Leistikow's 5 thoughts as Iowa football scores 22 unanswered points to rally past Nebraska

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — Whenever Kirk Ferentz decides to walk away from Iowa football, it would be hard to envision a more apropos game than Friday's at Nebraska to sum up his illustrious coaching career.

The path to Iowa's 10th win of the season was paved with elite special-teams play, a resilient defense and an imperfect-but-timely offense to push the Hawkeyes over the top.

The 12th-ranked Hawkeyes scored the final 22 points in the final 15½ minutes — tallying on special teams, defense and (finally) offense — to pull out a thrilling 28-21 victory at Memorial Stadium.

If you’re a Cornhuskers fan, you’ve seen this before — your team finding a way to melt down in the most tough-to-swallow ways.

If you’re a Hawkeyes fan, you’ve felt this before, too — your team figuring out a path to victory in the most random and unconventional way.

“We’re not the prettiest car in the lot, but at least we get from Point A to Point B successfully most of the time," Ferentz said. "That’s really all it’s about, is getting there. I’m really proud of our guys.”

Tyler Linderbaum, who almost certainly will become the 28th consensus all-America in Iowa history, was fittingly the first of seven Hawkeyes to make his way to the lectern after the team's seventh win by 10 points or fewer.

Linderbaum, the mauling center, donned a "West Division Champions" T-shirt and a big smile to his interview.

“We find a way to win," Linderbaum beamed. "That’s been the story of the season.”

Though Iowa needs a Wisconsin loss to Minnesota on Saturday to advance to next week's Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, the Hawkeyes finished their regular season at 7-2 in conference play — clinching a tie for first place — and 10-2 overall. 

Ferentz joked that he wouldn't have authorized the printing of those T-shirts four weeks ago, after Iowa's 27-7 loss in Madison. But after four straight wins, Iowa deserved to celebrate. 

“I feel like we earned it. We played our hearts out this whole year. Resilient team. Never quit," Linderbaum said. "No matter what the outcome is tomorrow, just proud of the guys. Proud of how we fought all year."

This was the third time this season Iowa rallied from a double-digit deficit to win. It was down 17-3 to Penn State, 10-0 to Illinois and 21-6 to the Huskers on Friday.

In all three cases, special teams and defense fueled those comebacks.

And there might not be a more fitting Ferentz-era comeback than what happened Friday.

Iowa awakened from a seemingly listless performance with a blocked punt from fifth-year senior Henry Marchese and the ensuing touchdown by walk-on Kyler Fisher from 14 yards out. That game-turning moment stunned the announced crowd of 86,541 with 14 minutes, 16 seconds remaining and chopped Nebraska’s lead to 21-16.

“I feel like you’ve got to be great on special teams," Marchese said. "It’s a three-phase game — offense, defense, special teams — for a reason.”

And how's this for a Ferentz gem: After falling behind 21-6, Iowa scored in five consecutive ways — a Caleb Shudak field goal, the blocked-punt touchdown, a sack in the end zone by Lukas Van Ness (a two-point defensive play set up by Tory Taylor’s beautiful punt), a fourth Shudak field goal and a 76-yard touchdown drive finished by Spencer Petras’ quarterback sneak with 2:58 to go.

And now the Hawkeyes are fans of P.J. Fleck's Gophers.

A Minnesota win against Wisconsin on Saturday (3 p.m. CT, Fox), and Iowa would head to Indianapolis to face Saturday's Ohio State-Michigan winner.

"You've got to be rooting for the Gophers, right?" Linderbaum said.

Defensive end Zach VanValkenburg later added a resounding, "Go Gophers!"

If Wisconsin wins, Iowa players get Sunday off. If Minnesota wins, they're back in the Iowa football facility to get back to work. But on Saturday, they're watching football and enjoying just the fourth 10-win regular season — joining 2002, 2009 and 2015. That's a special group. 

“It’s all about how you finish," Ferentz said. "It’s about staying with what you’re doing and then dealing with whatever challenges come your way.”

More:Iowa football instant analysis: Hawkeyes stun Nebraska with fourth-quarter rally for 10th win

Iowa made the right call to go to Spencer Petras to start the second half.

Down 14-6 at halftime and with Iowa getting the first possession, Ferentz made the decision to switch quarterbacks.

Alex Padilla took off his helmet in exchange for a red cap, and the starter of the Hawkeyes’ first nine games was back on the field.

Padilla could still very well be Iowa's 2022 quarterback but he just didn’t have it in the first half Friday. Both he and Petras missed practice time this week with the flu, as the bug swept through much of the team early in the week.

It didn't look like Padilla was 100%. The sophomore whose completion percentage this season fell to 46.4% with a 6-for-14 first half nearly had at least two passes intercepted. He completed just three of his final nine passes of the first half for 25 yards  — even though Iowa was moving the ball pretty well on the ground.

Considering that Ferentz made it clear earlier in the week that he felt Iowa had two capable quarterbacks for this game, this wasn’t a surprise. And Iowa’s offense was looking for a spark, just like it did when inserting Padilla at Northwestern in the first quarter of a 0-0 game.

Petras’ sore right shoulder left him limited for two to three weeks, but he was slinging it well in warmups Friday. His veteran presence on the road and ability to call out pass protections was valued in the second half as the Hawkeyes rallied.

Petras did provide an initial spark, completing four of his first five passes for 72 yards — including a 27-yarder to Luke Lachey and 24-yarder to Nico Ragaini and moved Iowa on back-to-back drives inside Nebraska's 20.

And, fittingly, Petras scored Iowa's winning points on a quarterback sneak. His 2-yard plunge broke a 21-21 tie and capped a 76-yard touchdown drive keyed by Tyler Goodson's 55-yard run. Petras finished 7-for-13 for 102 yards and wasn't sacked.

“It just feels really good to be back out there," Petras said. "Obviously as a competitor, I want to be out there. My number was called today, and we were able to execute.”

More:Recap: Iowa's fourth-quarter rally gives Hawkeyes thrilling 28-21 win over Nebraska.

Nebraska took a big lead by executing the little things well and making smart decisions.

One such example: Facing a fourth-and-1 from its own 45 in the first half, Nebraska didn’t hesitate in keeping its offense on the field. Quarterback Logan Smothers coolly threw a tight-end screen that opened up for an easy 6-yard gain to Travis Vokalek.

That play propelled a touchdown drive that sent the Huskers’ lead to 14-3.

Earlier, Iowa made the right decision to go for its own fourth-and-1 and Brian Ferentz made the right play call from Nebraska’s 1-yard line. A play-action pass left Sam LaPorta open in the end zone, and after he was initially ruled to have caught the fluttering pass from Alex Padilla, it was overturned on video review.

Sure, there’s frustration that the replay official took seven points off the board for Iowa on a touchdown that Fox replay analyst Mike Pereira said should’ve stood. But if LaPorta makes a clean catch there and the ball isn’t punched to the ground, it’s a non-issue.

On offense, the Hawkeyes got inside the Nebraska 40-yard line on all four of their first-half possessions ... but only got six points to show for it.

The first trip was the fourth-and-goal situation. The second trip, Iowa got to Nebraska’s 38 before taking a sack, and that led to another “little-thing” mishap when Taylor’s punt from the 39 bounced into the end zone for a 19-yard net. Those are the types of margins the Hawkeyes needed to have to perform better in the first half.

The third first-half trip, a third-down formation penalty wiped out a Padilla-to-LaPorta completion and forced the Hawkeyes to settle for a 51-yard Shudak field goal. The fourth trip, things stalled inside the 30 by yielding another short sack; with Shudak providing three points again, this time from 48 yards out.

For the game, Shudak was 4-for-4. He deserves a game ball.

And maybe Big Ten special teams player of the week.

The diminutive 5-foot-8 kicker from Council Bluffs is now 22-for-25 on field goals for the season, and he makes 40-plus-yard field goals look easy.

What a luxury for Ferentz, who chuckled at how he makes field-goal calls on the sideline.

"I don’t mind telling you, I get a little nervous calling those things," Ferentz said. "But LeVar (Woods, Iowa's special-teams coordinator) says he can do it. He’s just done a great job."

And credit Ferentz for making a patient field-goal call in the final minute of the third quarter.

With Iowa down 21-6, it was probably tempting to panic and go for it on fourth-and-11 from Nebraska's 18-yard line. But I tweeted this at the time, it was the right call to take the three — and Shudak buried a 36-yarder. That cut Iowa's deficit to 21-9 with 27 seconds left in the third quarter.

After a three-and-out by Iowa's defense, the blocked punt arrived ... and it was a ballgame again.

Tyler Goodson got to 1,000 yards ... and then 1,100, too.

Goodson rushed for a career-high 156 yards on 23 carries for his ninth 100-yard game as a Hawkeye. But the junior running back nearly had this game marred by a forgettable moment.

With Iowa driving to start the third quarter inside Nebraska's 10-yard line, Goodson ran into Linderbaum and lost control of the football, and Nebraska's Deontre Thomas recovered at the 6-yard line. It looked like Iowa was going in for a potential tying touchdown. Shortly thereafter, Nebraska put together a nine-play, 94-yard drive against Iowa's defense to take a 21-6 lead.

"No running back likes to fumble," Goodson said. "From there, it was all about me just focusing on the game and knowing that if we do get a chance to get back into the game and be prepared for that situation.

"It's all about the next play and the next series."

That mentality was the right mentality.

And after Iowa got the ball back in a 21-21 game with 5:58 remaining, Goodson got the call. His first run collected seven yards up the middle. The next snap, he broke up the left sideline for 55 yards, moving the Hawkeyes to the Huskers' 14-yard line. It was the game's biggest offensive play and led to Iowa's only touchdown drive.

Goodson knew very well that he needed 55 yards coming into Friday to enjoy Iowa's first 1,000-yard rushing season since Akrum Wadley in 2017. He wound up with 1,101 rushing yards for the season by day's end.

"It's unique to rush for 1,000 yards. It's hard to do," Goodson said. "I give credit to the guys up front, those guys do an amazing job."

Indeed, it looks like Iowa's running game has some continued juice heading into its next game ... whether that's in Indy or a bowl game. To be determined Saturday.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa's Zach VanValkenburg (97) hoists the Heroes Trophy while celebrating with teammates following their victory over Nebraska on Friday in Lincoln, Neb.