IOWA CITY, Ia. — As they finished their last play ever on Kinnick Stadium, Iowa senior defensive tackles Faith Ekakitie and Jaleel Johnson clasped each other’s hand and slowly walked back to the sideline a picture of unity, one more time.
“It wasn’t our idea,” Ekakitie said afterward. “But we did it for our coach. We love our coach.”
That would be defensive line coach Reese Morgan, a beloved figure within the Iowa football program. The 17th-year assistant hatched the idea, Ekakitie said, to symbolize their journey together.
Johnson and Ekakitie are fifth-year seniors who played against each other in high school in suburban Chicago.
“Five years here in this program isn’t easy,” Johnson said. “But Faith and I stuck it out and made it here to senior day.
“(Ekakitie) didn’t really want to do it. But I said, 'Might as well.'”
The duo combined for eight tackles in Friday’s 40-10 win against No. 15 Nebraska.
They’ve been at the center of Iowa’s defensive resurgence the past two weeks.
Cornhusker offensive players were bickering with one another throughout the game. Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell credited that to the disruptive play of his defensive line.
The Nebraska in-fighting, Jewell said, was to Iowa an “understanding that you’re probably doing something right. Especially today, our D-line was doing something right.”
And so it was fitting for Ekakitie and Johnson to do what they did.
Ekakitie was glad he did it. (Good idea, Reese Morgan.)
“For me and Jaleel to come in and leave together,” Ekakitie said, “I feel like holding hands probably is the best way to symbolize our friendship and our brotherly love for each other.”
Chew on this stat: Iowa has allowed 616 yards in its last three games combined after giving up 599 in the Nov. 5 loss at Penn State.
Talk about a turnaround. It continued Friday, with Iowa limiting Nebraska to 217 yards after holding Michigan to 201 and Illinois to 198.
“We really honed into what we needed to do as far as the little things,” Johnson said, “whether it was getting to bed early … just little things that add up to being a good team.
“There’s no secret sauce. Just doing what we do best. Doing the little things right.”
There were questions all week about how effective Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong would be, as he dealt with a balky hamstring that had the Huskers this week prepping a wide receiver as an emergency quarterback option.
“We wanted him to play,” Iowa outside linebacker Ben Niemann said. “We wanted their best shot.”
Although Armstrong threw zero interceptions — four fewer than he did last year in a 28-20 loss to Iowa — he was continually badgered by Iowa’s defense and off the mark. The senior completed 13 of 35 passes for only 125 yards and was held to 13 rushing yards on six attempts.
"Tommy probably wasn't 100 percent, nor was (backup Ryker Fyfe), but with the overall picture of what it looked like today," Huskers coach Mike Riley said, "we can't come close to using that as a reason or an excuse. We had our chances, and we certainly could have done better offensively."
Return worth celebrating
Iowa tight end George Kittle scurried like a schoolboy to get his mitts on the Heroes Trophy in Friday’s postgame celebration.
It had to feel pretty good for the fifth-year senior, whose season was derailed Oct. 15 by a lower-leg injury against Purdue.
“Just a little excitement,” he grinned, in the understatement of the day.
Kittle said earlier this week he’d play in a boot if he had to. Coaches let him play, and he responded with two catches, both for touchdowns.
After the second one that gave Iowa a 33-10 lead, he hoisted his arms into the air in a moment of triumph.
“Yeah, scoring a touchdown is pretty fun,” Kittle said. “I’m an emotional guy … I’m going to let my emotions run.”
“It was just a great time, the whole thing. The offensive line played their (butts) off. We just did a lot of really good things.”
Fourteen Hawkeye seniors were honored in a pregame ceremony Friday.
The biggest roar from the 69,000-plus at Kinnick Stadium was saved for Desmond King.
The Jim Thorpe Award-winning defensive back didn’t have to return to Iowa for his senior season, but he did anyway. He’ll get a degree next month, the first in his family to do so.
His mom, Yvette Powell, greeted him with an embrace at midfield.
“It was everything I dreamed it would be,” said King, a Detroit native. “Just running out there and seeing my mom. I knew she would be out there crying. Just seeing here was tears of joy, tears of happiness. I know she’s very proud of what I’ve accomplished over the years here.”
In his final game at Kinnick, King unleashed a 44-yard punt return and was his usual dominating self at cornerback.
But what impressed coach Kirk Ferentz most was a block King delivered on a Riley McCarron punt return.
“I think it represents the unselfishness this team has, the care that they have for each other,” Ferentz said. “Here’s a guy that won an award a year ago, and he's out there laying it out there for his teammates when the game was already out of hand.”
The injury front
Ferentz wasn’t asked any questions about injuries afterward — those got kind of lost in the shuffle of a 30-point win over a rival in the regular-season finale — but two starters of significance were knocked out in the first quarter.
On Iowa’s first scrimmage play, junior fullback Drake Kulick had his left leg broken in a pileup. Redshirt freshman Brady Ross played fullback exclusively the rest of the way.
Cornerback Manny Rugamba also suffered an injury to his right arm in the first quarter and did not return. The true freshman was replaced by redshirt sophomore Joshua Jackson, who played fairly well but was the man beaten for Nebraska’s lone touchdown — a 13-yard catch by Stanley Morgan Jr. in the third quarter.
That was the first touchdown Iowa's defense had allowed in more than nine quarters (136 minutes, 9 seconds).
In a few weeks, Jackson had suddenly been launched to No. 2 cornerback from No. 4, with starter Greg Mabin suffering a lower-leg fracture 2½ weeks ago. Jackson, at least, didn’t enter green. He has been used as an extra defensive back on passing downs this year.
“It was a good experience; it was fun,” Jackson said. “I learned a lot more than I did last year; played a lot more.”
Ferentz locks in $5 million year
With Friday’s victory, Ferentz guaranteed himself an extra $500,000 in 2016 pay. That’s because under the terms of a contract extension he signed Sept. 5, the 18th-year head coach gets a $500,000 bonus for each season in which the Hawkeyes garner at least eight wins.
Ferentz’s base pay for this season was $4.5 million, so this makes him a $5 million man for the second consecutive year.
Ferentz’s base pay will escalate by $100,000 each year after this, rising to $5.4 million for the 2025 season, the last on his current deal.
There are other bonuses Ferentz will be in line for this season, including an additional $100,000 for reaching a bowl game. He would get another $125,000 if Iowa cracks the season-ending Top 25.