Iowa takeaways: Mike Riley's curious decisions, Geno Stone steps up, Hawkeye bowl talk

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

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

LINCOLN, Neb. — At halftime of a 14-14 game at Memorial Stadium, Nebraska coach Mike Riley told his team: “Go win it.”

The Cornhuskers did not.

They were promptly outscored, 42-0, in the second half of a 56-14 loss to Iowa.

That’s the same score that Ohio State handed to the Huskers here last month.

Mike Riley will likely end his Nebraska tenure with a 19-19 record, including 0-3 against Iowa.

On his likely way out the door Friday, Riley made several curious decisions that demonstrated why his three-year run in Lincoln didn’t work.

With the score tied, 7-7, Nebraska called a fake field goal on fourth-and-2 from Iowa’s 19. Bold call, bad job hiding it.

The Hawkeye defense had it sniffed out, with Nathan Bazata swallowing up a shovel pass from holder Zach Darlington to fullback Luke McNitt for a 5-yard loss. Bazata, a Nebraska native, came out of the pile making the sign of crossbones, which is associated with the Huskers’ “Blackshirts” defense tradition.

“I kind of knew looking at the guy in front of me. His eyes were kind of wandering a little bit,” Bazata said. “I shot the A gap, and just happened to be right there.”

Later in the first half, Riley showed poor clock management. As Iowa had first-and-goal inside Nebraska’s 10, Riley had all three of his timeouts remaining. But he failed to use them on either of Iowa’s first two running plays, and the clock kept running until Noah Fant’s 4-yard touchdown catch with 25 seconds left in the first half. Riley could’ve saved his team at least a minute of possession time by using the timeouts, but instead went to the halftime locker room without using one.

To start the second half, Riley chose to go into a stiff third-quarter wind — a strategy that Iowa fans could’ve told him wasn’t good for the Hawkeyes a week ago against Purdue.

And then came maybe the most regrettable of Riley’s decisions: Instead of going for a fourth-and-inches with his team down 21-14 in the third quarter, he elected to punt into the stiff wind.

Iowa took over at its own 44-yard line and scored two plays later.

Riley’s explanation for the decision afterward sounded like one from a coach who was lost.

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

More true freshmen

During much of Friday’s game when it was on the line, Iowa had three true freshmen in its defensive unit against the Cornhuskers.

Rookie Geno Stone got his first extended action at strong safety Friday when starter Miles Taylor departed late in the first quarter with what appeared to be a left leg injury.

Iowa was already starting Matt Hankins, a true freshman, at right cornerback for the first time. And A.J. Epenesa was rotating in and out, as usual, at defensive end.

The best compliment you could give Hankins: You hardly noticed him out there, which is to say he wasn’t making big mistakes.

“Thought he did really good,” fellow cornerback Josh Jackson said. “He was confident all week.”

Stone, a product of New Castle, Pennsylvania, ended up being the day’s big defensive revelation, though. He is the fifth safety this season to get extensive action for the Hawkeyes; Brandon Snyder (torn ACL) and Amani Hooker (left knee) did not play Friday, and head coach Kirk Ferentz said Taylor has been playing hurt but could no longer hold up.

Stone ended up tying Josey Jewell for the team lead with eight tackles.

“I want to thank Geno’s mom. When we were trying to get him out here for a visit last January, he didn’t want to come,” Ferentz said afterward. “Basically, she and the high school coach threw him in the car and made him come.”

“I’m just glad he’s here and not Kent State. I think he feels the same way.”

Iowa receiver Matt VandeBerg stretches to pull in a catch ahead of Nebraska defensive back Lamar Jackson on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

Kudos to MVB

A lot of seniors stepped up Friday, including Matt VandeBerg.

The wide receiver caught a pass for the 31st consecutive game, a diving first-quarter grab that gained 21 yards and sparked Iowa’s 15-play, 99-yard drive after it had fallen behind 7-0.

He also played in his 53rd career game. As long as he takes the field in Iowa’s bowl, he’ll surpass the school record he now shares with Desmond King.

But perhaps VandeBerg’s most notable contribution Friday was giving Iowa’s beleaguered punt-return game a boost. With Iowa ahead, 21-14, in the third quarter, VandeBerg scooped up a bouncing punt and returned it 14 yards to provide good field position.

“Any time a ball is bouncing around, you don’t know where it’s going to go,” VandeBerg said. “The fact that it came right to me, I was like, ‘I gotta go.’”

On Iowa’s next play, Nate Stanley hit Noah Fant for a 44-yard completion. The play after that, James Butler ran 12 yards for a touchdown and Iowa led, 28-14.

Lost yardage on punts bouncing past return men has been a dagger for Iowa’s special-teams units. But not Friday.

VandeBerg later returned one for 17 yards, and freshman Max Cooper ran one back in the fourth quarter for 12 when Iowa used tandem return men.

“Everybody was blocking really well, giving me lanes, making me feel comfortable to field the ball,”  VandeBerg said. “When they’re doing that, it’s easy for me to get yards.”

Bowl chatter

By finishing 7-5, Iowa probably has two stronger bowl-game options: The Dec. 29 Music City in Nashville or the Dec. 27 Pinstripe at Yankee Stadium in New York City.

After Friday’s game, Iowa athletics director Gary Barta termed the Dec. 28 Holiday Bowl in San Diego as “a long shot.”

Hawkeye fans, though, are revved up about the possibility of a driving-distance destination in Nashville. It’s about 8½ hours by car from Iowa City – a point Barta said he’s made to the Music City bowl director.

“I told (commissioner Jim) Delany and I told (Big Ten Network’s Mark) Rudner and I told the Big Ten about our fans driving there,” Barta said. “But I also told them, if we end up in New York City over the Christmas holiday, how cool is that?”

Barta said for fans worried about the possible cost of New York City that there are cheaper options.

“If we go there, you don’t have to stay in Times Square and pay $800 a night,” Barta said. “You can stay in New Jersey, closer to Yankee Stadium, for $200.”

Bowl selections will be made on Sunday, Dec. 3.