Leistikow: Keith Duncan, special teams again lift Iowa to rivalry win against Nebraska

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nebraska’s defense came to play Friday afternoon at Kinnick Stadium, confusing and sometimes stifling an Iowa offense that had been rolling in the month of November.

Iowa’s stout defense had its moments against Nebraska’s two quarterbacks, but so did the Cornhuskers’ offense.

Really, this Heroes Trophy battle was hard-hitting and even ... except for one area.

Iowa dominated the special-teams department Friday in every way. And, as a result, the Hawkeyes wound up with more points on the scoreboard, 26-20, in earning their fourth straight win overall and sixth consecutive victory in the Nebraska series.

Kirk Ferentz has always stressed the importance of good special teams in his 22-year tenure at Iowa, but he hasn’t always had them. The 2014 loss here to Nebraska in overtime, in which Iowa blew a 24-7 lead in overtime, is “within the top five of the worst losses” in Ferentz’s career — because the Hawkeyes gave up 134 punt-return yards that day.

“That one is kind of burnt into my memory bank, unfortunately,” Ferentz said after Friday's game. “Probably never shake that one.”

But he hasn’t had to experience a loss to Nebraska since. As Iowa football’s Twitter account posted, it’s been 2,191 days since the Huskers have beaten the Hawkeyes.

Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette signals first down after pulling down a reception in the first quarter against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020.

On Friday, Ferentz could again thank his specialists and their coordinator, LeVar Woods, for extending the streak.

First, the Huskers were so fearful of having Ihmir Smith-Marsette beat them that they blooped all five kickoffs to about the 30-yard line. On only one of 12 drives did Iowa start from inside its own 30.

Second, punt returner Charlie Jones uncorked a 31-yard punt return in the first quarter. That set up one of two Iowa touchdowns for the day and boosted the Hawkeyes to a 10-0 advantage.

Then, there was the combination of Tory Taylor and Terry Roberts in Iowa's punt game. Taylor punted just twice. His first pinned Nebraska at its own 2-yard line. His second was a game-changer, which floated with unusual spin (according to cover man Roberts). Nebraska returner Cam Taylor-Britt mishandled it, and Roberts recovered at Nebraska’s 38 with 10:15 remaining in a 23-20 game.

Iowa receiver Brandon Smith catches the ball as he is hit by Nebraska cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt in the third quarter at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020.

“Shout out to them, they gave us a good fight,” Roberts said. “But Coach Woods told us all week, at some point, they’ll put one on the ground. And … they put one on the ground for us.”

Lastly and fittingly, give credit again to Keith Duncan. No Hawkeye is better at stirring the pot than the reigning consensus all-American.

Last year, Duncan delivered a kiss after his field goal kicked Iowa to a 27-24 victory Lincoln.

This year, he delivered four field goals… and some more postgame shade.

Duncan reported that Nebraska players were chirping at him during pregame warmups, then referenced reports that Husker players were growing mustaches in advance of the Iowa game.

“They like talking a little bit. I think they’re (more) worried about growing mustaches than playing football,” Duncan said. “But that’s the difference between Iowa and Nebraska.”

Duncan’s biggest kick of the game (and the year) was a 48-yarder to start the fourth quarter that broke a 20-20 tie, and it flew with as much power and accuracy as the 49-yarder he kicked a year ago with one second left in Lincoln. He added a pure 37-yarder with 8:21 left to make it 26-20.

However, Duncan missed a chance to be the put-away hero, hitting the crossbar on a 51-yard try with 2:02 left. It would’ve been good from 50.

“Didn’t hit it well and missed,” Duncan said. “Fortunately, we have a great defense that backed us up.”

Indeed, the special teams needed help to close the door.

And, the defense did the honors.

Iowa football:Defense stifles Nebraska late, gets key turnover and helps earn 26-20 victory

Nebraska had reached Iowa’s 39-yard line with 1:30 to go, but Chauncey Golston slammed into Martinez as he went to throw. The ball jarred loose and Zach VanValkenburg scooped up his fourth fumble recovery of the season and third in two weeks.

Victory formation, Iowa.

Victory polka.

And one phone call needing to be placed from Duncan. An uncle on his father’s side is a Huskers fan.

“He sent me a picture before the game. He was wearing his Nebraska gear under his Iowa gear, and I’m (thinking) that’s a little foreshadowing, with Iowa on top,” Duncan said. “It’s going to be an interesting conversation in about 10 minutes. I can’t wait to rub it in his face a little bit.”

The Hawkeyes weren’t dominant like they were the last three weeks. Their offense was outgained for the first time this season. Their defense had their 12-game streak with an interception stopped. But they all deserved to celebrate after improving to 4-2.

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz celebrates with running back Mekhi Sargent after Sargent scored a touchdown in the third quarter against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020.

Rivalry wins are rarely easy. This actually was Iowa’s largest victory margin in the three-year Scott Frost era at Nebraska. In all three wins, the deciding points came off the foot of the Hawkeye kicker.

These are the games you need to build winning streaks in rivalries.

The next scheduled Iowa-Nebraska game is Nov. 6 in Lincoln. By then, the tally will be 2,535 days since the last Huskers win against Iowa.

“The locker room today, it’s unreal. That kind of momentum is what we build on,” Duncan said. “Iowa football grows every single week, we get better every single week and that’s what we’re best at.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.