IOWA CITY, Iowa — You could hear the collective grumbling across the river, louder than ever when a Husker punter dropped the ball, kicked it off his own player’s backside and it traveled minus 31 yards, before being picked up on a bounce by a native son in a Hawkeye uniform who raced into the end zone.
Iowa was up 24-7 with 8:45 left in the third quarter right then and there. The Huskers had not forced a punt all day. One senior captain was in a walking boot. The future first-round defensive end was in sweats. The offensive line was on its third center and fifth offensive tackle. Ameer Abdullah had 19 rushing yards.
“We got down, we could’ve quit,” said Husker senior offensive guard Jake Cotton. “We didn’t quit.”
The Huskers punched back with a flurry not seen coming by anyone but those walking their sideline, winning a 37-34 overtime thriller against Iowa that put Nebraska at 9-3 and perhaps tweaked the tenor of conversation regarding a much-speculated-upon coaching staff.
“I know what we have going and people can make their deductions any way they want, and they’re going to say whatever they want,” Husker coach Bo Pelini said. “I could care less.”
Pelini said he hasn’t had any recent conversations with Husker athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
“That’s the furthest from my mind.”
For those emerging from the pink-painted visitors' locker room, it was a sweet "W" after two weeks of hurt.
“I’m happy for Coach Bo. I’m really proud of our players,” said offensive coordinator Tim Beck. “Lesser guys would have quit. It just shows the resolve of the program. One game, I’ve told you guys before, one game shouldn’t ever define these kids or our program and where it’s at. It’s a season. And it’s a long process. There’s a lot that goes through them. But today they buckled down.”
Victory was secured in overtime on a 9-yard pass from Tommy Armstrong to a senior wide receiver who hadn’t practiced all week because of a head injury. Kenny Bell caught the ball just inside the pylon, held it for a second, then bobbled it.
Officials reviewed it. He’d broken the plane with control. Touchdown. Iowa fans booed. Husker players went and retrieved the Heroes Trophy. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis jumped into the arms of O-line coach John Garrison. Wide receivers coach Rich Fisher hugged Bell.
“I’m so proud of you,” Fisher told him.
Bell never would have guessed he’d score on that particular play.
“That play, receivers are cosmetic,” Bell said. “So we run off (the defensive back), I was running off. I saw Tommy run, (my guy) didn’t cover me, Tommy found me and it worked perfectly.”
Two rough weeks ended with a Black Friday present.
“It’s tough, man. The negativity that surrounds it,” Bell said. “And I’m not blaming fans, I’m not blaming coaches and I’m not blaming players. Losing is cancerous. It makes everyone not happy. So it’s tough for everybody involved. I know it was frustrating for fans. As players it was frustrating to have two losses.
“So it was tough, but for us to come back. … Let me tell you about a Coach Pelini-coached football team. … We’re down by 17 with six minutes left in the third quarter and a lot of people would give in, right? There’s no Big Ten championship. There’s no accolades or awards for winning this football game. We just rolled up our sleeves and went to work and we kept fighting like we always do.”
It was fair to wonder what punches Nebraska had left to throw after a punt mishap that was claimed by Drew Ott, formerly of Giltner High School, and taken 12 yards for a score.
In the first half, Iowa had run 40 plays to Nebraska’s 21. Iowa had 13 first downs to Nebraska’s three. Iowa had 178 yards to Nebraska’s 92.
The third quarter had started even worse. It was 24-7.
But playing without Randy Gregory and Corey Cooper, the Husker defense bowed up, forcing four straight punts.
Armstrong kept getting up from beatings and Abdullah ran like he was ticked off, ripping off a 53-yard run on one drive, which ended with a blocked field goal, and a 27-yard run on the next drive, which ended with a 34-yard touchdown pass to Taariq Allen.
That cut it to 24-14 with 1:44 left in the third quarter. Don’t write the obit yet.
Then Iowa decided to punt the ball to De’Mornay Pierson-El for some reason.
“We had a plan,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It didn’t exactly work the way we hoped.”
Pierson-El returned it 41 yards, stopped by the punter. A play later, Bell made a leaping catch in the back of the end zone. That cut it to 24-21 with 13:24 left.
Defense got a stop. Iowa punted. To … Pierson-El.
“I was like, ‘Seriously, again?’” Pierson-El said.
He ran it back 80 yards for his third touchdown return of the year, making it 28-24 Nebraska with 12:06 left.
More drama awaited.
Iowa mounted a 12-play, 53-yard drive to take back the lead with 1:49 left.
Nebraska rallied again, with Brandon Reilly making the catch of his career on a 35-yard play to the Iowa 12-yard line. NU pushed it closer … to the 3. It was fourth-and-1 with 20 seconds left. Pelini eyeballed it. Almost sent his quarterback back on the field.
“I was real tempted,” he said.
NU kicked the field goal. Then it won the coin toss.
The Husker defense, which in the first half kept the game within reason by forcing four turnovers, including two inside the NU 10, again stiffened when needed, forcing a 25-yard field goal.
It took Nebraska four plays to win it on offense, with Armstrong hitting Bell for 12 yards on third-and-6 to the 9. The next play sent everybody home.
“I just told our team, ‘I’ve been around a long time and coached a lot of years, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a group of guys than the guys in that room,’” Pelini said. “The character they showed, the fight. Lot of guys down, lot of things going against us. They kept fighting.”