LINCOLN, Neb. — The previous time Iowa’s football team played at Nebraska, the Hawkeyes scored first, and trailed by just 14-13 late in the first-half.
The Huskers eventually won by rout in that September 2000 contest at Memorial Stadium, 42-13. But that game in Kirk Ferentz’s second season as Iowa’s coach felt more satisfying than Friday’s, a 20-7 flop of a loss in Ferentz’s 13th season that wasn’t as close as that score suggests.
The Hawkeyes had a paltry 157 yards through three quarters. They didn’t score until 3:26 remained in the game and the die was long cast. They got shoved around all day when it mattered on defense, silenced all day when it mattered on offense.
Nebraska was ranked No. 1 in the nation when Iowa played here in 2000. The Huskers are No. 22 right now. The 2000 Hawkeyes showed improvement in November, correctly suggesting better things were on the horizon. The 2011 Hawkeyes were yo-yos all year. Who knows where things are going next month, let alone next autumn?
An Iowa loss in this game was hardly jarring. It was a 9.5-point underdog against a team that was 8-3. But this suffocation of Iowa’s offense, the so-called three-headed monster of quarterback James Vandenberg, running back Marcus Coker and receiver Marvin McNutt? What was up with that?
This was the Nebraska defense that surrendered 45 points to Michigan six days earlier, that allowed 48 to Wisconsin and 38 to Washington and 29 to Fresno State, that had given up 418 yards or more in five different games, that got owned at home by Northwestern. This wasn’t a Tom Osborne defense. Heck, this wasn’t one of Bo Pelini’s good defenses.
Yet, the Huskers treated Iowa like a little brother rather than an equal. At 5-3 in the Big Ten, Nebraska hasn’t had the run of the conference like some in this state thought it would and should. But Big Red fans surely won’t have to take any guff from those on the Iowa side of the Missouri River.
This wasn’t punching and counterpunching. The hayseeds, if anyone from Iowa is allowed to call anyone else that, landed all the haymakers. On both sides of the ball.
One doesn’t know where to begin to assign blame on offense. Vandenberg has glossy season statistics, but he won’t leave footprints at Iowa to match Ricky Stanzi’s unless he plays better on the road next year against good teams.
The Vandenberg of Kinnick Stadium was a different quarterback at Iowa State, Penn State, Minnesota and now here. Less accurate, less confident. Who would have ever believed Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez would have a more-effective passing game than Vandenberg? But he did.
However, it seemed Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe suffered from the compressed shorter workweek as much as anyone. Coker clearly wasn’t at full-health, yet he remained the workhorse while receivers just kind of floated around uselessly. Although, you aren’t a total workhorse when your team has the ball for just 22 of the 60 minutes.
The Hawkeyes’ attack, if you want to call it that, seemed timid against a Nebraska defense that surely didn’t morph into Alabama this week. Did O’Keefe not find things to exploit from Husker game film? This year may be as vulnerable as a Blackshirts unit is liable to be for a while.
Yes, Husker cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is a possible first-round NFL draftee next spring. Yes, he did a brilliant job of applying himself to McNutt like an adhesive strip. Yes, he had help from NU’s defensive line outplaying Iowa’s blockers.
But come on. If you’re an All-Big Ten receiver, you get open before it’s too late and your team’s play-calling adjusts to get you open before it’s too late.
Through the game’s first 55 minutes, McNutt had two catches for a total of one yard. That’s the guy who was averaging 113 receiving yards a game. That was Iowa’s unofficial season MVP, reduced to a non-factor on national television.
In a game full of demoralizing moments for the Hawkeyes, maybe the most-symbolic was when a tunnel screen pass to McNutt midway through the second quarter lost three yards. The score was only 3-0 at that point, but the ease with which the Huskers blew up that hopeless (and obviously predictable) play seemed to turn a two-way defensive scrap into Big Red dominance.
After that drive ended with an Iowa punt, the Huskers went on a surgical 80-yard touchdown march that featured no play longer than nine yards. The Hawkeyes’ defense eroded more and more with each subsequent Rex Burkhead carry. Burkhead had a school-record 38 carries for 160 yards, and it seemed like he did even more damage than that.
Even with Coker’s terrific season that includes 1,004 rushing yards in Big Ten games alone, Iowa has been out-rushed by 232 yards in Big Ten games. Nebraska gained 222 yards on the ground, Iowa only 88. Be it on a Friday, Saturday, or any day of the week, those are statistics of mediocrity.
So now we wait for Iowa’s bowl announcement. That figures to have all the suspense of an Iowa-Nebraska game in Lincoln.