Iowa-Nebraska: Big Ten border battle, but ... 'This isn’t a rivalry’
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nebraska is a fitting opponent for Steve Ferentz’s senior day.
The youngest of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz’s five children is a second-string offensive lineman who's had a lifelong sideline seat for the series between the two proud Midwestern programs.
Ahead of his final home game, Steve can quickly recall his first Hawkeye football memory. It may help explain why Friday’s Big Ten border battle hasn't quite risen above a simmer.
“I was 5 years old when Nebraska came to play us in 1999, and it was my dad’s first game,” Steve said Tuesday. “I can still remember being inside Kinnick (Stadium) and crying. The score was a lot to a little and I was just crying like, ‘Oh no, Dad’s going to get fired!’
“But that was still Nebraska in its heyday. And they didn’t join the Big Ten until my senior year of high school. It’s really cool to play them, even if our programs haven’t been great at the same time yet.”
His father goes a step further to separate the teams.
Iowa (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten) might be hosting the 2:30 p.m. kickoff for the Hy-Vee Heroes Trophy and an important West Division place, but it’s too early to call this post-Thanksgiving game historic.
“First of all, this isn’t a rivalry,” Kirk Ferentz said in his weekly media availability Tuesday. “We haven’t played that much.
“But I think it has the makings of and the potential to be.”
The chasm between the Big Ten and Big 12 Conferences was bridged in 2011. The road team crossing the Missouri River has won the last four meetings, and Nebraska’s last loss in Iowa City came in 1981.
The Cornhuskers (9-2, 6-2) will enter Friday’s game ranked 15th nationally, needing a win and a Wisconsin loss to make the Big Ten championship game.
“The first year I got here, they had a close game,” Ferentz said of the series resuming in 1979. “(1980) not so close, ’81 OK, ’82 not so good. We got a standing (ovation) when we got our first first down in the fourth quarter.
“Then you fast forward, we got here, they’re ranked second or third in ’99. I think we were 133rd and it looked like it on both sides.”
The blowout father and son referenced actually finished 42-7 for the Cornhuskers. And there were only 114 teams in NCAA Division I football that season.
Close finishes in the past two Novembers — Iowa’s 28-20 win in 2015 and Nebraska’s 37-34 overtime escape in 2014 — have made it easy to forget these two programs played just six times over a span of 65 years from 1946-2011.
Nebraska’s 29-14-3 advantage in the series includes 20 wins before the United States intervened in World War II. This season’s redshirt seniors have had the opportunity to play the game throughout their career.
“Of course I’m new here, and I jumped in as it’s beginning to grow,” Nebraska second-year coach Mike Riley said on the Big Ten teleconference Tuesday. “I think it’s perfect. With these two states, the proximity, and the fact that it appears we’re going to be battling year to year in this division in a very competitive way.
“It seems really, really natural to me.”
An intense game on Friday could increase the friendly fan-bases’ familiarity. Iowa is a slight home favorite coming off back-to-back victories and has played six games decided by one possession.
Losses to No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 2 Ohio State have been Nebraska’s lone setbacks.
“As years go on, the rivalry will get more fueled up,” Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said.
An upset and unlikely three-game win streak to close the regular season would surely get Hawkeye fans excited about the matchup. It would also mean back-to-back victories over the Cornhuskers for the first time since a three-game run from 1942-44.
“At the end of the day, it’s about what happens at game time,” Ferentz said. “Doesn’t matter if you’ve been playing for the last 100 years or haven’t played.”