LINCOLN, Neb. — So this is what perfection looks like.
“Twelve-and-freaking-oh!” Iowa tight end George Kittle screamed to the world as he danced and pranced off the field Friday at Memorial Stadium.
So much for that Sports Illustrated cover jinx.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kittle said, a big grin on his face, as black and gold-clad Iowa fans wedged into the stadium's southwest corner chanted “12-0."
History was made on a bone-chilling Friday in a sea of red. No. 3 Iowa’s 28-20 victory over Nebraska completed a perfect regular season. A school-record 12th victory.
“Unbelievable, just phenomenal,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said as the team ran after the Heroes Game Trophy.
That’s five trophies on the season, a year after the Hawkeyes lost every trophy game they played. That drought included a 37-34 overtime loss to the Cornhuskers that has stuck in the craw of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz for months.
Ferentz had something else stuck in his craw Friday. Words.
He found it hard to tell his team how proud he was of them for what they had just accomplished.
“I told the team I’m not sure what to say, because I’ve never been around a team that was 12-0,” Ferentz said.
The Iowa coach discusses 28-20 win. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
Last season's loss to Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium was a disappointing end to underachieving 2014 regular season. A season that compelled Barta to come to the defense of his coach and tell the world Ferentz was the right man to lead the program.
There were plenty of skeptics.
"We’ll celebrate this," Barta said. "But there’s still more to go.”
Next is the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 5 in Indianapolis. It is a game that could propel a team that started the season with no expectations into an appearance in the College Football Playoff.
I never thought I’d write that sentence this season. I didn’t see 12-0 coming. But I had plenty of company. And I never thought I’d see offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Brian Ferentz leave a football field with tears in his eyes. Tears of sheer joy.
But he did, waving to frenzied Iowa fans and shaking and high-fiving as many hands as he could reach on the way to the Hawkeyes’ locker room. Brian Ferentz wasn’t alone. Emotions were running high across the board.
“I was a little emotional coming off the field, because I’ve never been on a team like this,” senior center Austin Blythe said. “Everyone plays for each other. It was a total team effort. That’s why we’re 12-0 now.”
Kirk Ferentz was also emotional in the locker room, where the “Iowa Fight Song” boomed through the doors.
“Just being able to do that for him is really fun," Blythe said. "Knowing how he coaches and what he stands for. It’s not about winning, to him. He wants us to be better men when we’re done.”
Kirk Ferentz has shown an emotional side more than a few times in his 17 seasons as coach. Friday was a special moment for a man who will likely be named Big Ten coach of the year for the fourth time next week.
"To look at our players, and what they’ve accomplished, that’s a pretty good feeling," Kirk Ferentz said.
This three-month chase to perfection wasn’t always pretty. Three of the last five games came down to covering an onside kick, including Friday. When Iowa's Henry Krieger Coble recovered, the accomplishment of an undefeated regular season started to sink in.
“Happiness, really,” Blythe said of his immediate reaction. “And a sense of accomplishment.”
The statistics looked pedestrian sometimes this season, and rarely dominating. Nebraska had 22 first downs, to 11 for Iowa. The Hawkeyes gave up more than 400 yards for a fourth straight game, and were 0-for-9 in third-down conversions.
And they left the field with a zero in the loss column, too.
“We’re not trying to be pretty,” Kirk Ferentz said. “We’re just trying to be productive.”
Style points don’t matter. Twelve teams tried to beat Iowa. Not one was successful.
So it’s on to Indianapolis. No. 13 awaits.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.