Iowa has been skirmishing with Nebraska since 1891—mostly on the gridiron.
For the time being, we will forget about the Iowa-Nebraska legal border battles over land left in dispute by the meandering Missouri River. That is another whole story.
Since the two schools began competing, Nebraska has built a double-digit lead over Iowa (26-12-3). It is especially galling to the Iowa faithful that the Hawkeyes have defeated the Cornhuskers only once since 1946.
Fans feel their Iowa football team has played the role of punching bag way too often in this rivalry.
At least there were long periods of time when the Hawkeyes did not have to play their Missouri River border rivals. But that will all change very soon as Nebraska joins Iowa in the Big Ten Conference as a member of the “Legends” Division—more on those unfortunate division monikers later.
The first 10 games played between Iowa and Nebraska were held in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area, with Iowa winning four outright and tying the Huskers twice.
Iowa and Nebraska, along with Kansas and Missouri, were members of the Western Interstate University Football Association from 1892-1897. Iowa’s conference associations varied until it joined the Big Ten Conference in 1899.
Since Iowa lost to Nebraska in its first home contest held in Iowa City in 1903, the wins against the Cornhuskers have been pitifully few. Playing intermittently, the Hawkeyes scored victories in 1918, 1919, 1930, 1942, 1943 and 1946 as non-conference opponents.
When Hayden Fry took the reins of perhaps the sorriest football program in the Big Ten in 1979, the man from Texas had his work cut out for him. Iowa had suffered through 17 consecutive non-winning seasons.
How do you turn that around and make Iowa football a winner again, as it was back in the Forest Evashevski days?
Fry took notice of the fan support because it was still strong despite the lack of wins. That was an important ingredient in rebuilding.
Iowa’s new head coach worked on attitude, changing colors, logos and most importantly demanding that his team never settle for anything other than a win.
But most of all, Fry assembled an outstanding innovative coaching staff, and they threw themselves into recruiting and building a defense that would soon be nothing short of imposing.
The transformation, however, took time. Finally, in 1981, the tide began to turn as Iowa rode the wave to a winning season and a Rose Bowl berth. Ironically, it all started with the first game of the season against Nebraska.
Once Fry settled in, trying to usher in a new era for the long-slumping Hawkeyes, the lopsided rivalry against Nebraska resumed. For some unknown reason, somebody thought it would be a good idea to have Iowa face the powerhouse Cornhuskers coached by legendary Tom Osborne.
When they met in 1979, the Hawkeyes fought hard but suffered another loss, 24-21, facing the Cornhuskers in Iowa City. But the next year in Lincoln, Iowa endured a humiliating thumping 57-0.
Shut out in the grueling afternoon heat, Nebraska fans poured it on, urging Tom Osborne to “send in the water boys!” That humiliation stung deep.
Fry still needed to turn this program around. He finally did it in 1981 when, Lo and Behold, to quote Bob Dylan, the Hawkeyes upset the No. 7-ranked Huskers 10-7 in Iowa City.
The Hawkeye players were still steaming over their 57-0 thrashing of a year ago as they welcomed the highly-ranked Huskers into Kinnick that year, where the stands were packed. It was an awesome sight to see the Hawkeyes swarm onto the field that afternoon.
Nebraska’s ranks were filled with players like I-back Roger Craig and wing back Irving Fryar, as well as soon-to-be starting quarterback Turner Gill.
The talent-packed Husker team also included All-American center Dave Rimington, who let the Hawkeyes know exactly what they could expect that afternoon. There was much “trash” talking going on during the game, according to reports, but the Hawkeyes did not back down and gave as much as they got.
No one was more impressive on the Iowa side of the ball than Hawkeye Andre Tippett, Iowa’s own All-American defensive end who went on to enjoy a stellar pro career with the Patriots.
But Tippett did not have to stand alone. The whole defensive corps stood tall, and they made life miserable for the Huskers that afternoon—guys like end Bryan Skradis and nose guard Pat Dean.
No one, moreover, could overlook Iowa tackle Mark Bortz, who was recruited by the Bears, compiling an impressive pro career.
For a Hawkeye fan, it made life worth living again, as the Hawkeyes employed a brand new 4-3 defense as a special surprise for the Huskers.
This defensive scheme allowed Iowa to shut down the Huskers until the fourth quarter.
After a short punt gave the Hawkeyes excellent field position, Iowa scored first as Eddie Phillips ran the ball across the goal line for an Iowa touchdown. Fans watched, stirring restlessly as Lon Olejniczak booted through the extra point. But Nebraska could not retaliate.
The leg of punter Reggie Roby, who averaged over 50 yards per punt, kept Nebraska buried deep in its territory until late in the second quarter.
In the second quarter the only score came off the toe of the nimble Hawkeye Olejniczak. Again, silence from the Nebraska side of the ball. Turnovers were proving to be very costly for the Cornhuskers as their coaching staff paced and fumed on the sidelines.
No one scored in the third quarter, as time and again Iowa shut down Nebraska drives. It was the first time since 1973 that Nebraska had been shut out for three straight quarters.
Finally, in the fourth quarter, Roger Craig ran the ball in from one yard out to put the first score on the board for the Huskers with 11:42 on the clock. Kevin Seibel booted through the point after. Then the Hawkeyes had to hold on for dear life to win the game.
Nebraska gained only 234 yards on offense, its lowest total of the season. In a game where Iowa fans found their hearts in their throats, Iowa stopped this potent Nebraska offense three consecutive times in the fourth quarter.
To add further to their fourth-quarter misery, Nebraska missed a 30-yard field goal, fumbled the ball away and finally sealed their defeat as Hawkeye Lou King dove for the ball and intercepted it with 39 seconds left on the clock.
Iowa fans swarmed the field, and Husker fans were livid with disappointment. Ah, it was a great day to be alive, indeed, if you were a Hawkeye fan.
It was the last time the Hawkeyes won. In 1982 the Hawkeyes lost again, 42-7 in Lincoln, to end the four-year non-conference competition.
It resumed again in 1999 and 2000 to welcome Kirk Ferentz as Iowa’s new head coach. That first year in 1999 the Hawkeyes lost to Nebraska 42-7. Of course, Iowa lost every game that year, except one to Northern Illinois.
The Huskers, on the other hand, won every game that year, except one, losing to Texas.
In 2000, Iowa also fell 42-13 in Lincoln to end the series.
While the Nebraska football program slumped after Tom Osborne retired from coaching, under Bo Pelini, Nebraska is returning to the upper echelons of college football, again fueled by an aggressive and imposing defense.
Ironically, Pelini began coaching as a graduate assistant under Hayden Fry at Iowa.
While Nebraska’s entrance into the Big Ten is a huge positive for the Cornhuskers and the Big Ten Conference, Iowa fans hope the ghost of the Husker past remains a faint blip on the memory radar.
Everyone looks forward to the Iowa-Nebraska rivalry becoming another competitive foundation for the Big Ten as well as a tradition for all of college football.
Iowa fans will try to forget that the Hawkeyes have not won in Lincoln since 1943, however, as they cross the border to travel to Lincoln on November 26, 2011.