Forget the prelude played out on unfriendly gridirons across the Midwest throughout September, October and November. Iowa versus Nebraska on November 25 is all about salvaging a season.
Moreover, it is about bragging rights for Iowans who have lived for decades in the shadow of Big Red. This is the Hawkeyes’ and Huskers’ date with destiny—a fitting conclusion to the 2011 football season.
Neither football team has exactly set bowl selection committees scurrying to secure acceptance to their respective bowls. No sightings of bowl front men have been spotted sitting in the stands in Lincoln or Iowa City.
But, the winner of this game may just see action on New Year’s day.
The rivalry today is far different from those in the past—from the Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne reigning-in-Lincoln days. Nebraska fans cling to those fading memories like a 10-year-old to his belief in Santa Claus. None are quite willing to give up magic for reality.
For you history buffs, it is interesting to note that Iowa has been skirmishing with Nebraska since 1891—mostly on the gridiron.
Since the two schools began competing, Nebraska built a double-digit lead in wins over Iowa (26-12-3). It is especially galling to the Iowa faithful that the Hawkeyes have defeated the Cornhuskers only once since 1946—making their Iowa football team the 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.
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 to 1897. Iowa’s conference association 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.
Once Fry settled in, however, trying to usher in a new era for the long-slumping Hawkeyes, the lopsided rivalry against Nebraska resumed. For some unknown reason, the powers that be thought it would be a good idea to have Iowa face the powerhouse Cornhuskers coached by legendary Tom Osborne.
When the two teams met again 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.
How do you turn that around and make Iowa football a winner again? Fry first 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.
Fry and the Hawkeyes finally arrived in 1981 when still the underdog Hawkeyes upset the No. 7-ranked Huskers 10-7 in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes were still steaming over their 57-0 thrashing of 1980 as they welcomed the highly-ranked Huskers into Kinnick that year with the stands packed. It was an awesome sight to see the Hawkeyes swarm onto the field that afternoon.
In 1981 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.
No one was more impressive on the Iowa side of the ball than Andre Tippett, Iowa’s 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, where the former Hawkeye went on to build an impressive pro career.
For a Hawkeye fan, it made life worth living again, as the Hawkeyes masterminded a brand new 4-3 defense as a special surprise for the Huskers.
Their 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 anxiously, 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 Lon 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 often forgot to breathe, Iowa stopped this potent Nebraska offense three consecutive times in the fourth quarter.
To enhance 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 if you were a Hawkeye fan.
As one who was there I have to admit, it was one sweet victory.
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 gridiron 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 in football since 1943. This year the Hawkeyes will be 10.5 underdogs as they journey to Memorial Stadium. While the Cornhuskers have a superlative defense, Iowa has the edge in offense. But all the paper stats go out the window when these two teams take the field.
It is a new era in Big Ten football.
Over the river and through the fields, Hawkeye fans will go hoping to win one over Big Red on the day after Thanksgiving.
(History portion is from an earlier article).