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By Jordan Garretson
LINCOLN, Neb. — A victory still seemed attainable at halftime.
Iowa only trailed Nebraska 10-0 after 30 minutes of play in the first-ever Heroes Game. For a Hawkeye squad that completed the biggest comeback in school history earlier this season, a 10-point deficit seemed minimal. One of the most explosive Iowa offenses in recent memory could surely regroup and put up points against the Big Ten’s eighth-best scoring defense.
But on maybe one specific Nebraska drive before halftime — maybe even one play on that drive — the Cornhuskers broke the will of the Hawkeyes and laid the groundwork for an eventual 20-7 victory.
For anyone watching at Memorial Stadium, the rest of Friday’s game certainly played out that way.
Prior to Nebraska’s drive that began with 6:30 left in the second quarter, Iowa (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) limited the Cornhuskers (9-3, 5-3) to three points and 116 yards of offense.
Enter Rex Burkhead.
Nebraska’s junior running back carried the ball nine times for 35 rushing yards on that drive alone. Nothing fancy. No run longer than nine yards. And the most important — a two-yard gain on a fourth-and-one at the Iowa 29-yard line — wasn’t flashy, either.
But it was exactly what the Cornhuskers needed. Nebraska capped the 15-play, 80-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez to Kyler Reed. The ensuing extra point gave Nebraska its 10-0 halftime lead.
The drive chewed up a game-long 5:58 off of the clock. It seemed to go on for so long that Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz misspoke.
“… 80 plays for 80 yards — excuse me, it felt like 80 plays,” Ferentz said.
“I’m not going to say there was a turning point in the game. But if there was, it was right before the half there … That was part of their defensive effort, keeping us off the field.”
It worked pretty well. The Cornhuskers ran 83 plays to Iowa’s 59. They outgained Iowa, 385-207 in total offensive yards, including a 222-88 disparity in rushing yards.
The Hawkeyes’ longest drive of the day lasted 4:44, and only one other drive lasted more than three minutes. Nebraska recorded five drives of three-plus minutes, including three drives of 4:30 or longer.
In all, Iowa saw its worst time-of-possession disparity of the season. The Cornhuskers had the ball for 37:47. Iowa was on offense for only 22:13.
“They had great tempo,” senior cornerback Shaun Prater said. “They were definitely wearing down our defense. Guys were getting tired … Their coaching staff, whatever worked out there, they kept doing it. They kept their foot on the gas and they kept pounding the ball.”
Burkhead was a huge piece in Nebraska’s punishing rushing attack. He finished the game with a Nebraska school-record 38 carries for 160 yards and a touchdown.
It wasn’t a case of the Hawkeye defense not knowing what it was getting into. The Plano, Texas, native entered Friday’s game as the Big Ten’s fourth-leading rusher at 100.7 yards a game.
“Going into this game, we knew he was a hard runner,” junior corner Micah Hyde said. “He was going to get downhill and lower his shoulder … He did a great job. He was getting his yards and they kept giving him the ball.”
Nebraska also came in touting the conference’s eighth-leading rusher in quarterback Taylor Martinez (74.3 yards a game). But Iowa held Martinez to just 20 yards on four carries.
Instead, it was an unlikely factor — Martinez’s arm — that hurt the Hawkeyes more. The sophomore quarterback was ranked eighth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency. He finished 12-of-22 for 163 yards and a touchdown against Iowa.
The successful running game opened up the passing game for Martinez.
“He made a couple of the throws that he had to make,” Prater said. “With those crossing routes, he fit the ball in there. When a team is definitely running the ball, well, it sucks the defense up [to the line of scrimmage] and gives him a chance to hit easy shots behind us.”
For Ferentz, the game’s result came down to a simple, yet timeless football axiom.
“Any time they rush the ball well and you don’t rush the ball well … That’s as old as time,” Ferentz said. “If they run it well and you don’t, odds are then you better get some turnovers, those types of things.
“They took care of business. They played an excellent football game.”