Iowa rallies from 15-point deficit to beat Nebraska, clinch share of Big Ten West

The Hawkeyes scored the final 22 points of their 28-21 win over the Huskers in Lincoln on Black Friday.


Grace Smith

Iowa defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg lifts the Heroes Trophy after a football game between No. 16 Iowa and Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. The Hawkeyes defeated the Corn Huskers 28-21. (Grace Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

LINCOLN, Neb. — Iowa punter Tory Taylor and holder Ryan Gersonde hoisted the Heroes Trophy near Memorial Stadium’s south end zone moments after the Hawkeyes defeated the Huskers on Black Friday. Their Hawkeye teammates started chanting the Iowa fight song as “Let’s go Hawks” roared from the bleachers.

The Hawkeyes were celebrating in the same spot where, only a couple hours before, the Cornhuskers seemed to have taken permanent control of the game.

After Iowa running back Tyler Goodson lost a fumble at Nebraska’s 6-yard line in that same vicinity near the start of the fourth quarter, the Huskers went 94 yards in nine plays and took a 21-6 lead with their third touchdown of the afternoon. But Iowa didn’t panic. The No. 16 Hawkeyes scored the game’s final 22 points to rally from their 15-point deficit and defeat the Huskers, 28-21, to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten West title.

“We’re not the prettiest car in the lot,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said postgame. “But we get from Point A to Point B pretty successfully most of the time. That’s really what it’s all about.”

Iowa kicker Caleb Shudak converted on two field goals in the first half, and the Hawkeyes trailed 14-6 at intermission. The sixth-year senior nailed another kick the drive after Goodson fumbled to bring the game to within 21-9.

Then the Hawkeyes took over. And they did so in all three phases.

On the third play of the fourth quarter, Iowa’s Henry Marchese blocked a Nebraska punt, and his teammate Kyler Fisher caught the ball out of the air and ran it back for a 14-yard touchdown.

Later in the final quarter, after Taylor pinned Nebraska at its own 7-yard line, Nebraska quarterback Logan Smothers — who started in place of Adrian Martinez, who was out with an injury — was penalized for intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in a safety. Shudak — who is 22-for-25 on field goals this season — hit his fourth field goal of the game on the ensuing Iowa drive, tying the game at 21 points.

The game didn’t stay tied very long.

A 55-yard run by Goodson, who rushed for 156 yards and surpassed 1,000 yards on the ground for the season on Friday, set up quarterback Spencer Petras for the game-winning quarterback sneak with 2:58 remaining. Petras took over Iowa’s offense to begin the second half in relief of Padilla, who has been Iowa’s starter the past three games.

Smothers threw a game-sealing interception to Iowa cornerback Jermari Harris, who started in place of an injured Matt Hankins, with 43 seconds remaining on Nebraska’s final offensive play of the game. No receiver was even near the area of the field where Smothers threw the ball on the play. The interception was Iowa’s nation-best 22nd of the season. And, after that play, the Hawkeyes had beaten the Huskers for the seventh year in a row.

An Iowa fan celebrates after a successful play during a football game between No. 16 Iowa and Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. The Hawkeyes defeated the Corn Huskers 28-21. (Grace Smith)

It was the third time this season that Iowa rallied from a double-digit deficit. Iowa trailed Penn State 17-3 and Illinois 10-0 in its wins over those teams this season.

Iowa players sprinted to the Heroes Trophy as the game ended. The Hawkeyes escorted the trophy back to their locker room, where “Big Ten West champions” t-shirts and a division title trophy were waiting for them.

“We find a way to win,” said Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum postgame. “That’s been the story of the season.”

Ferentz joked that, after Iowa lost to Wisconsin to drop to 6-2 on the season, it probably wouldn’t have been smart for the Hawkeyes to print Big Ten West Champions shirts. But Iowa printed its shirts coming into this game. And the Hawkeyes got to wear them, too. 

After dropping back-to-back games to Purdue and Wisconsin, Iowa has won four straight and, with a Wisconsin loss to Minnesota on Saturday, could be representing the Big Ten West in the Conference Championship Game next weekend.

“I feel like we earned it,” Linderbaum said of clinching a share of the West. “We played our hearts out the whole year. No matter what the outcome is tomorrow, just proud of the guys. Proud of how we fought all year.”

Big Picture

Iowa football fans can clear their Saturday afternoon plans. And so can Iowa players.

The Hawkeyes clinched a share of the division on Friday, but need some help if they want to win it outright and play in the Big Ten Championship Game next weekend. If Wisconsin beats Minnesota on Saturday, the Badgers will also earn a share of the division and go to Indianapolis as a result of their 27-7, head-to-head, win over the Hawkeyes on Oct. 30.

The Badgers game kicks off at 3 p.m. on Saturday and will air on FOX. Several Hawkeyes will be watching closely while rooting for the Gophers.

“You’ve got to be rooting for the Gophers, right?” Linderbaum said.

Iowa running back Tyler Goodson finds running room during a football game between No. 16 Iowa and Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. Goodson’s longest carry went for 55 yards. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cornhuskers 28-21. (Jerod Ringwald)

Goodson said Iowa players will gather together and watch the game, and threw in a “Go Gophers” during his postgame interview. Defensive end Zach VanValkenburg made it clear he will intently watch every down. But Ferentz is taking a different approach, making it clear he won’t be outright rooting for Minnesota.

“I didn’t say that,” Ferentz said with a snort, noting he’s lived in Iowa for decades and can’t cheer for Minnesota. “I’ll be hoping for the right outcome.”

Iowa finishes the regular season 10-2 overall and 7-2 in Big Ten play. Iowa has won 10 games or more for the seventh time under Ferentz (2002, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2015, 2019, 2021). Nebraska ends its season 3-9 overall and 1-8 in conference play. The Huskers lost eight games that were decided by only one possession.

Turning Point

Marchese’s blocked punt turned into Iowa’s first touchdown of the day and the start of the Hawkeyes’ run to win the game. Marchese knew Iowa was running that specific punt block because Nebraska was on the left hash. Then, having a sense of Nebraska’s cadence, he got off the ball quickly and went for the block.

“I was just like, ‘I’ve got to have it,’” Marchese, who is listed as a defensive back on the roster, said of the play. “We needed a spark. That’s what special teams are for — to help the team in any situation.”

Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said after the game that, “the blocked punt was the game.”

Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell, who tallied 16 tackles on the day to give him 124 on the season, said Marchese — the fifth-year senior — is what being a Hawkeye football player is all about because of his work ethic and willingness to play on special teams.

“I mean, he doesn’t have to come back,” Campbell said, “I mean, nowadays people are just gonna decide, ‘Oh, this isn’t working, I’m gonna leave.’ Or, maybe, ‘I’m not the starter so I’m gonna leave,’ or something. He embodies a Hawkeye football player.”

Another change at quarterback

With Iowa down eight points at halftime and the Hawkeyes having no touchdowns to show for being in Husker territory four times over the first two quarters, Ferentz decided to bench Padilla and put Petras into the game to start the third quarter.

Iowa celebrates a touchdown from Spencer Petras after a quarterback sneak during a football game between No. 16 Iowa and Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. Petras rushed for one touchdown. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cornhuskers 28-21. (Jerod Ringwald)

Both quarterbacks had the flu throughout the week, and neither player practiced on Tuesday. But Ferentz said both players were healthy as of Friday, and sickness level had nothing to do with the decision to switch quarterbacks. Instead, the coaching staff was trying to spark the offense. Petras started Iowa’s first nine games of this season and all eight of them last year. The redshirt junior injured his shoulder against Wisconsin on Oct. 30 and Padilla has started Iowa’s last three games, including against Nebraska, even though Petras was said to have been healthy enough to play in recent weeks.

Padilla went 6-of-14 passing, with a couple of passes going through the hands of defenders, for 76 yards in the first half before being taken out. Petras completed 7-of-13 passes for 102 yards.

“It just feels really good to be back out there,” Petras said. “Obviously as a competitor, I want to be out there. My number was called today, and we were able to execute.”

Ferentz did not say whether Petras or Padilla would start if Iowa plays next weekend.

Up next

Well, it depends.

If Wisconsin wins on Saturday, Iowa’s only remaining game this season will be its bowl game. The Hawkeyes will find out where they will play this postseason on Dec. 5. If Minnesota upsets Wisconsin, Iowa will play in the Big Ten Championship Game next weekend in Indianapolis, which is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. and air on FOX next Saturday.

The West champion will play the winner of Saturday’s Ohio State-Michigan game.

“With a little luck, we’ll be playing again next week.” Petras said.

“If we do get the chance to go to the Big Ten Championship,” Goodson added, “we plan on winning that, too.”

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