By Pat Harty
LINCOLN, Neb. – The Iowa football team played one of its best halves and one of its worst halves of the season against Nebraska on Friday.
Fortunately, for Hawkeye fans, the good outweighed the bad, but just barely.
Iowa withstood a valiant second-half comeback by the Cornhuskers and escaped from Memorial Stadium with a 27-24 victory in the regular-season finale for both teams.
Junior Keith Duncan continued his record-breaking season by making a 48-yard field goal with 1 second remaining to secure the victory.
It was Duncan’s 29th field goal this season, which is a Big Ten single-season record.
It was also similar to last season against Nebraska when former Iowa kicker Miguel Recinos made a last-second field goal from 41 yards to secure a 31-28 at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa finished the regular season with a 9-3 record, including 6-3 in the Big Ten, while Nebraska ended with a 5-7 record in Scott Frost’s second season as head coach.
It marks just the second time that Iowa has finished 9-3 in 21 seasons under head coach Kirk Ferentz. The first time came in 2003
Mekhi Sargent broke free for a 30-yard run to give Iowa a first down at the Nebraska 33-yard line with less than 3 minutes to play.
You thought at worst that Duncan, who is a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, would have a chance to kick a potential-winning field goal, but then Nebraska recovered a fumble by Sargent on the next play.
The Cornhuskers were forced to punt, however, and Iowa took over on offense at its own 26-yard line with 32 seconds left in regulation.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley threw deep to Nico Ragaini on first down, but the 38-yard gain was erased after replay showed that Ragaini didn’t complete the catch.
Stanley then completed a pass to Ihmir Smith-Marsette that gained 22 yards to the Iowa 48 with 13 seconds left in regulation.
Stanley then connected with freshman tight end Sam LaPorta for 22 more yards, giving Iowa a first down at the Nebraska 29-yard line with 7 seconds left to play.
That stage for Duncan's game-winning field goal.
The North Carolina native also made game-winning field goal as time expired to beat Michgian 14-13 in 2016.
Iowa’s offense was creative, aggressive and explosive in the first half with all three of its touchdowns coming on big plays, beginning with Smith-Marsette’s 45 touchdown run on a reverse with 11:04 left in the first quarter.
Freshman running back Tyler Goodson then broke loose for a 55-yard touchdown run with 3:08 left in the first quarter and Smith-Marsette returned a kick 95 yards for a touchdown with 8:41 left in the second quarter.
Duncan made the point-after kick to give Iowa a 24-10 lead, and you wondered if the Cornhuskers were on the verge of being blown out at home and on Senior Day.
Iowa junior defensive A.J. Epenesa had one of his best games as a Hawkeys with 14 tackles, including nine solo stops, two sacks and 4 1/2 tackels for loss.
Give Nebraska credit for making some nice halftime adjustments, though, because the second half was a completely different story.
The Cornhuskers outscored Iowa 14-0 in the third quarter, and suddenly, a game that had shown signs of being a rout turned into yet another nail-biter for the Hawkeye, whose three losses to Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin were by a combined 14 points.
The game was tied at 24 when Iowa took over on offense at its own 47-yard line with 9:10 left to play
Iowa has now five games in a row in the series and six of the last seven overall.
The Hawkeyes are undefeated against Nebraska ever since former Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst made his now infamous comment in 2014 about having to evaluate where Iowa is as a program.
The Cornhuskers had just defeated Iowa in overtime in the 2014 regular-season finale at Kinnick Stadium to finish 9-3 overall, but that still wasn’t enough for Bo Pelini to save his job as head coach.
Iowa fans resented what Eichorst said, and understandably so, but it also seems that the Iowa coaches took offense to the arrogance and have been making the Cornhuskers pay ever since.
Iowa was leading 17-3 when Stanley attempted to throw a pass to Smith-Marsette near the Iowa sideline with 8:54 left in the second quarter.
However, the pass was deflected by Nebraska linebacker JoJo Domann and then intercepted by cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who then returned it 38 yards for a touchdown.
The shift in momentum didn’t last long though as Ihmir Smith-Marsette returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown.
It was Smith-Marsette’s first kickoff return for a touchdown as a Hawkeye, and the New Jersey also made good on a prediction that he would take at least one kick to the house this season.
Nebraska had marched into Iowa territory late in the second quarter, but the drive ended when Iowa free safety Jack Koerner intercepted a Martinez pass and returned it 20 yards to the Iowa 25.
Iowa then let the final seconds run off the clock and led 24-10 at halftime.
Iowa had 202 total yards in the first half, including 163 on the ground, while Nebraska only had 114 yards in the first two quarters and averaged just 3.2 yards per play.
Saturday’s game marked the 375th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium, a streak that dates back to 1962.
To put that in perspective, Kirk Ferentz was just seven years old when the streak began and Forest Evashevski was just two years removed from being the Iowa head coach.
So it’s fair to say that Nebraska’s fan support has withstood the test of time and performance better than the Nebraska program.
Iowa 14 10 0 3 – 27
Nebraska 3 7 14 0 – 24
I – Ihmir Smith-Marsette 45 run (Keith Duncan kick)
N – Matt Waldoch 41 FG
I – Tyler Goodson 55 run (Duncan kick)
I – Duncan 49 FG
N – Cam Taylor-Britt 38 interception (Waldoch kick)
I – Smith-Marsette 95 kick return (Duncan kick)
I – Duncan 48 FG