It was a game that meant nothing in terms of the Big Ten Championship race, but it felt like Nebraska played with a sense of panic all day long in Friday's 38-17 loss to Iowa to close out the 2013 regular season.
Turnovers, costly penalties, sideline tirades and downright desperation play-calling proved to be too much for the Huskers to overcome, as they never led in their first loss to the Hawkeyes since 1981. With the loss, Nebraska dropped to 8-4 overall and 5-3 in conference play, and the uneasy feeling surrounding Husker Nation and the future of head coach Bo Pelini reached its highest point yet.
"I just told the team that was a tough one to lose. I'm proud of that football team in there," Pelini said. "I'm proud of all the things that they overcame through the year. I'm proud of who they are as men. I told the seniors they have a lot to be proud of. It hasn't been an easy year from any stretch of the imagination. It's been difficult. This team had a lot to perservere through, a lot to stick together through. They did that, and I'm proud of them, regardless of how it ended today. It was unfortunate how it ended today. We shot ourselves in the foot a number of times. We had some things go against us. It was unfortunate."
While Nebraska's defense certainly showed up to play, its offense couldn't have gotten off to a much worse start in the first quarter. Senior quarterback Ron Kellogg, who made his first-career start and had only thrown one interception in 95 attempts coming into the game, was picked off on back-to-back passes in NU territory.
The Huskers were able to hold off Iowa after the first interception with a fourth-and-1 stop at their own 23-yard line, but Kellogg was picked off two plays later by Hawkeye linebacker James Morris at the NU 25. Iowa moved the ball inside the 10 and then on a 3rd-and-goal from the 7, quarterback Jake Rudock found tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz over the middle for a touchdown pass to give the Hawkeyes a 7-0 lead with 16 seconds left in the first quarter.
Later in the second quarter, Nebraska's defense was once again able to overcome poor starting field position with a three-and-out stop from its own 39-yard line, but the Hawkeyes would eventually convert after getting the ball back at the NU 42 on their ensuing possession. A 29-yard pass to running back Jordan Canzeri helped set up a one-yard touchdown run by running back Mark Weisman that increased Iowa's lead to 14-0 with 5:15 remaining in the half.
"Those mistakes plague any football team," Pelini said. "When you turn the football over, you're going to have some difficulties."
Nebraska was finally able to get on the board after an 11-play drive that was capped off with a 33-yard field goal by senior Pat Smith with 31 seconds remaining, but it wasn't nearly enough to keep the Huskers from going into the locker room with a sour taste in their mouths down 14-3 at halftime. Nebraska's offense managed just 117 yards of offense, gave up two sacks and turned the ball over twice in a brutal half of football. Fortunately for NU its defense was able to keep the game within reach by holding the Hawkeyes to 14 points only 140 total yards despite Iowa starting five of its seven drives in the half inside Husker territory.
As badly as the game started for Nebraska, though, the second half couldn't have opened much better. Finally able to get the running game going, the Huskers marched 75 yards on 11 plays on their first drive of the third quarter and punched in their first touchdown of the day on a five-yard run by junior running back Ameer Abdullah to make it 14-10. Abdullah rushed six times for 30 yards on the drive after picking up just 16 yards on 10 carries on the ground in the first half.
Iowa quickly responded with a 31-yard field goal on its ensuing possession, which was aided by a questionable pass interference call on linebacker Zaire Anderson and then an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Pelini for whipping his hat at an official on the sideline, resulting in 27 penalty yards. Still, NU's defense was at least able to hold Iowa to three points, keeping it a one-touchdown game.
That didn't last much longer, though, as Nebraska made one its strangest decisions in some time by electing to run a fake punt run with punter Sam Foltz on a fourth-and-7 deep in its own territory. Iowa had even called a timeout and put its first-team defense on the field before the play, and Foltz was stuck for an eight-yard loss to give Iowa the ball at the NU 24. The very next play, Rudock found receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley in the end zone for a touchdown pass to make it 24-10.
"We thought it was there," Pelini said of the fake punt. "We missed a block. We liked the look they were in and we whipped on a block, the most important block. We took a chance and it didn't work out. It's my fault."
Just like they've done all season, though, the Huskers wouldn't go down without a fight. Facing a crucial fourth-and-2 deep Iowa territory, Kellogg rolled out to his right and found senior receiver Quincy Enunwa open in the flat. Enunwa made the catch, turned up the sideline and dove full extension over the goal line for a 15-yard touchdown pass to keep the game in reach at 24-17 with 11:25 left to play. It also turned out that Rudock had been knocked out of the game with a knee injury on Iowa's previous possession, leaving redshirt freshman backup C.J. Beathard in for the bulk of the fourth quarter.
The Hawkeyes quickly went three-and-out on Beathard's first drive, and NU took over at its own 40 with 10 minutes still on the clock. Just when it seemed that the momentum had finally swung in Nebraska's favor, though, the turnover bug bit the Huskers one last time. On the first play of the drive, Abdullah was hit hard by a group of Iowa defenders and coughed up the football. The Hawkeyes recovered at NU 39, and sophomore running back Jordan Canzeri rushed 37 yards around the left end down the 2 on the very next play.
Weisman would bulldoze his way in from there to put Iowa back up 31-17. Even though there were still nine minutes remaining, that series of events was essentially all the Hawkeyes needed to put the nail in the coffin. Iowa added one last touchdown for good measure on a four-yard run by Beathard to give the game its final score.
Looking ahead to Nebraska's potential bowl game possibilities, all signs point to the Huskers heading to Tempe, Ariz., for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, which will be held on Saturday, Dec. 28, at 9:15 p.m. CT. The game would mark NU's first trip to Tempe since 1999 when they defeated Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl.
"It's been incredible what we've gone through," Pelini said. "I told those kids in there who were hurting, 'You don't have to apologize to anybody. You've got to walk out there with your head held high.'"