Heartbreak, failure, disappointment — all words that could be used to describe Nebraska’s 2022 campaign. But Friday night in Iowa City, none of that mattered.
The Huskers dashed Iowa’s Big Ten Championship Game hopes with a 24-17 victory while snapping their seven-game losing streak in the series. But in true Nebraska fashion, the Huskers nearly — literally and figuratively — fumbled the game away. The Huskers got conservative and despite leading 24-0 with 12 minutes left in the third quarter, they let the Hawkeyes crawl back into the game.
A loss like that would have tied a bow on Nebraska’s season full of almost laughable fourth-quarter chokes. But this time was different – the Huskers held on.
“As many years as it’s been this team doesn’t know how to finish close games in the fourth quarter, I think we broke that streak,” junior quarterback Casey Thompson said after the game. “We did that tonight and we’ve proven several times this year that we’re capable of doing that.”
Nebraska built the early lead thanks in part to massive plays from both Thompson and junior wide receiver Trey Palmer. The two connected nine times for 165 yards and two touchdowns, and willed the Huskers to victory. Palmer’s monster night secured his place atop the record books, breaking Stanley Morgan Jr.’s 2018 program-best mark of 1,004 receiving yards in a single season.
“They can’t guard me,” Palmer said after the game. “They can’t run with me, and that’s what I did.”
The Huskers hit paydirt first on a Thompson to Palmer connection with 8:45 left in the first quarter. Back at his own 13-yard line, Thompson took a shotgun snap and in time fired a bomb deep downfield. Palmer beat his defender by nearly five yards, hauled in the catch and ran into the end for an 87-yard touchdown. That score put the Huskers up 7-0, a lead they never relinquished.
It took just four Iowa plays for the Huskers to regain possession. On second down, junior cornerback Quinton Newsome hacked down senior quarterback Spencer Petras from behind as he rolled out of the pocket. Petras fumbled, and the Huskers recovered, setting them up at the Iowa 31-yard line. Nebraska failed to convert the turnover for a touchdown, but a 21-yard field goal extended the lead to 10-0.
Petras was replaced by junior quarterback Alex Padilla on Iowa’s next possession, and for the rest of the game. The Hawkeyes slowly marched down the field for 13 plays, nine of them runs. But another quarterback produced the same result for Iowa.
Senior linebacker Eteva Mauga-Clements charged off the edge unblocked and pulled Padilla down for his first career sack, knocking the ball loose in the process. Running at full speed, junior edge rusher Garrett Nelson picked up the fumble and returned it to the Iowa 39-yard line.
Just four plays later, Palmer found himself in the endzone again on an 18-yard crown from Thompson. The Huskers took a commanding 17-0 lead and became just the second team — after Ohio State — to score 17 points in the first half against Iowa.
Iowa struggled to protect its quarterbacks in the first half, further exaggerating the ineptitude of the passing attack. On a third-and-four with 5:47 left in the second quarter, senior edge rusher Caleb Tannor came over unblocked and sacked Padilla for a 13-yard loss. It was the third sack of the half for the Huskers and marked -39 yards on sacks for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa’s problems continued into the second half. It forced a punt on Nebraska’s opening drive in the third quarter, but muffed the return, and Nebraska’s recovery set it up in the red zone. The Huskers took a page out of Iowa’s book on Friday, forcing four total turnovers to exorcise their demons from 2021’s heartbreaking loss to the Hawkeyes.
Junior wide receiver Marcus Washington made the Hawkeyes pay for their mistake. He caught a Thompson bullet pass over the middle for a 14-yard touchdown to extend Nebraska’s lead to 24-0, its biggest advantage of the season.
“We made it a lot closer than it needed to be,” Thompson said. “Honestly, I think we could have thrown for 400-500 yards. I’d like to keep throwing the ball down the field.”
The Hawkeyes finally broke through on their next drive, with 8:32 left in the third quarter. Freshman running back Kaleb Johnson broke off a 44-yard touchdown, bursting past Nebraska defenders for Iowa’s first play of 15 yards. The score cut Iowa’s deficit to 24-7 and resumed Kinnick Stadium.
As Nebraska fans have become all too familiar, the Huskers let Iowa mount a comeback. Still trailing 24-7, the Hawkeyes got the ball back at their own 10-yard line with 9:34 left in the fourth quarter. They drove 90 yards in less than three minutes and scored on a Padilla touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Luke Lachley. The Husker lead had suddenly shrunk to 10 points.
Iowa wasn’t done. The defense finally caught one of its signature turnovers, ripping the ball away from sophomore runner Rahmir Johnson at the bottom of a mound. The Hawkeyes set up shop at the Nebraska 27-yard line after the fumble, but mustered only a field goal to cut the Husker lead to 24-17.
The one-time 24-point lead had dwindled to a one-possession game — all Iowa needed to do was score a touchdown. The Hawkeyes had two opportunities after Nebraska’s offense went three-and-out down the stretch, but failed to capitalize. A Padilla interception on fourth down sealed the game, much to the relief of the Husker sideline, which cheered the field as time expired.
The win lifted Nebraska to 4-8 on the season, a disappointing record considering its preseason billing, but a resounding finish for a team that fired its head coach after week three. But interim head coach Mickey Joseph did what Scott Frost couldn’t before him — beat Iowa.
“They fought every Saturday to come out,” Joseph said after the game. “Nobody can deny that, because that’s what we asked them to do and that’s what we expected from them. We’re talking about a high-character group, I love them for that, I love these coaches for that.”