LINCOLN, Neb. – This Black Friday feels a whole lot different, doesn’t it?
A year ago, the Iowa football program was surrounded with anger, disappointment and frustration after Nebraska stole one in Kinnick Stadium in overtime after overcoming a 17-point second-half deficit, 37-34, in the regular-season finale.
Friday, Iowa was the one doing the stealing – going into Memorial Stadium for a 28-20 victory to cap a 12-0 regular season. The Hawkeye secondary knew coming into this game that it was basically the poster to depict last year's Black Friday meltdown.
“It feels great to just put it to rest,” said safety Jordan Lomax, who got turned around last year on one of four touchdown passes by Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. “It just speaks volumes to what this team is about this year.”
Lomax had 11 tackles vs. Nebraska Rick Brown/HawkCentral.com
Friday, Armstrong Jr. threw four picks instead – one each to Cole Fisher, Parker Hesse, Greg Mabin and Josey Jewell.
“We knew we had to capitalize on turnovers,” Fisher said. “And we knew there would be lots of opportunities.”
Head coach Kirk Ferentz earlier this week said last year’s Nebraska game was the “centerpiece” of instituting culture change this fall.
In last year’s game, the finishing blow for Nebraska came when receiver Kenny Bell beat Mabin in the end zone to catch the walk-off, game-winning touchdown.
The junior cornerback felt sweet redemption Friday with his pick and nine tackles.
“It definitely feels good,” Mabin said, “basically with the game I had last year and (to) turn it around to the game I had this year. It’s a blessing.”
Friday’s game began with a scoreless first quarter that was played without Hawkeye cornerback Desmond King. The junior who leads the nation in interceptions was suspended for a quarter after being 15 minutes late to a team meeting Tuesday.
“Late to a meeting,” King said. “I had to face the consequences, no matter who I am.
“Just lost track of time and didn’t remember what time the meeting was.”
Maurice Fleming, a junior from Chicago, made his first career start – ending a string of 36 straight starts by King.
King re-entered in the second quarter, and the first time he touched the ball, he fumbled – on a punt return to set up Nebraska’s first touchdown. Later, though, King redeemed himself with a 26-yard punt return early in the third quarter to set up Jordan Canzeri’s first of two TD runs.
Ferentz runs a tight ship, always has in his 17 years at Iowa – even if an unbeaten regular season is on the line.
“It wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t any big deal,” Ferentz said. “There’s consequences for all actions. We have high standards for all of our players. We dealt with it, and we all moved on.”
Two years ago in this game, then-Nebraska coach Bo Pelini threw his ball cap in anger and almost hit a referee. This year at Memorial Stadium, Ferentz heated things up with a stocking-cap throwing tirade after Nebraska tight end Cethan Carter was wide open for a 25-yard gain inside the Iowa 10.
"That's probably why I don't wear them," Ferentz joked afterward.
Ferentz’s beef with the officiating crew (which presided over last week’s controversial Northwestern-Wisconsin finish) was that illegal formation should have been called because Carter was “covered up” by the outside receiver to his left, which would have made him an ineligible receiver.
The Iowa sideline (i.e., Ferentz) was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, and Nebraska’s Imani Cross burrowed into the end zone for a 4-yard TD run on the next play.
"Difference of opinion on one play,” Ferentz said. “It happens. That's life."
The Iowa coach discusses 28-20 win. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
Bo stayed with it
Bo Bower, who lost his weak-side starting linebacker job to Cole Fisher a week before the season, got extended action Friday after sophomore Ben Niemann was knocked woozy with what appeared to be a concussion late in the first quarter. (Ferentz said afterward he wasn’t sure what Niemann’s injury was.)
Bower didn’t complain behind the scenes, even though he started all 13 games as a freshman and zero this year.
“I was ready. I knew I could do it,” the West Branch former walk-on said. “There was no doubt in my mind.”
Bower ended up with seven tackles after replacing Niemann at outside linebacker.
“I just want to win. I don’t care how we do it. That’s what I said at the beginning of the season to coach,” Bower said. “Of course, it’s kind of awkward. That’s the good thing about this team. No one’s selfish. No one’s like, ‘I should be playing.’ I don’t care where I’m going to play.”
No bowling for Huskers
It’s unlikely at 5-7 that Nebraska will make a bowl game under first-year coach Mike Riley, who was complimentary of the team that handed the Cornhuskers their worst home loss (eight points) of the season.
“The best way I can put it is, that is a solid football team,” Riley said. “The things that they ran today were the things they’ve been running.”
Turnovers, for the win
Iowa finished the regular season plus-14 in turnover margin – and hasn’t lost that stat in any of its last 11 games. The Hawkeyes were plus-3 Friday. They were minus-6 last season.
Iowa has outscored opponents 83-40 off turnovers. Quarterback C.J. Beathard hasn’t been intercepted since Oct. 17.
“That’s huge. We preached that the whole offseason,” Lomax said. “When you get the turnovers, the offense has got to turn it into points. We’ve just been playing good team football.”
Rose Bowl at the worst?
With a 12-0 record in the books, Iowa is guaranteed to tie for the best record of any team in the Big Ten Conference – even if it loses next week’s conference championship game.
Will that be enough for a trip to Pasadena? It will likely come down to whoever is ranked highest in the final College Football Rankings, assuming the Big Ten champ goes to the playoff. Iowa was fourth, Michigan State fifth, Ohio State eighth and Michigan 10th in this past week’s rankings.
If Michigan State beats Penn State on Saturday, it’ll be Hawkeyes-Spartans in Indianapolis in a virtual CFP quarterfinal. Win, and you’re in the final four. A loss, and we'll see.
“We said back in August, our goal is to be a championship-level team, a Big Ten championship-level team,” Ferentz said. “So today, we moved one step closer.”