:51 left in the first quarter.
Iowa, which hasn't allowed a first quarter point this year, kept that 7-0 lead until 2:12 remained in the first half. That's when Nebraska quarterback Jeff Quinn dove 1 yard for a score.
Quinn needed three tries to get the final yard, capping a drive in which the Huskers in which the Huskers needed 10 plays to travel 38 yards.
After the 7-7 deadlock at halftime, McKillip scored again, capping a 12-play, 87-yard drive on Iowa's first possession of the second half.
Key plays during the drive were a 26-yard burst off right tackle by Dennis Mosley, Gales' passes of 16 and 14 yards to Keith Chappelle and Mike Brady (his first catch since 1977), and a pass interference call on Nebraska at the four.
Moments after Iowa had taken a 14-7 lead, the ever-present Molini caused a Hager fumble and left tackle Mark Mahmens recovered at Nebraska's 47.
It took just two passes from Gales to put Iowa in the end zone. His first strike was to Nate Person for 18 yards. Then Chappelle scored his first major college touchdown, beating safety Russell Gary on a 29-yard toss from Gales.
Roby's kick gave Iowa a 21-7 lead with 5:21 left in the third quarter. But after that Iowa gained only 44 yards in 16 plays and Nebraska scored 17 points in its next three possessions.
The Huskers answered Iowa's third TD with an eight-play, 61-yard drive, Hager scoring on a 4-yard keeper with 2:02 left in the third quarter.
Then Iowa couldn't muster a first down, and Roby got off his only poor punt of the day, a 20-yarder which gave Nebraska possession 1 yard shy of the midfield stripe.
Other than that 20-yarder, Roby averaged 40.3 per punt. He also boomed three of his four kickoffs into or out of the end zone.
Following Roby's only poor punt, however, Nebraska drove 51 yards in 10 plays, tying the score on Craig Johnson's 5-yard run and Sukup's placement with 11:02 left in the game. Nebraska converted on three third-down situations during the drive.
Nebraska's game-winning march started when Iowa's Brad Reid fumbled after catching a 12-yard pass from Gales at the Iowa 42.
"That wasn't like Brad," said Fry. "He never drops the football."But the officials said he did. And Nebraska moved to Iowa's 13, where Sukup booted the game winner.