No. 20 Iowa 27, Nebraska 24: Iowa leans on defense, Keith Duncan late to avoid collapse

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — From Hawkeye land to Husker territory, the debate rages on about what the Iowa-Nebraska matchup truly is. Some call it a rivalry; others say it doesn’t have the historical oomph. Clarity is hard to find on Black Friday.

Whatever the case, Iowa and Nebraska are doing what they can to make up for lost time. Another year, another game down to the wire.

Keith Duncan’s 48-yard game-winning field goal with a second remaining handed 20th-ranked Iowa an ugly, 27-24 win over Nebraska at Memorial Stadium. It’s the second straight year the Hawkeyes (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten Conference) have virtually walked off on the Huskers via field goal.

"There's a lot of ebb and flow in the game. It's designed to be tough," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It's tough on you physically; it's tough on you mentally. If you're doing things right, you've just got to learn to push through the good and the bad."   

Iowa junior offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, right, celebrates with place kicker Keith Duncan after Duncan hit a field goal late in the fourth quarter to lead the Hawkeyes over Nebraska on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

Now, don’t get drama confused with quality football. Both these teams had moments of brilliance blended with long stretches of incompetence.

The Hawkeyes raced out to a 24-10 lead with three emphatic touchdowns, only to give it all back with nearly three quarters of offensive sputtering. Nebraska (5-7, 3-6), after getting nothing from quarterback Adrian Martinez and its attack to start, piled up 14 third-quarter points — then disappeared again.

Chock much of that up to Iowa's relentless defense, which again carried the Hawkeyes late until Duncan's last boot. Nebraska mustered 19 yards on 15 plays over its final four drives after pulling even at 24-all. Iowa never let Martinez get loose the way he did last season as a fearless freshman in Iowa City. 

The Hawkeyes held him to 94 total yards on a combined 39 touches (18 passing attempts and 21 rushes). His longest scamper covered eight yards. Four of his final eight scrambles went for nothing, or for negative yardage. 

"We put a huge emphasis on (Martinez's running ability) all week long," said defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who delivered his most forceful Iowa performance with 14 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and two sacks. "We were able to press the pocket, because (Martinez) didn't want to throw the ball in the pocket. He wanted to do what he does best and get outside the pocket and make plays and extend it.

"I think we did a really good job at closing down the pocket on all sides. The only way he could've gone was backwards. He had some runs today — that's just what he does and is really good at — but overall, I think we did a really good job at containing him."      

Iowa's current defenders are used to shouldering the load. They've done it all year to offset an inconsistent offensive attack. It's why, despite winning nine games and five of the past six, much seems stressful for these Hawkeyes. 

Iowa senior linebacker Kristian Welch reacts after taking down Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez in the fourth quarter during their Big 10 final season game on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

Friday was another reminder. The fourth-quarter defensive stands saw Iowa return to its initial form, which included holding Nebraska's offense to 114 yards and three points in the first half. The late uproar mitigated Memorial Stadium's momentum and kept Nebraska from completing a holiday weekend stunner.         

“At, 24-24, that’s the moment of truth," cornerback Michael Ojemudia said. "That was probably our biggest challenge to date, just anchor down so their momentum could stop.”

The defense did, and it gave Iowa's battered attack one last chance to save face. Two pivotal completions from a hobbled Nate Stanley gave way to Duncan's latest heroic moment. Nebraska called timeout twice, but the Lou Groza Award finalist wasn’t rattled. He buried the dagger and calmly jogged backward, his eyes and antics set on the Husker bench.

One second remained. It was merely a formality.  

Few Iowa assets have been more reliable this season than Duncan and the defense. One set the table for the other once again. The Hawkeyes needed every bit of both to survive this circuitously emotional day.     

That's how things seem to go when these programs tangle.  

"It was a fun game to be a part of," Epenesa said.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.