In a game that was played almost exactly the way Iowa wanted it, Nebraska outslugged the Hawkeyes 13-7 to clinch a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game at Indianapolis. It was a cold, windblown day in Kinnick Stadium, but the good news is the Huskers are just a step away from a conference title that has eluded them since 1999.
The bad news: to win it, they’ll have to win a rematch against Wisconsin without center Justin Jackson and defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler, who were injured in the game.
An ineffective, error-prone offense plagued Nebraska much of the day, but the Blackshirts made sure the Cornhusker State kept the Heroes Game trophy a second straight year. For that matter, the game that was similar to the previous year’s 20-7 struggle in Lincoln.
The defense got credit for nailing down the win without much help from Taylor Martinez and the Husker passing game, which were held in check by an inspired Hawkeye defense on Senior Day.
Receiver Kenny Bell was held without a catch for the first time in well over a year.
Obviously, the plain vanilla attack by offensive coordinator Tim Beck was part of the reason. Nebraska didn’t adapt to the cold and wind very well, and if Rex Burkhead had not returned to the lineup, the score probably would have been a 9-7, because I doubt anyone else on the Husker roster would have scored the TD that Burkhead turned in.
Here are my top three keys of the win -- where the Huskers picked up a seventh conference victory in the first season since 2001.
1. Despite Steinkuhler’s departure, the defensive line played tougher in the second half, allowing just 108 yards rushing. Tackle Chase Rome helped take up the slack and Cameron Meredith is more than capable at tackle, which is a good thing because Thad Randle was mysteriously absent.
The star of the game was Eric Martin, who harassed Iowa quarterback James Vandenburg all day. Martin had three tackles for loss, including a sack, and is gaining momentum as his senior year draws to a close.
2. It may have been Brett Maher’s best game of the season. Maher provided the margin of victory by hitting both field goal tries, including a 52-yarder, but his fourth-quarter punting against a 25-mph wind was just as important. Maher kept Iowa out of scoring range with effectively-placed rugby-style punts of 45 and 36 yards. He also pinned the Hawkeyes inside their own five-yard line with a 61-yard punt in the second quarter.
3. Nebraska had another bad day returning punts. Ameer Abdullah fumbled one and Jamal Turner allowed another to drop and roll to the NU 1-yard line. Thankfully, neither error cost any points, but the Huskers need Turner to step up and consistently return punts.
Tad Stryker is the former sports editor of the North Platte Bulletin and provides analysis after each Husker football game for Bulletin readers. Stryker also writes for HuskerMax. (http://www.huskermax.com).