It seems frivolous to think about just a couple of special teams plays after a 42-point loss, but Nebraska found out on Saturday that just those few minuscule missteps can turn the tide in a big way.
The Huskers held a seven-point lead with 5 minutes remaining in the second quarter and were about to get the ball back on a punt after an Iowa three-and-out. Memorial Stadium was loud and Nebraska had a chance to take some momentum into halftime by going up two scores, an unfamiliar feeling this season.
Instead, a running-into-the-kicker penalty extended the Iowa drive, and the Hawkeyes drove down the field and tied the game with just 25 seconds left in the half, an all-too-familiar feeling this season.
“We had a pretty good chance before halftime to go up a couple scores, but unfortunately there was a penalty on the punt return that took away a possession,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “It could’ve been a 21-7 game, instead it’s 14-all and that took away some momentum.”
The penalty was just one of the mistakes on special teams that sank the Huskers against Iowa.
The Hawkeyes returned the second-half kick 74 yards to land just outside of the red zone after a block-in-the-back penalty. The Iowa rushing attack, which ended up with 313 yards, had no problem finding the end zone five plays later.
“We had … a couple of special teams plays I think were big, big factors in flipping that thing … it didn’t have to flip like it did, but it did,” Nebraska head coach Mike Riley said. “The roughing the punter … we’re going to get the ball back, and what happens with that is they end up tying the game, and come out in the second half with a big kickoff return, and on a pooch punt that we made that, you know, we just let bounce out beyond us. Those … plays were crucial.”
Those plays were far from the only errors made by both special teams on Saturday.
The Huskers missed a chance at points in the second quarter when they lost 5 yards on a fake field goal.
“It was something we’ve worked on all year, something we’ve had in our back pocket,” fullback Luke McNitt said. “We liked the look originally, but I think they moved a few guys late and we should’ve checked out of it. But I think it was just too late, and that’s how it goes. We tried to make a play, and it didn’t work for us."
Iowa defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said he could sense something was up on the fake field goal.
"I kind of knew just looking at the guy in front of me," the Howells native said. "His eyes were kind of wandering a little bit. I just shot the A-gap and just happened to be right there. It was kind of a shock for me, it just landed into my arms.”
Iowa punter Colten Rastetter set up the first Husker touchdown, fumbling the snap on his first punt attempt of the day and getting mobbed by a pack of Nebraska defenders.
It got worse for the Hawkeyes before it got better. Ihmir Smith caught the following kickoff and stepped out of bounds at the Iowa 1-yard line.
The Iowa offense proceeded to drive the ball 99 yards to tie the game at 7, however, and a trend started to emerge.
The Hawkeyes found a way to overcome their mistakes while the Huskers just seemed to compound them.