IOWA CITY, Ia. – One word best describes Saturday's postgame mood as Iowa players left their Kinnick Stadium locker room: Angry.
A second-half rally had taken the Hawkeyes to the brink of an upset over No. 14 Wisconsin. Instead, the 26-24 loss left two thoughts in its wake. One, what could have been? And two, where has this effort been all season?
Angry. Which beats the heck out of embarrassed. That's the word Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz used to describe losses at Maryland and Minnesota. No one was embarrassed Saturday. Only angry. And here's my advice to the Hawkeyes heading into their 11 a.m. Black Friday showdown with Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium:
Stay angry…and keep passing downfield.
All hopes of a West Division Big Ten title are gone. But Iowa, 7-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten, still has a lot of play for. Improving its bowl status is one. It's the fourth and final chance to win a rivalry trophy. And it's a chance for the senior class to leave Kinnick Stadium on a winning note.
As player after player came into the postgame interview room, they left the same impression: This was a team that wanted to line up and play the Cornhuskers Sunday, instead of reviewing film.
Nebraska, 8-3 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten, also offers Iowa one last chance to beat a team with a winning league record. Iowa's four Big Ten triumphs have come against teams with a combined 6-22 league mark. The three teams that beat the Hawkeyes are a combined 15-6.
This season has been a mixture of underachievement and a tease of good football on both sides of the ball — the second half at Pittsburgh, Northwestern and the second half against Wisconsin, for instance.
Friday would be a good time to play a 60-minute game, against a next door neighbor who may or may not want to come out and play. In the last two weeks, the Cornhuskers have allowed Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon to run for 408 yards and surrendered 281 rushing yards to Minnesota in a 28-24 loss Saturday.
So you know Iowa will come out and try to establish the run against the Cornhuskers. But Iowa's downfield passing attack clicked in the second half against Wisconsin, and that must remain part of the game plan Friday.
In the first half, the Hawkeyes ran it six times and passed it six times on first down. In the second half, it was seven rushes and seven passes on first down. But Iowa made a much more determined effort to get it downfield on first down in that second half.
Iowa had just one first-down pass produce a gain of more than 5 yards in the first half. That was a 13-yard Jake Rudock to Mark Weisman connection. In final three possessions of the game, resulting in touchdown drives of 70, 82 and 86 yards, Rudock completed first-down passes of 31 yards to Tevaun Smith, 28 yards to Matt VandeBerg, 33 yards to Jake Duzey, 27 yards to Jordan Canzeri and 23 yards to Duzey.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is on the hot seat again. He was in the same spot after last season's 38-17 loss to the Hawkeyes in Lincoln. That game was followed by a lively postgame media session where Pelini proclaimed, "If they want to fire me, go ahead."
During the Iowa game, Pelini nearly clipped an official with the back of his cap while arguing a pass interference call on the Cornhuskers' Zaire Anderson. Pelini was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
"I've done a lot worse than that, and I saw Kirk Ferentz over on the other side acting a lot worse than I act," Pelini said after game. "I didn't see a flag come out on him."
I guarantee you, Ferentz has not forgotten Pelini's words. Ferentz will use it as motivation on Friday. He'll coach angry, and with an edge. If his team follows suit, and keeps pushing the envelope on first down, Iowa will head into bowl season with a victory.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.