IOWA CITY, Iowa — It’s not the first time this has happened this year.
Scott Frost readily admitted that his team didn’t look like Michigan in September, like Wisconsin in October or like Ohio State in November.
On Black Friday, more of the same for his Nebraska team.
“What disturbs me is, right now, Iowa is a bigger, stronger football team,” Frost said. “That's right now. I never thought I'd see or hear that or say that about a Nebraska football team. That we can fix. We can get bigger, we can get stronger.”
It’s a multi-part problem that Frost and company must solve in the months and years to come. It’s recruiting as well as weight-room time. It’s development and player identification. It can be fixed, but it will also take some time.
The Hawkeyes entered averaging 150 yards per game on the ground and 3.9 per carry, but bulled their way to 266 and 5.9. Their defensive line sacked Martinez three times, helped hold NU to 140 rushing yards on 36 tries and knocked down at least four passes in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage.
That’s where NU found itself this fall: Trying to hang on against the biggest, most rugged units in the Big Ten rather than matching them.
“Give their guys credit, they’ve had three or four years, each of their players, in Iowa’s strength and conditioning program. We’ve had one year with Zach (Duval). They leaned on us quite a bit, especially in the first half. … I’m looking forward to the day we get that fixed and we don’t get pushed around by anybody.”
Washington shows glimpse of future: Devine Ozigbo will be remembered and respected for the way he turned himself into a 1,000-yard rusher during his final season in a Nebraska uniform.
After he played his final game in a Husker, though, he had high praise for the player who could well be the future of the position at NU.
"I can't wait to see what this man is going to look like after this offseason with (Zach) Duval," Ozigbo said of true freshman Maurice Washington, who didn't speak with reporters after the game. "Because he's going to be freaky. If he can keep all the skills he has now and just gain strength and ability, it's going to be over."
Washington on Friday became the first NU running back since Marlon Lucky in 2007 to have 100 receiving yards in a game, finishing with one touchdown and game highs of seven catches and 102 yards.
Washington largely filled the void left by the absence of receiver JD Spielman, who missed the game because of injury. He rushed just five times for 9 yards, but Nebraska got him to the edge with bubble screens and swing passes, and let him go to work.
"Maurice is a talented player, and the games that we've been playing, they've called a running style that I provided, but I think today was one that he stepped up using his versatility to be able to run fast, catch the ball and even catch swings in the backfield," Ozigbo said. "I think we all do a pretty good job, but Maurice has that little receiver-esque to him, so I really felt like he stepped up. That's one thing you expect from these guys, everybody's going to step up and play great."
Two-point try shows faith in Martinez: Quarterback Adrian Martinez finished his freshman season with another standout performance.
The Fresno, California, native passed for 260 yards, rushed for 76 more and accounted for three total scores.
Maybe no play showed how much Frost and the offense trust the 6-foot-2, 220-pound freshman than a game-tying two-point conversion try with 3 minutes, 22 seconds remaining.
Senior receiver Stanley Morgan motioned to the formation then jetted back out at the snap, trying to get open to the flat at the goal line. Iowa sniffed it out. The next option?
“I told him, this is what we’re doing and if it’s not there, you’re just going to have to make something happen,’” Frost said. “You can say that to a lot of guys and not very many can do it. He made something happen.”
Martinez checked Morgan and then got out of the pocket back to his right, waiting until Kade Warner flashed open on the back line of the end zone and throwing a strike that the redshirt freshman hauled in in traffic.
“I trusted myself to go extend the play and see what else I could find,” Martinez said.
Backs against the wall: Nebraska started the second half with the ball and a chance to make a dent in a 21-13 deficit, but instead found itself on the wrong end of a tilted field.
Washington mistakenly thought he could call a fair catch on a kickoff that he did not catch, and so the Huskers started the third quarter at their own 7.
They went three-and-out and Iowa mounted a scoring drive from its own 41. Then a special-teams penalty on the ensuing kickoff put NU at its own 12 to start its second drive. That one also went nowhere.
“I felt like starting that backed up, it's never good,” Ozigbo said. “The percentage of drives that start from there, the coaches always talk about those things, they're not very high. We knew we had to overcome just facts and things like that.”
The Huskers’ third drive started at their own 2 after the snuffed fake field goal, so at least that one came with a bit of good feeling. A fake punt jump-started a 98-yard touchdown drive in a moment when Frost figured his side could not afford another punt from its own end zone.
“If we would have punted back to them right there, I think the game would have been over,” he said.
Pickering packs a punch: Given a second chance at the end of the second quarter, Barret Pickering delivered again.
The true freshman was rock-solid for Nebraska, knocking through two field goals in less-than-ideal conditions at Iowa.
After last week's snow globe at Memorial Stadium, Friday probably felt like a walk in the park. Pickering drilled a 27-yarder early in the second quarter, then, with an untimed down at the end of the first half, and boomed a 46-yarder into the wind to get the Huskers within 21-13.
The second kick came after Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz called two timeouts in an effort to ice Pickering's original attempt from 51 yards.
Ferentz succeeded in icing his own field goal defense unit — the Hawkeyes were called for offsides as Pickering's kick came up short.
"I just wanted to hit the same ball into the wind," Pickering said. "I hit a decent ball on the first one, it just got caught up in the wind a little bit and came up a tad short. Then when we got the free play, it just made it that much easier to just go out there and knock it through."
Pickering knocked through 10 consecutive field goals to end the season after a slow start, finishing the year 14-for-18.
"I didn't change anything," Pickering said. "I knew I was capable, so I just went out there and trusted in what I did, and relaxed and didn't worry about anything."
Martinez accolades: Martinez finished with seven 300-plus yard games and 3,246 total yards of offense, fifth-best in school history.
“He’s going to be a lot better next year,” Frost said. “There’s just no doubt about it.”
Said Ozigbo, “In the locker room, I was like, 'I expect to see a Heisman here in the next three (years).' So I feel like he's a guy that can do it. He's playing crazy as a true freshman. Give him more time, more time to grow, more time to develop, more time to learn the offense, it's just bad for everybody else.”
Cat-and-mouse games: Every time Nebraska found a new way to attack Iowa’s defense, the Hawkeyes responded. Then a new wrinkle and a new response.
Frost relishes chances like that.
“There was a real chess game going out there today with some of the formations, adjustments to it,” Frost said. “They’d take stuff away that was there and we’d react and respond and come up with something new. Then they’d adjust. That’s a fun game for a coach and a quarterback.”