Steven M. Sipple, Parker Gabriel and Chris Basnett recap a busy early week of news ahead of the Black Friday game with Iowa.
Nebraska couldn’t have started Saturday’s loss at Wisconsin much worse.
The Huskers gave up a 91-yard kick return touchdown to a reserve Badger wide receiver who scored on his first touch of the entire season. That put NU behind from the first 13 seconds and served as part of the reason that each of its four touchdowns tied the game rather than potentially taking a lead.
Iowa couldn’t have started its Big Ten West game much worse, either, falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter at home against Illinois.
How did the Hawkeyes get back in the game? Well, dynamic return man Charlie Jones took a kickoff 100 yards to get Iowa back within three points.
To say Kirk Ferentz’s team continued to rely on its defense and special teams might be an understatement.
Iowa did cap off a 50-yard drive with a 2-yard Arland Bruce IV touchdown run to take a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter, but then the rest of its scoring went like this: Four Caleb Shudak field goals and a Jack Campbell 32-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Iowa won a division game by two scores and put 33 points on the board despite scoring one offensive touchdown.
“Playing a complete game and playing a clean game matters,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. “I compliment them all the time, but I compliment them in that they don’t beat themselves. They create turnovers, they play well on special teams. I think they do a good job in all three phases.
“Kirk does a great job. (Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz) do a good job with the offense. You’ve got to beat them. They’re not going to lose the game.”
Nebraska has been scored upon in almost every conceivable way over the course of this bizarre season.
Against Illinois, NU had a safety on a muffed punt return attempt and saw the Illini scoop and score a fumble just before halftime. At Oklahoma, the Sooners ran a blocked extra point back for two points. The next weekend, Jayden Reed ran a backbreaking punt return 62 yards for a game-tying score with 3 minutes, 20 seconds remaining in regulation. Minnesota logged a conventional safety against NU when Adrian Martinez was called for intentional grounding while trying to avoid a sack in his own end zone. On Oct. 30, Purdue outside linebacker Jalen Graham ran an interception back for a touchdown. Then on Saturday, UW’s Bracey ran the kick back for a touchdown.
That’s 34 points over the course of six losses that were decided by a grand total of 37.
The recipe for the Huskers on Friday in their finale isn’t complicated, it just goes against what they’ve done so far this fall.
As the year progressed, goals fell by the wayside. Big Ten West hopes faded, then bowl contention went, too. Now the only motivator left is to stop a six-game losing streak against a rival and send a senior class that’s had more downs than ups out with a victory.
“Beating Iowa in anything is a great feeling for Nebraska fans,” said junior tight end Austin Allen, who is one of several Huskers playing in his final collegiate game on Friday. “We need to get that one done for the fans, this university, this program. It would set us on a good step toward what this program is going to become.
“It would put us on a good trajectory leading into this offseason.”
Of course, it will take more than just playing clean to beat Iowa. The Huskers will have to make plays offensively against a defense that has forced 26 turnovers through 11 games. They’ll have to do so with a freshman quarterback in Logan Smothers making his first career start and an offensive staff that’s without the four full-time coaches fired earlier this month.
Frost on Wednesday was asked if, considering the interim coaches have been through a game now, the week of preparation had been smoother. He laughed a little, considering the notion of smoothness during a short-staffed short week that began with learning his four-year starter needed shoulder surgery.
“Yeah, I don’t know about smoother. All of a sudden we look up and we don’t have our starting quarterback and it’s a short week,” Frost said. “We had a little extra time to get ready for Wisconsin, thought they did a great job. We’re a little under the gun here this week because of those circumstances and they’ve done a good job again this week.”
This is where Nebraska is entering the final game of the season. Owners of a five-game losing streak, without their starting quarterback, likely its starting running back and potentially several regulars on defense. They’re looking to win ugly, anyway, anyhow.
Essentially, they’re looking to pull an Iowa.
“I want to send the seniors out the right way and would love to have some momentum going into the offseason and what we’re doing from here forward,” Frost said. “It’s been such a trying year coming so close against so many good teams and we’ve got another one coming in here.
“I know the guys are going to fight and we’ve got to try to put ourselves in position to win one again and then get it over the hump.”