Legendary: Huskers lock up spot in B1G title game

2012-11-23T23:40:00Z 2013-08-22T14:16:09Z Legendary: Huskers lock up spot in B1G title gameBy BRIAN CHRISTOPHERSON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

IOWA CITY, Iowa — This game will not make the collector’s edition of great Husker conquests. It won't even take up anyone’s DVR space for an extended length of time.

The game was ugly in so many ways, and even mom would say that. Played in  bitter cold that felt even more cold because of an angry wind.

Frankly, it was miserable, and curses to all of you who watched it sitting near a fireplace.

But here comes both the contradiction and the real takeaway of the day: It was also kind of beautiful as far as the Huskers were concerned.

In a way, Nebraska’s 13-7 win against Iowa on Friday afternoon summed up this team’s survival instincts to a T.

Despite being beaten up with injuries, despite trailing at halftime yet again and despite running into Mother Nature’s cruelest efforts (12-degree wind chill and gusts of 35 mph), the Huskers survived.

The Big Ten Legends Division championship hats atop their heads after the game told the story.

“You might see some guys wearing those hats, but those aren’t the hats that we’re working for,” said Husker senior tight end Ben Cotton.

Yes, to end a conference-championship drought that stretches 13 years, Nebraska will need to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis on Dec. 1.

But Friday’s triumph offered a moment of great jubilance for a team that many were ready to bury just six games ago.

You remember: The 63-38 loss to Ohio State. Bo Pelini’s dramatic postgame statement that the Huskers needed to win out.

“I remember when I said what we needed to do, you guys all kind of looked at me like I was a crazy man,” Pelini said. “And I probably thought maybe I was a crazy man that night. But I believe in this team.”

He believed in the team then and he believed in the Huskers when he met them in the locker room at halftime Friday.

At that point, Nebraska had just wasted away a second quarter with the wind at its back, turning the ball over twice and not scoring with the elements playing to its advantage.

It was 7-3 Iowa, and given the mistakes, the Huskers were probably fortunate to be that close.

“I said to the team, ‘We’ve been in a lot worse situations than this,’” Pelini said. “It was 7-3. I felt like we were ahead.”

By that point, the Huskers already knew they’d have to win this game without the help of two of their most important players: senior center Justin Jackson (ankle) and senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler (knee). Both were on crutches after the game and won’t be available against Wisconsin.

“Tough deal,” said Husker defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski. “Baker went down. Justin went down. Next man in. Nobody panicked. Nobody said, ‘Oh, man, what are we going to do?’”

But Pelini did face two critical decisions coming out of the half:

1) Play Rex Burkhead?

2) Take the wind in the third quarter or wait for its assistance in the fourth quarter?

Pelini answered yes to the first question, deciding that the senior running back who has missed the past four games could provide an “emotional lift” by joining the fray.

“He was champing at the bit and I thought it would be a mental boost for us,” Pelini said. “I kind of went into the game thinking we're only going to play him if we needed him. But I thought we needed him at that point. I said, ‘How do you feel about it?’ Rex said, ‘Let’s go.’”

And so Burkhead went, adding a chapter to the legend, carrying the ball 16 times for 69 yards, scoring a late third-quarter touchdown that would ultimately prove to be the game winner.

Pelini’s decision to take the wind in the third quarter can also not be underplayed.

“I didn’t want to give them the ball and the wind to start the third quarter,” he said. “I wanted to try to get some momentum going for us.”

The Blackshirts rose to the occasion, getting a three-and-out to begin the half. Nebraska followed it up with 10-play drive that ended in a 52-yard field goal by Brett Maher.

Next series, the Huskers forced another three-and-out, giving Nebraska tremendous field position at the Iowa 43-yard line.

Four players later, Burkhead had a touchdown and Nebraska had the lead.

But the Huskers didn’t have comfort. Not with Iowa getting the wind at its back for the final quarter.

The wind was always the third player in this drama.

Because of that wind, “a lot of things you were going to do just get thrown out the window,” Pelini said.

But the Nebraska defense answered the call, holding Iowa to just 70 yards on 27 plays in the second half. And in that final frame, with the wind behind them, the Hawkeyes mustered only 13 yards of offense.

The Huskers sealed the deal when senior linebacker Alonzo Whaley stepped in front of a James Vandenberg pass and intercepted it with 2:11 left.

Describe the game how you will, but there was a whole lot of shouting in the pink visitors’ locker room after the game.

There’s a good deal of resiliency in that group, assistant offensive line coach John Garrison says.

Of Nebraska’s seven conference wins, five were the result of comebacks.

Talk about survival instincts.

“I don’t know if we’re the most talented group of guys,” Garrison said, “but we’re pretty dang tough.”

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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