LINCOLN, Neb. — Iowa’s defense couldn’t seem to get off the field, and when the Hawkeyes did have the ball, they couldn’t get it to their best playmaker.
With Rex Burkhead running for 160 yards and a touchdown on a school-record 38 carries Friday, No. 22 Nebraska beat the Hawkeyes 20-7 in the first game of what folks around here believe will evolve into one of the better rivalries in the Big Ten.
“He’s a good running back. We knew that coming in,” linebacker James Morris said. “He broke some tackles and gained some yards. He hurt us a little more than we were anticipating.”
Burkhead, who started the week with his right foot in a walking boot, pounded away at Iowa’s defense 4 or 5 yards at a time and looked like his old self after being held to a season-low 36 yards in last week’s loss at Michigan.
Burkhead ran on nine of 15 plays of an 80-yard drive that produced the Huskers’ first touchdown in the second quarter and put Nebraska up 10-0 at half. His 2-yard run around right end converted a fourth-and-1 inside the Iowa 30, and six plays later Kyler Reed scored his first touchdown of the season on a 6-yard pass from Taylor Martinez.
“I’m not going to say there was a turning point in the game, but if there was, it was the drive before the end of the first half where they went 80 yards,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That one, and they nailed one for 85 yards in the third quarter.”
The loss could drop Iowa (7-5, 4-4) to the Meineke Car Care Bowl or TicketCity Bowl in the Big Ten pecking order.
The win kept alive Nebraska’s hopes of landing a berth in the Capital One Bowl, if two Big Ten teams are invited to BCS games, or the Outback Bowl.
Nebraska (9-3, 5-3) has nine or more wins in each of Pelini’s four seasons and for the 38th time in 42 seasons.
Ferentz said Nebraska never allowed his team to establish an offensive rhythm.
“They played a game you would script out if you were them,” he said. “We weren’t up to the challenge today.”
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard shut down Marvin McNutt, holding Iowa’s record-setting receiver to two catches for 1 yard through three quarters. McNutt finished with four catches for 29 yards.
“I’m a competitive guy, and they told me I was going against him,” Dennard said. “I was up for the challenge.”
The Hawkeyes avoided getting shut out for the first time in 11 years when Marcus Coker, who ran for 87 yards, scored from 2 yards with 3:26 left.
James Vandenberg completed 16 of 35 passes for 182 yards, with an interception.
“They had Marvin covered most of the day with several guys,” Vandenberg said. “We saw on film they do a great job of cutting off ‘in’ routes, crossing routes.
“Obviously, in the fourth quarter we put it in the air a little bit to try and open it up. They did a good job of mixing it up and not letting us get in a groove. Looking back there are plenty of things you’d like to have changed.”
With Nebraska having joined the Big Ten this year, Friday’s game was long touted as the start of a natural rivalry. Iowa is Nebraska’s closest Big Ten opponent, and the farm states split by the Missouri River share a passion for football.
The universities further billed it as the inaugural “Heroes Game” and honored “citizen heroes” from each state at halftime.
What happened on the field bore little resemblance to those big Thanksgiving week games Nebraska used to play against Oklahoma and Colorado.
The Huskers were in full control all afternoon, with Burkhead helping the Huskers to a 16-minute advantage in time of possession.
“I don’t think fatigue was a factor,” Iowa linebacker James Morris said. “There were times we were able to get off the field. Then there were times when they had prolonged drives. That’s football, but that’s also a failure on our part.”