Leistikow's Final Thoughts: 'Bigger, stronger' Hawkeyes survive chippy battle with Huskers

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nebraska is tired of getting pushed around by the Iowa football team.

That was made clear in a pregame skirmish among some players, in-game smack talk and eye-opening postgame comments from Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost.

Emotions ran high in Friday's 31-28 Iowa win against Nebraska. Both teams embraced the rivalry afterward. Here, Nebraska's Devine Ozigbo (10 carries, 50 yards) is tackled by the Hawkeye defense.

Let’s go backwards, because the final score is the bigger story: Iowa 31, Nebraska 28 on Miguel Recinos’ 41-yard field goal through the driving rain as time expired.

One of the reasons the Hawkeyes got there was because of a physical running game that churned out a season-high 266 rushing yards. Afterward, Frost — who finished 4-8 in his first year as Nebraska’s coach — delivered some cold, hard facts as he saw them.

More: Recinos delivers Hawkeye win over Nebraska with clutch field goal

“What disturbs me is right now is that Iowa is a bigger, stronger football team. That’s right now,” Frost said. “I never thought I would see or hear that or say that about a Nebraska football team.

“Give their guys credit, they’ve had three, four years in Iowa’s strength and conditioning program. We’ve had one year. They leaned on us quite a bit, especially in the first half.

“I’m looking forward to the day we get that fixed.”

That’s a compliment to 20 years of Chris Doyle heading up Iowa’s strength and conditioning department.

But it's clear Frost and Nebraska are determined to bring the fight to Iowa and the rest of the Big Ten Conference. This was hardly the 40-10 and 56-14 Iowa routs of the two previous Black Friday matchups.

About the stuff between the players ...

From the Iowa point of view, some Cornhuskers encroached on their side of the field in pregame warmups, blocking Hawkeye players as they tried to loosen up. It wasn’t a big deal, and it cooled quickly. But it certainly was unusual and noticed.

“That’s not our culture. We’re not going to talk a bunch of crap before the game, to the media,” Iowa senior safety Jake Gervase said. “We’re not going to mess around during pregame warmups trying to get us riled up, trying to get us to do something stupid.”

Added junior defensive back Amani Hooker: “We didn’t let it get to us at all. Obviously, they were trying to get in our head.”

During the game, Iowa tight end Noah Fant (an Omaha native) and Nebraska safety Aaron Williams (a senior) were called for matching unsportsmanlike conduct penalties after a second-quarter hubbub.

“I highly disagree with the flag that was thrown on me,” Fant said afterward. “I was holding him off. He was trying to throw punches at me. Those guys thought that was their best tactic."

► More: Seniors Render, Reynolds help Hawkeye rushing attack pound Cornhuskers

These were two teams that fought for 60 minutes to the finish. It felt like a rivalry game, and that's an overall good thing.

Iowa gave away nine points on special teams. Ultimately, it didn't turn a win into a defeat. But those early Christmas gifts to Nebraska didn't help.

At the end of the first half, Barret Pickering’s 51-yard field goal into the wind fell short — and it looked like Iowa would take a 21-10 halftime lead. But Riley Moss was ruled offside, and Pickering’s 46-yard retry was good. Make it 21-13.

A three-point swing.

Late in the third quarter with the Hawkeyes ahead 28-13, Iowa tried a fake field goal instead of taking a Recinos 21-yard chip shot. And for once, a fake didn’t work — with Colten Rastetter’s flip to T.J. Hockenson coming up less than a yard shy of the first down.

A three-point swing.

Then Recinos, with a chance to put Iowa up 11 midway through the fourth quarter, pushed his 37-yard attempt wide right.

A three-point swing.

Nebraska turned both missed field-goal opportunities into long touchdown drives, to boot.

The missed fake was the one that drew the most scrutiny. Frost was stunned that Iowa didn't decide to take an 18-point lead 

"Maybe we got greedy, but we were playing to win," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "... They did a good job of defending it. Credit goes to them on that one."

►More: With the win over Nebraska, here is Iowa football's bowl game landscape

The usual suspects delivered Friday. The pass-rush dominance being exhibited by A.J. Epenesa and Anthony Nelson is starting to get statistically significant.

Their three combined sacks Saturday — Epenesa had one, Nelson two — give them  9½ apiece for the season. That marks the most by any Hawkeye since Adrian Clayborn (who also wore No. 94) racked up 11½ in 2009. And with a bowl game ahead, that number is within reach.

Maybe more notably, Iowa’s 34 sacks this season are now the most by an Iowa defense in 15 years. The Hawkeyes jumped past the 2009 unit (which had 31) to tie the 2003 team’s 34 sacks. The most sacks by any team in the Kirk Ferentz era was 40 in 2002.

Conversely, Iowa quarterbacks have been sacked only 13 times this season.

Adrian Martinez is going to be (and frankly, already is) a good one.

That’s not exactly a new take in Week 12, but seeing the true freshman Nebraska quarterback in person underscores the level of talent he has. Martinez made Iowa’s defense look silly at times as he evaded oncoming tacklers.

He also showed his zippy arm on a 28-yard touchdown pass to running back Maurice Washington that cut it to 28-20 early in the fourth quarter. His scrambling ability was especially potent on the drive that tied the score at 28-all late in the fourth quarter.

Martinez is going to get even better with Frost, an offensive-minded coach, that should have the Big Ten West on notice. He accounted for 336 of Nebraska's 400 yards of total offense.

How about a little credit for Iowa's wide receivers?

The most amazing catch of the game was Brandon Smith's 21-yarder up the right sideline, in which he seemed to steal a jump ball from Nebraska's Lamar Jackson in the third quarter. Smith earlier caught a 15-yard beauty from Nate Stanley for the game's first points.

But maybe the most important catch, aside from Hockenson's 10-yarder to set up Recinos' winning kick, was a 6-yard snag by Nick Easley on fourth-and-3 late in the first half. With Iowa leading 14-10, the conversion ultimately led to a Mekhi Sargent touchdown 45 seconds before halftime. Easley ran a crisp route, made a solid catch, and made sure to get the first down.

Iowa's tight ends get a lot of love, but this receivers group has really improved over the course of the season. Easley's up to 44 catches for the season, and Smith has 25.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.