Iowa football's thrashing of Nebraska ends a wild and crazy November ride

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — If you’re an Iowa football fan wondering how the Hawkeyes can look so good at times and so poor at others, the players can sympathize.

“I’m not even going to try to explain it,” safety Jake Gervase said after Iowa’s nonsensical November ended with a soul-crushing, coach-firing 56-14 demolition of Nebraska on Friday.

“We win as a team. We lose as a team. We came out and we executed (Friday) and fortunately enough we get one more chance in a bowl game.”

Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse (bottom) and lineman Nathan Bazata team up to crumple Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee for a sack in Iowa's 56-14 win on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

That bowl game, which will be revealed next Sunday, will be the final chapter of a head-scratching 2017 season for Iowa. The Hawkeyes finished the regular season 7-5, but only 4-5 in Big Ten Conference play.

There were historic wins and epic losses. And that was just in November.

Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz was asked to account for Iowa’s 2-2 record this month, which began with a whipping of then-No. 3 Ohio State and ended with the most points the Hawkeyes have ever put up against the rival Cornhuskers. In between was a staggering 66-yard performance in a lopsided loss at Wisconsin and a flat performance  in a home finale setback to up-and-coming Purdue.

Ferentz started by saying he’d rather wait till the end of the year to evaluate all that’s happened. But November was a puzzle all its own, so Ferentz gamely tried to sort things out, his answer as circuitous as his team’s previous four games.

“We certainly got off to a good start (55-24 over the Buckeyes, check). And then the second week, in my mind at least, as it stands currently, played the best team in the league (the Badgers are 11-0) in their stadium in a tough environment, and they were playing about as good as I’ve seen them play, so that was a bad beating (38-14, with no Iowa offensive points, check). Last week we didn’t perform as well as the team we played (Purdue) and they’re a team to me that’s been trending upward, especially on defense, and we weren’t up to that challenge (a 24-15 Boilermakers win that wasn’t as close as that score indicates, check),’’ Ferentz said.

“No one was feeling good last weekend and the guys went back to work and did something about it (the 56-14 Black Friday thrashing of Nebraska, which fired coach Mike Riley on Saturday, check). We’re 2-2 on the month. Not what you want necessarily but the way we trended upward, I’m certainly happy about that.”

So many checks, so little balance.

The biggest positive for the Hawkeyes in their final month was that the running attack, so vital to this team’s fortunes, appeared to resurface. Iowa failed to out-rush a single Big Ten opponent in September and October. No wonder the team lost three of those five games, the only two wins coming in home matchups with the worst team in the league (Illinois) and a Minnesota squad that hasn’t found an identity yet under first-year coach P.J. Fleck.

Iowa broke loose for 244 yards on the ground against the Buckeyes. The Badgers stopped the Hawkeyes in their tracks the next week (25 yards on 26 carries). But Iowa outrushed the Boilermakers 82-65 and then sliced up the Huskers with 313 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. That was not only the best performance of the season, but the fifth-highest rushing total in Ferentz’s 19 seasons as head coach.

So that’s a sliver of hope for a Hawkeye team that has seemed to be living on the margins throughout an up-and-down season. The Blue Angels haven’t experienced as many changes in altitude as this team this fall.

“Ending the regular season on a positive note, taking a trophy back to Iowa City, it’s going to give us some momentum going into bowl prep,” a smiling Gervase said after a well-earned victory.

The goal of that bowl-game preparation is to end a seven-year winless streak in postseason contests. Iowa’s defense, which has been solid most of the year, won’t be the unknown quantity.

It will be the Hawkeye offense. Which one will show up — the one that dismantled Ohio State and Nebraska, or the one that bogged down against Wisconsin and Purdue?

That’s the question for December.

Hawkeye senior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata, a Nebraska native, was just happy to end a topsy-turvy November with the answer he wanted to the challenge he had posed to his team heading into Friday’s game.

“Are we going to get up and compete?” Bazata wondered. “Or are we just going to roll over?”

The Hawkeyes rolled over Nebraska all right. What happens next seems to be anyone’s guess.