Leistikow's thoughts: Another Iowa kick to Nebraska's teeth, and a Keith Duncan kiss
LINCOLN, Neb. — Iowa's Keith Duncan sent the winning kick toward the uprights, then blew a kiss toward the Nebraska sideline.
It "may or may not have" been directed at Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost, who tried to ice Duncan twice with timeouts with 6 seconds left in the battle for the Heroes Trophy.
“Just having some fun," Duncan said after likely locking up the honor as college football's top placekicker by burying a 48-yard field goal with one second left to suck the life out of Memorial Stadium and send the 20th-ranked Hawkeyes to a 27-24 victory at Nebraska. "Nebraska fans came for some entertainment, and that’s what football is. It’s entertainment. Just having some fun with it.”
Duncan had many reasons to be in a happy mood.
Arguably the Hawkeyes' team MVP this season had just moments before greeting the media been awarded a long-awaited scholarship in the locker room by head coach Kirk Ferentz, along with fellow (previous) walk-ons Kyler Schott and Jack Koerner.
“A culmination of all these four years of hard work," said Duncan, whose family in North Carolina has spent well over $100,000 to send their son to Iowa to get an education and kick footballs.
And boy, the Hawkeyes are glad they did.
Duncan methodically approached his winning kick, after back-to-back 22-yard completions by Nate Stanley, with the same mindset as always.
Don't fear it; crave it.
“Every field goal, I’m hungry for. Especially a situation like that, tough conditions, 48-yarder," Duncan said. "That’s what you live for. That’s why you want to become a kicker. You’ve got to be hungry for the kick. Don’t be scared. Go and get it.”
The conditions were tricky. That's nothing new for Duncan, who made four field goals on a wet field to deliver Iowa an 18-17 win at Iowa State in September. After Frost's second timeout to try to rattle Iowa's kicker Friday, there was no panic or second thought, even though Duncan's try (that didn't count) split the uprights.
Duncan walked into a solitary part of the Memorial Stadium turf, saying that was "my time to be in my zone and just relax."
Give credit to snapper Jackson Subbert and holder Colten Rastetter, too. In the second quarter, they were perfect as Duncan tied his career-best with a 49-yard field goal. And don't forget, this was the second straight year that their operation has delivered a winning kick against Nebraska.
A year ago on Black Friday, it was Miguel Recinos' 41-yarder as time expired — same direction, different stadium, and right after a completion from Stanley to a tight end (T.J. Hockenson then, Sam LaPorta now) — that deflated the Huskers.
On the winning kick, Duncan and Rastetter were celebrating before the ball even sailed through the uprights.
"Once I saw it come off his foot, I knew it was good," Rastetter said. "Being around kickers like that, you know when they hit it well.”
The pair forgot to do their usual rock-paper-scissors competition after the winner. Rastetter said he's leading 14-8 this season (with many ties).
But the count for Duncan made field goals is now a remarkable 29 on 34 attempts. That includes 14 from 40-plus yards. The 29 crushes the previous Big Ten Conference record of 25 and is two shy of the national-record 31 for a season. (Yes, bowl games count.)
Up next for Duncan: the Groza. He certainly made his case with dramatic fashion Friday.
While Duncan was the obvious hero, Ihmir Smith-Marsette was the offensive MVP.
Speed was Iowa's friend in building a 24-10 lead, and Smith-Marsette was at the forefront.
He set the early tone with a 45-yard touchdown run on a reverse. After taking a pitch from Tyler Goodson, Stanley proved to be his lead blocker ... but the quarterback had nobody to block.
The play was that wide-open. Yet Smith-Marsette still had to hustle his way into the end zone with a dive.
"I thought somebody was coming," Smith-Marsette said. "I looked past him and there was only one person, so I knew I had to get past him."
He answered with a 95-yard touchdown on a kickoff return, after Nebraska had scored on defense to cut it to 17-10. That was Smith-Marsette's first career kick-return TD, but not his first big one at Memorial Stadium. He uncorked a 74-yarder as a true freshman here to open the second half in a 14-all game, a contest the Hawkeyes won by a score of 56-14.
Frost said it was a mistake that the Cornhuskers kicked it deep. I'll say.
"We went into the game not wanting to kick to them," Frost said. "... We were going to pooch the first couple. I just got done calling the series and didn't make it over to the kickoff team."
So, Smith-Marsette delivered on the run, on special teams and through the air. His 22-yard grab began Iowa's quick-strike, game-winning drive.
A.J. Epenesa, have a day.
The stats are almost hard to believe, especially for a defensive end: 14 tackles, which included five tackles for loss. He also had both Iowa sacks, the second of which helped the offense get decent field position (for once) in the fourth quarter.
It was the most dominant performance by a Hawkeye defender this season.
"What a phenomenal effort by him," Ferentz said. "The whole defense played well, but he certainly was a catalyst out there.”
A third-quarter play that swung momentum to Nebraska was at least partially on the officials.
An obvious facemask penalty was missed as Nebraska defenders took Iowa’s Tyler Goodson to the turf after the freshman gained five yards on second-and-7. In the aftermath of the missed call, Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct — creating a third-and-16 instead of third-and-2 in a 24-17 game.
To make matters worse, Goodson (13 carries, 116 yards for Iowa’s second 100-yard rushing game of the season) was injured on the play and did not return after an electric start. Ferentz, by the way, said Goodson was fine.
The Hawkeyes would punt, and a tired defense trotted back onto the field and couldn’t stop Nebraska, which marked to tie it at 24-all.
Whether Smith-Marsette deserved the flag certainly is impossible to say from a press box, but if the face mask was initially called, it’s unlikely there would have been so much post-play chirping.
Sometimes it’s lazy to blame officials, but in this case it was a missed call (arguably one of many) that had a significant domino effect against the Hawkeyes. One that was worth writing about.
Citrus Bowl representatives were here to witness Iowa’s ninth win.
A return to Orlando for the first time in 15 years remains on the table, but a lot of dominoes would need to happen between now and Dec. 8, when bowl selections are made.
On his usual pregame radio interview, Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said “the most likely (destination) is the Holiday Bowl,” and he’s right. He deemed the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, California, an “outside chance” with the Citrus being the high-end option. Given we can only go on speculation and clues for another week-plus, that sounds like an AD who feels good about going to San Diego.
Barta noted that Holiday Bowl reps last week at Kinnick Stadium “were salivating to get the Hawkeyes to come out West.”
On a day Stanley topped 8,000 career yards, he made one of his most regrettable mistakes.
On the Hawkeyes’ first play from scrimmage, Stanley zipped a 12-yard pass to Tyrone Tracy Jr. — a gain that pushed him to 8,002 yards for his Iowa career.
Unfortunately for Iowa, that would prove to be the pass game’s best play of the first half. The worst was Stanley’s decision to throw a flat pass to double-covered Smith-Marsette. The throw was deflected by one Nebraska defender, then intercepted by Cam Taylor-Britt for a 38-yard touchdown.
That marked the first pick-six in Stanley’s 38 career starts, and the first Iowa had allowed since the 2017 Outback Bowl. It cut the Hawkeyes’ lead to 17-10, but Smith-Marsette’s blazing 95-yard kickoff return ultimately erased the miscue.
For the day, Stanley was a forgettable 11-for-24 for 99 yards. But his two strikes over the middle in the final minute, then Duncan's kick, were unforgettable.
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.