Nebraska defeated Iowa 13-7 in a cold and blustery Kinnick Stadium on Friday. The game, ugly enough to set the sport of organized football back a decade or so, did feature the triumphant return of Rex Burkhead as the catalyst for Nebraska’s offense.
With the win, Nebraska clinched the Legends Division championship and a ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game next week. With the loss, Iowa finished 4-8 and will have a long, cold winter to consider the changes needed in Iowa City to right the ship.
So let’s take a closer look at the second annual Heroes Game, and see who the winners and losers turned out to be.
Oh, yeah, that Burkhead guy is pretty good, isn’t he?
At halftime, Nebraska was trailing 7-3 and the Children of the Corn were wondering if NU had waited until the final game of the regular season to lose its annual game against an unranked opponent. The gusting wind and cold temperatures had all but grounded Nebraska’s passing attack, and Ameer Abdullah was struggling to establish a running threat.
On came Rex Burkhead in the second half, reminding Nebraska fans of what they have been missing all season. He provided a spark, scoring the Cornhuskers' only touchdown, getting a crucial first down when Iowa had backed Nebraska to its 1-yard line and providing morale-boosting runs that seemed to move the entire Iowa defense backward.
Welcome, back, Superman. You’ve been missed.
Hey, remember when Nebraska was 4-2 after an an ugly 63-38 loss to Ohio State? A number of analysts (including this dope) started asking whether Bo Pelini’s job was in jeopardy. When Pelini said Nebraska would have to win out to make the Big Ten title game, most observers thought he was a little crazy.
Well, guess what. Pelini and his team won out (as predicted by one particularly smart and handsome analyst), and Pelini has gone from the hot seat to on the fringes of discussion for Big Ten Coach of the Year. With a good showing in Indianapolis, Pelini will silence the “hot seat” discussions for some time to come.
No disrespect to the Michigan fanbase, which is loyal and loud. But Nebraska fans are starving to put another number after “1999” on the West Stadium sign for conference championships. And with Nebraska’s opponent being a 7-5 Wisconsin team that the Cornhuskers already have knocked off, the Children of the Corn can smell blood in the water.
Sure, Wisconsin will be a tough opponent and victory is far from certain. But Nebraska is closer to a conference title than it has been since 1999. Nebraska fans know this and will fill the hotels, restaurants and bars of Indianapolis accordingly.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again—whither Santino Panico?
Once again, Nebraska gives the underdogs it is facing life with a muffed punt. Forget about the surrendered yardage that comes with not having a competent punt-return game. Ameer Abdullah’s muff of a 32-yard Iowa punt advanced the ball further than Iowa’s longest play from scrimmage, a 25-yard pass from James Vandenberg to C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Of all the things Nebraska fans worried about going into 2012, special teams were low on the list. But Nebraska’s ability to cleanly field a punt, much less advance the ball, now looms as a huge challenge for NU against Wisconsin and in a bowl game. That puts even more pressure on Ross Els, Nebraska's special-teams coordinator.
Yes Kirk Ferentz will be getting some heat for his team’s 19-19 record since 2009. But it is offensive coordinator Greg Davis who will be coming under the most scrutiny during the autopsy of the 2012 season.
Davis’s departure as Texas offensive coordinator in 2010 was greeted with much joy by many Longhorn fans. His arrival in Iowa City, however, was greeted with excitement, as a coach who had won a national championship as an offensive coordinator was going to be running Iowa’s offense.
Sadly for the Hawkeyes, Davis didn’t bring Vince Young with him.
Quickly, however, Iowa fans discovered that under Davis’s tutelage, the Hawkeye offense was regressing. James Vandenberg went from the conference’s best pocket passer to a decidedly average quarterback. Iowa’s running game all but evaporated.
And Davis’s conservative play-calling—encapsulated by his calling an off-tackle run for Mark Weisman on a critical third-and-four late in the game against Nebraska—led in large part to Iowa’s 4-8 season.
Given his buyout, Ferentz won’t be going anywhere. But don’t be surprised if Davis starts shopping his resume around this offseason.
You could feel it. It was so close, oh, so close, to breaking through and taking on a life of its own. But it didn’t happen, at least not yet.
As Iowa continued to hold a lead over Nebraska in Iowa City, and as the Hawkeyes squandered chance after chance to put real pressure on NU, you could feel the Iowa fans wanting to get behind their team. You could feel the Nebraska fans starting to feel a little nervous, contemplating an entire offseason of listening to the Iowa fan in the office lording a Hawkeye win over them.
But it didn’t happen. Nebraska, as it has all year, held firm and answered the bell in the fourth quarter. Iowa fans, already battered and bruised by a 4-7 season, began leaving Kinnick Stadium in droves after Alonzo Whaley’s interception.
Even though there were two minutes left in the game and Nebraska was only ahead by six points, the black-and-gold faithful had seen enough. They knew how this movie ended, and it turned out they were correct.
I still think the Nebraska-Iowa rivalry has a chance to be one of the best in the Big Ten. Though good-natured for the most part, it is a natural rivalry with enough actual venom to make the series interesting.
Nebraska has never truly had a rival, but Iowa has the potential to become one. For that to happen, however, Iowa has to hold up its end of the bargain. That didn’t happen in 2012, so the rivalry will remain gestational for now.
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