Analysis: Nebraska was ready to fold & Iowa made sure they did with flawless second half

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Editor's Note: Nebraska head coach Mike Riley was fired after this article was originally published. 

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska football coach Mike Riley left his Cornhuskers dangling from the side of a cliff in the third quarter Friday.

Iowa was happy to peel back their fingers one by one, until the Cornhuskers went plummeting into the darkness below in a 56-14 embarrassment before 90,046 gawkers at Memorial Stadium.

Blame Riley for acting like the lame duck he likely is when — trailing 21-14 on Nebraska’s first possession of the second half — he decided to punt from his 34-yard line rather than try to gain the one yard needed to keep his team temporarily in the game.

“Should of, could of, would of, there. I just, at that point, didn’t want to fail, and give them what would be a very, very short field at that time,” Riley tried to explain later.

“What I know now, it wouldn’t have mattered.”

Credit the Hawkeyes for making that second statement true.

An Iowa offense that had stumbled through two weeks of futility sprang to life, scoring on four consecutive possessions for the first time all season.

The offensive line was pushing. The running backs were punishing.

Quarterback Nate Stanley just had to stand back and watch it all come together in a 42-0 second-half blitz that produced the most points the Hawkeyes have ever scored against Nebraska.

LEISTIKOW:Hawkeye football needed a win like this

“Just establishing the run game. We had it working in the first half, too. But In the second half, being able to break some longer runs, especially for touchdowns. Those long runs can kill a defense,” Stanley said after attempting only 20 passes.

“It was just kind of a compounding effect, with the offensive line just continuing to break open holes for the running backs consistently.”

The Hawkeyes ran the ball 28 times for 200 yards in the second half. Starting tailback Akrum Wadley scored from one yard out and then 29 yards. James Butler bulled in from 12 yards. Toren Young found paydirt on a 3-yard run and true freshman Ivory Kelly-Martin capped the carnage with a 5-yard touchdown.

Iowa running back James Butler rumbles across the goal line for a touchdown against Nebraska on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

More:Wadley moves up rushing list, is 4th Iowa RB with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons

The Cornhuskers were demoralized.

“When we’re able to establish the run, it’s very hard for us to be beat. That was probably the best part of it,” Iowa center James Daniels exulted afterward.

“They were still coming hard but we did feel like we did start taking over, started controlling the game, started controlling the clock, and that’s when the score started breaking apart.”

Iowa’s defense did its part, too, limiting Nebraska to 96 yards on 34 second-half plays, a measly 2.8 yards per snap. The Cornhuskers punted four times, were picked off three times, turned the ball over once on downs and then had the clock mercifully run out on a dismal 4-8 season. Seven Nebraska drives in the second half lasted three plays or fewer.

“We did a good job of communicating, running to the ball and avoiding big plays,” Iowa safety Jake Gervase said.

“We never took our foot off the gas. We wanted to keep getting off the field, not give up any points no matter how big the lead got.”

This was what Iowa did best Friday. On an afternoon when Nebraska was essentially asking for leniency, the Hawkeyes were merciless.

There were four second-half plays of 29 or more yards. The Cornhuskers had only one drive that covered that much ground.

“It felt like if we could play clean football in the second half and then maybe force a thing or two, then maybe something good would have happened,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “But we didn’t envision that.”

For an Iowa team that became bowl-eligible three weeks ago by running up the score on Ohio State, only to follow that with two punchless setbacks, Friday’s result was just what was needed. It was a jolt of confidence the Hawkeyes hope can carry them through the next month.

“We just had to finish the season on a strong note and take that momentum to the bowl game,” Daniels said of a day that ended with “Let’s Go Hawks” chants echoing off all the empty seats at Memorial Stadium.

The Hawkeyes couldn’t have finished it any stronger. They might as well have painted a Tigerhawk logo at midfield on their way out of town.