Iowa defense stifles Nebraska late, gets key turnover and helps earn 26-20 victory

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nebraska’s second touchdown against Iowa on Friday was ruthless, the kind of statement a team makes when it is about to bend an opponent to its will.

The Cornhuskers moved 70 yards in eight plays, four passes and four runs. Third-down conversions? You don’t need those when a defense can’t stop you on first or second down.

When that sequence was over, Nebraska had taken its first lead of the afternoon, with 27 minutes remaining to build on it.

“They kind of walked it down on us,” Iowa cornerback Matt Hankins said. “From that point on, we kind of talked to ourselves like, ‘Look, this game is going to be on us. If they don’t score any more points, they can’t win, so we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.’”

What a proud Hawkeye defense did was pitch a shutout from that point on. To top it off, left defensive end Chauncey Golston barreled into Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, causing the football to squirt loose and into the hands of right defensive end Zach VanValkenburg. There were 78 seconds left in the game and the Cornhuskers were 39 yards away from victory, when Iowa's ends justified their mean streak.

There would be no Iowa loss on this Black Friday. The men in the black jerseys weren’t going to let it happen.

The final score was Iowa 26, Nebraska 20. It was the sixth consecutive Hawkeye win in the rivalry. The defense secured it and the defense savored it, with Daviyon Nixon waving to the Cornhusker sideline before running back to his own bench.

Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston makes the hit on Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez that forced a fumble and sealed a 26-20 win Friday at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeye defense held the Cornhuskers scoreless for the final 27 minutes to secure a sixth consecutive victory in the rivalry.

“I loved it,” said Hankins, who was in on nine tackles and broke up one pass near the goal line to stymie Nebraska when it mattered most. “I was on the other side (of the field). I was just standing there admiring everything that was going on, seeing my guys celebrate. … It was a beautiful sight.”

Iowa (4-2) did not play a crisp game Friday after outscoring opponents 125-35 on the previous three weekends. The offense couldn’t run the ball early and relied on kicker Keith Duncan to put points on the scoreboard too often (four field goals in five attempts). The defense, which had been so solid in wins over Michigan State, Minnesota and Penn State, suddenly was a step slow. Nebraska used Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey interchangeably at quarterback, and both were able to run to daylight, gaining 90 yards on the ground between them.

What we learned: Iowa Hawkeyes 26, Nebraska 20

The Cornhuskers (1-4) outscored Iowa 20-3 over a 15-minute stretch of play to take that seven-point lead at Kinnick Stadium.

“The quarterback run is a huge part of what they do,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Nebraska. “They were both really dangerous, especially in that run part. To be a designed run? They had those. The improvisations, those were really difficult.  And then if you don’t keep contain against a guy who is pretty nimble, you’re just asking for trouble, and we had a few of those (Friday).”

Ferentz said there wasn’t any sweeping adjustment that needed to be made. His defense simply needed to be fundamentally better, at getting off blocks and making tackles. And that’s exactly what happened.

Iowa’s offense responded with a 66-yard touchdown drive of its own to tie the score 20-20. Then Nixon sacked Martinez on one play, and stuffed him on a run attempt on the next to force a quick punt.

The Cornhuskers’ next drive, trailing 23-20, was stifled when Bryce Benhart was called for holding Nixon on first down, backing Nebraska up 10 yards and leading to a punt.

The one after that produced seven net yards in six plays. Punt.

The final one produced the Hawkeye defense’s lone turnover of the game.

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras fires a pass in the third quarter against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020.

It wasn’t easy. But Iowa’s defense limited Nebraska to 61 yards in the final 27 minutes. That’s how a team grinds out a victory on an afternoon when it’s not at its best.

“You’re just kind of holding your breath because there’s just something about … when the quarterback can run and also throw, it puts a lot of pressure on you defensively,” Ferentz said.

Iowa’s defense felt that pressure, then brought some of its own. There were seven tackles for loss, three of them by Nixon. Middle linebacker Jack Campbell had two more among his eight tackles. Outside linebacker Nick Niemann led the team with 12 tackles. Golston made the biggest play of them all.

“The momentum shifted right there,” Hankins said of the three-and-out forced by the defense immediately after Iowa had tied the score at 20.

Iowa held the ball for 18 minutes and 38 seconds in the second half, keeping it away from Nebraska’s dangerous quarterbacks. Duncan knocked through two fourth-quarter field goals to provide the margin of victory.

Everyone did their part. But the defense did the heaviest lifting, right down to the football that VanValkenburg lifted to the sky after victory was sealed.

Iowa next plays at Illinois on Saturday.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.