LINCOLN, Neb., — Fifty-one weeks ago, give or take, the Iowa Hawkeyes turned in their gear. It was the end of a 4-8 season. It was time for comfort food, a nice blanket and maybe some Netflix.
This is where you curl up in the fetal position and turn off the cell phone. That’s what you do if you want to live in the stink of 4-8.
“At the end of last year, it was a nasty feeling in the locker room,” defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat said. “We felt like we didn’t belong there.”
Fifty-one weeks later, it’s pretty safe to say the Hawkeyes belong.
Iowa completed the flip from 4-8 to 8-4 with a dominating 38-17 victory over Nebraska before 91,260 fans Friday at Memorial Stadium.
Iowa (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) slayed a lot of demons, so take a deep breath: It was Iowa’s first victory at Nebraska since 1943 and first win over the Cornhuskers (8-4, 5-3) since 1981. Iowa claimed the Heroes Trophy for the first time since NU joined the Big Ten in 2011. The four-win improvement is the fourth-biggest turnaround in the country, ranking behind Auburn (plus-7) and Boston College and Missouri (plus-5).
The “51 weeks” was the motto of the week in the Iowa football complex. It was taped to all the doors. The clock on digging out of 4-8 started after walking off the Kinnick Stadium field 13-7 losers to the Huskers last season, finishing Iowa’s worst season under Kirk Ferentz since 2000.
The Hawkeyes ended week 52 by forcing three turnovers out of the Huskers, including a fumble in the fourth quarter that eventually turned into running back Mark Weisman’s 2-yard touchdown and a 31-17 Iowa lead with 9:17 left in the game.
Weisman scored two TDs and Iowa’s defense made it stand, holding NU to 89 rushing yards, including 85 from Ameer Abdullah, the Big Ten’s leading rusher. Nebraska entered the game averaging 233.7 rushing yards a game. The Hawkeyes had average starting field position from their 45-yard line, leaving Iowa with only a long scoring drive of 41 yards.
Week 52 ended with “In Heaven There is no Beer” echoing through Memorial Stadium, the Hawkeyes sprinting across the big red “N” in the middle of Tom Osborne Field and a happy, dancing dash up the tunnel.
“At this time last year, we were saying, ‘Damn, we’re done,’” said quarterback Jake Rudock, who suffered a sprained knee and was forced out in the fourth quarter. “I remember going to a class, a meeting and then a workout that next week. It was weird having to turn in the helmets.”
The Hawkeyes will need their helmets. There’s the bowl, which likely won’t be made official until Dec. 8 when BCS bowl bids are announced. Logic points to the Hawkeyes going to the Outback Bowl. The Big Ten will need to have two teams selected for BCS bowl bids, which is a distinct possibility but comes with no guarantee.
“This puts us in a great bowl, probably the Outback,” said wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley, who 24-yard TD catch put Iowa up 24-10 in the third quarter. “We just finished the year off strong. When you finish something strong, you feel really good about it.”
Ferentz had a chance to wag his finger in Saturday’s postgame. At the beginning of the season, he was named one of the five worst coaches in the country by Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel.
“Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, it’s the great thing about our country,” Ferentz said, after his team sang the school fight song and let out a primal scream that echoed through the visitor’s locker room, located in the guts of the south end stands. “I don’t think he went to jail for saying that.”
And that brings us to Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. He had a bad day at the office. Not only did his Huskers allow the most points ever in this series, he called for a fake punt that came after a timeout and failed miserably, losing 8 yards and ending up a TD for Iowa on the next play.
Pelini also was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Let’s say he didn’t agree with the call.
“I thought that was a chicken [bleep] call,” Pelini growled in the postgame. “Excuse my language on that, but I head never seen anything like that. I’ve done a lot worse than that. I saw Kirk Ferentz on the other side acting a lot worse than that. I didn’t see a flag come out on him.”
Week 52 began with questions about whether or not Iowa-Nebraska could count as a rivalry. Iowa had dropped five consecutive to the Huskers before turning two of NU’s three turnovers into TDs Friday. Week 52 ended with the Nebraska coach answering whether or not he made a case to save his job.
“If they want to fire me, go ahead,” Pelini said. “I believe in what I’ve done.”
One thing that helps move the needle when your 51 weeks from what has to be considered the statement win of the season is seniors, specifically for Iowa it’s been senior linebackers James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. Here’s what they did against the Huskers: 28 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions (Morris’ led to a first-quarter TD), seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, three pass breakups and three QB hurries.
“That might be fair to say,” Morris said to a question about the seniors and the linebackers leading the program excavation. “I don’t want to raise my hand and say it was me or it was us.”
Week 52 ended with screams of joy thundering out of Iowa’s locker room, not the thud of gear being turned in. Not like last season. It was the exact opposite of last season.
Iowa-Nebraska box score
Iowa season stats
Iowa game notes from Nebraska
Ferentz postgame video