Leistikow: Iowa's motivation against Nebraska is easy to find
IOWA CITY, Ia — Kirk Ferentz’s head-coaching career at Iowa began with a 1999 game against fifth-ranked Nebraska. Only a blocked punt in the final minutes saved the helpless Hawkeyes from being shut out that September Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in a 42-7 thrashing.
Twenty years later, Ferentz has stood the test of time and and now stands mightily atop the Nebraska rivalry.
Ferentz’s Hawkeyes have won four straight in the battle for the Heroes Trophy, finishing each of those regular seasons with a satisfying win.
There was the 28-20 win in 2015 that saw Iowa intercept Tommy Armstrong four times and triumphantly seal a 12-0 regular season.
There was the surprise beat-down in 2016, when Hawkeyes not only outraced the Huskers 40-10, but jumped them for an Outback Bowl bid a week later.
There was the 56-14 rout in Lincoln in 2017, which served as the end of the Mike Riley era and also a glaring reminder that Omaha native Noah Fant chose Iowa over the home-state Huskers.
And then there was last year's 31-28 escape, in which Iowa exerted its physical superiority with a season-high 266 rushing yards and a clutch fourth-down pass to T.J. Hockenson.
Those results and the current landscape are a testament to both what Ferentz has built while amassing 160 wins in Iowa City over two-plus decades — and to how far things have fallen in Lincoln. Iowa is No. 17 in the latest College Football Playoff ranking; Nebraska is battling for bowl eligibility.
At 1:30 p.m. Friday (Big Ten Network) at Memorial Stadium, the 8-3 Hawkeyes have a chance to keep their foot on the Cornhuskers’ throats.
“If we win,” Iowa offensive lineman Kyler Schott said simply and truthfully, “we end their season.”
Motivation should be plentiful for the 5-6 Cornhuskers. Athletic director Bill Moos has trumpeted since July about the importance of securing six wins and an extra month of bowl practices — immeasurable on-field time for a once-proud program trying to (re)develop a winning tradition.
“I expect to get their best shot,” Iowa senior middle linebacker Kristian Welch said.
The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, could understandably be emotionally spent.
Their last three Saturdays have included a gut-wrenching two-point loss at Wisconsin that crushed their Big Ten Conference title hopes; a stirring win against top-10 Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium; and a physical, grind-it-out victory on senior day against Illinois.
Yet Iowa’s motivation should be — and, probably deep down, is — just as high as Nebraska’s.
Because there is much at stake for the future balance of the Big Ten West Division.
If Nebraska wins, it’ll be seen as evidence that the program is turning a corner under second-year coach Scott Frost. The Cornhuskers’ 54-7 win against Maryland, followed by taking down border-rival Iowa, followed by four weeks of bowl practices, would be a big deal for Big Red.
If Nebraska loses, it’ll be seen as more evidence that the Huskers aren’t keeping pace with their own division, let alone the likes of Ohio State and Michigan — programs that Moos foolishly said in April 2018 were “running a little bit scared” of what Nebraska was about to build.
Let's spin around the West, shall we?.
Minnesota, at 10-1 under P.J. Fleck, has emphatically announced itself as a major conference player.
Bowl-bound Illinois has made a surprise comeback under Lovie Smith.
Purdue, sabotaged by injuries this season but still stockpiling offensive firepower, isn’t going away under Jeff Brohm.
Wisconsin and Iowa have continued to demonstrate stability and consistency.
Even Northwestern’s down year under Pat Fitzgerald doesn't take away the shine of last season’s West Division title.
There's still uncertainty whether Frost can get it going to the levels that Moos projected.
And it's Iowa's job on Friday to keep those doubts lingering for the next nine months.
By winning, Iowa can assure that the Huskers experience their third straight losing season in a row and fourth in their last five.
Iowa can win for the fourth straight time in Lincoln, something Ferentz would have considered unthinkable in 1999.
Heck, he probably considered it unthinkable after the Black Friday finale in 2014 — when Nebraska rallied to beat Iowa 37-34 in overtime but fired coach Bo Pelini anyway after a 9-3 season. Then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst said, "in the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was" as a program.
But here we are in 2019, trying to measure where Nebraska is as a program.
We're not sure.
On Monday, Nebraska was playing the no-respect card. Linebacker Collin Miller asserted that the Hawkeyes "think they can win this with ease" on Friday and added: "I just think they don't have respect for Nebraska anymore."
Schott on Tuesday chuckled at the lack of factual basis for those remarks. Ferentz was equally puzzled.
"I have no idea where that comes from," the head coach said. "All I know is it took us a fourth-down conversion and a field goal to win last year. It was hard. One thing we try to teach our players is to respect every opponent that we play, and respect what it takes to win."
Added Welch of Nebraska's motivations: "I’m not super worried about their mindset. We just worry about us and how we’re going to play.”
Here's how they've played since the start of the 2015 season: Iowa is 43-19. Nebraska is 28-33.
No player on the Hawkeyes' roster knows what it feels like to lose to the Cornhuskers.
They aren't eager to find out what they've been missing.
Yes, Iowa has plenty.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.