IOWA CITY, Ia. — George Kittle’s carefree antics told you everything you needed to know about Iowa’s dominant season-ending performance Friday.
The senior tight end was flexing and laughing after scoring two touchdowns. When the 40-10 Hawkeye blowout over Nebraska concluded, Kittle was at it again, toting the Heroes Trophy and mugging for the cameras.
“It was just a great time, the whole thing,” Kittle said. “The offensive line just played their asses off, and we just did a lot of really good things. We stacked one good play after another, and we just started rolling. And our defense just played out of their minds.”
It had been 11 long weeks since the Hawkeye players had been able to smile so freely throughout a game at Kinnick Stadium. They had been locked in tense home games ever since blowing out Iowa State in Week 2. Then another rival from the West came to town, and Iowa quickly made Nebraska regret it.
The Hawkeyes (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten Conference) unleashed a trio of long gains in the first half to roll to a 20-3 lead that stunned the No. 15 Cornhuskers (9-3, 6-3) and delighted the majority of an announced crowd of 69,814.
Kittle, who has been battling an ankle injury for weeks, said it was evident early on that the Hawkeyes were on a different plane.
“We all just kind of looked at each other like, ‘OK, we’re gonna run the ball down their throats. And that was just kind of the vibe on the sideline,” he said after Iowa found early success.
As for his first career two-touchdown game, in his last at Kinnick, Kittle said: “I was just planning on winning. I could not have scripted anything better. That was right out of a movie.”
The emphatic win gave Iowa a three-game winning streak and allowed it to keep control of the Heroes Trophy, which it earned last year with a 28-20 victory in Lincoln.
Tailback Akrum Wadley started things with a 75-yard touchdown run with 4:55 left in the first quarter, jump-cutting past one defender and racing — untouched — to the end zone to tie his career record for longest play. Keith Duncan’s extra-point attempt was blocked.
Next, it was wide receiver Riley McCarron’s turn. The senior — one of 14 appearing for the final time at Kinnick Stadium — ran a quick slant over the middle on Iowa’s next play, gathered a perfect pass from C.J. Beathard and sped past the Huskers' defense for a 77-yard touchdown and a 13-0 Iowa lead. It was also the longest gain of McCarron’s career.
“It was a gameplan play we had been working on,” McCarron said. “We thought we could catch them with some quick play-action, quick pass and really just split the middle of the field. It worked out perfectly, obviously.”
After Nebraska got a 35-yard field goal from Drew Brown, the Hawkeyes immediately went back to work. Senior tailback LeShun Daniels Jr. hit a huge hole in Iowa’s line, stiff-armed one hapless Cornhusker and carried 56 yards to the 8-yard line. Two plays later, he ran around the right end of his line for a 4-yard score.
Iowa stretched its lead to 26-3 on its first possession of the second half after a 44-yard punt return by Desmond King. Beathard rolled right and connected with tight end Kittle for a 1-yard score. The Hawkeyes’ two-point conversion was stopped short.
Finally, Nebraska’s offense showed some life. The Cornhuskers drove 75 yards in 14 plays and scored on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Armstrong Jr. to Stanley Morgan Jr. on a fourth-down play. That cut the lead to 26-10.
Beathard hit Kittle again, this time from 6 yards out, to stretch Iowa's lead to 33-10 at the 11:13 mark, and Daniels’ 1-yard run with 1:55 left capped a glorious afternoon for the home team.
As the game neared its conclusion — with Iowa outgaining Nebraska 408-217 — Hawkeye senior defensive tackles Faith Ekakitie and Jaleel Johnson left the field together for the final time. They were hand-in-hand, not saying a word. Their play had done all the talking as Iowa concluded the regular season on a high note.
“We’ve played our best football these last three weeks,” Johnson said. “We just put our minds to it.”
As for Ekakitie, whom Johnson first encountered eight years ago when they were on opposite high school teams in Illinois: “We really had no idea that we’d be here together. You never know what path you’re going to take.”