Despite trailing 24-7 late in the third quarter, Nebraska didn’t fold and saved its best for last. It took a stark reversal of fortunes for the Huskers to claw back and win their ninth game of the season after it looked like Iowa would extend the Huskers’ losing streak to three games.
Tommy Armstrong’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell in overtime lifted Nebraska to a 37-34 win over Iowa in Iowa City in the fourth edition of the Heroes Game. Nebraska looked to be out of the game in the third quarter after Nebraska native Drew Ott returned a deflected Sam Foltz punt 40 yards for a touchdown to put the Hawkeyes ahead 24-7. But De’Mornay Pierson-El made amends for the special teams miscues, including an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave the Huskers the lead for the first time at 28-24 with 12:06 left in the game.
“I said to Coach the other day that if they give me one I’m going to be thankful for it,” Pierson-El said. “Once they kicked it to me again, I was like, `Seriously?’ Thanksgiving was the other day and that is what I’m thankful for.”
Iowa responded with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Jake Rudock to Jordan Canzeri with 1:49 remaining to cap a 12-play, 53-yard drive to put the Hawkeyes back in front 31-28. Nebraska would then drive to the Iowa 3-yard line, before settling for Drew Brown’s 20-yard field goal to send the game to overtime with eight seconds remaining.
In the overtime period, Iowa picked up one first down, but had to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Marshall Koehn as the Hawkeyes regained the lead at 34-31. Nebraska picked up a first down on Armstrong’s 12-yard pass to Bell on a 3rd-and-6 on their offensive series in overtime, while finishing things off a play later on Armstrong’s touchdown strike to Bell just past the goal line in the front far corner of the end zone. It was Armstrong’s fourth touchdown pass of the day, as the sophomore finished 12-of-27 for 202 yards to go along with two interceptions. Bell ended the afternoon with three catches for 53 yards and two touchdowns, with his first touchdown grab pulling the Huskers to within 24-21 at the 13:24 mark of the fourth quarter on a 32-yard strike from Armstrong.
Trailing 24-7, Armstrong tossed his second touchdown of the day on a 34-yard completion to Taariq Allen that trimmed the deficit to 24-14 with 1:44 remaining in the third quarter. The Huskers’ defense stepped up and forced an Iowa punt early in the fourth quarter, which Pierson-El returned 41 yards to the Iowa 32 and Armstrong hit Bell on the next play to close the gap further to 24-21. Nebraska forced another Iowa punt, which Pierson-El would then return 80 yards for a touchdown and give Nebraska the 28-24 lead with 12 minutes to play.
It was an emotional win for the Huskers, who ended a two game losing streak and saw their chances for a Big Ten West division title evaporate with losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“I’ve been around a long time and coached a lot of years and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a group of guys,” head coach Bo Pelini said.
“The character they showed, the fight they showed. We had a lot of guys down and a lot of things going against us. They kept fighting.”
“We got down, we could’ve quit,” said senior offensive lineman Jake Cotton. “We didn’t quit.”
The first half saw six turnovers–four by Iowa and two by Nebraska as the Hawkeyes took a 10-7 lead into halftime. Safety Nate Gerry turned away an Iowa drive deep in Nebraska territory with his fifth interception of the season as the sophomore grabbed a Rudock pass in the end zone to snuff out the Hawkeyes’ advance. Nebraska then punted away, but Iowa’s Matt VandeBerg fumbled and Chris Jones recovered at the Iowa 36. Unfortunately for the Huskers, the offense could not advance much further and Brown misfired from 49 yards to keep the game scoreless.
Nebraska turned away another deep Iowa drive with Trevor Roach’s fumble recovery of Rudock after Zaire Anderson hit the quarterback and knocked the ball forward to the Nebraska 11 where Roach recovered. Three plays later, Iowa was on the board after Armstrong was hit as he attempted a pass, which floated to John Lowdermilk who went untouched 17 yards for a touchdown to give Iowa a 7-0 lead with 9:07 left before halftime. Koehn would add a 22-yard field goal with 1:44 left in the quarter to extend the Iowa lead to 10-0 . Armstrong was intercepted once more by Iowa’s Desmond King at the Iowa 41, but Joshua Kalu stripped Damond Powell and recovered the fumble at the Iowa 36 to set up the Huskers for their lone score of the first half. After a 34-yard pass to Cethan Carter down to the Iowa 5-yard line, Armstrong would connect with Ameer Abdullah on a 5-yard touchdown pass to get on the board and take a 10-7 deficit into halftime.
Iowa extended its lead to 17-7 on a 37-yard touchdown pass from Rudock to Tevaun Smith early in the third quarter before the blocked punt return that appeared to have knocked the Huskers out. Rudock finished the day 19-of-38 for 230 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, with Smith leading the way with four catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. The loss drops the Hawkeyes to 7-5 on the season, who lost their last two games at home by a combined five points after falling to Wisconsin 26-24 last Saturday.
The senior Abdullah went over the century mark once again with 13 carries for 106 yards, while Pierson-El had three punt returns for 134 yards and the big touchdown in the fourth quarter. Nebraska moves to 9-3 with the win, giving Bo Pelini his seventh nine-win season since his arrival in Lincoln in 2008. The win means Nebraska is now 8-1 all-time in overtime contests, with their only defeat coming in a 2008 setback at Texas Tech. Nebraska defeated Penn State 23-20 in overtime last season in its lone overtime contest from 2013. Gerry led the Blackshirts with 15 total tackles, while Anderson had 14 tackles and a sack.
Iowa outgained Nebraska in total offense 372-363, with the Huskers owning the advantage on the ground with 161 yards rushing to 142 for the Hawkeyes. Iowa held a 15-minute advantage in time of possession with 37:36, with Nebraska holding the ball for 22:24. The Huskers and Hawkeyes will now both await their bowl destinations to finish the 2014 season.