Seniors close on sour note
Missing a bowl game hurts. So does losing to a border rival.
But the conversation among Nebraska underclassmen kept circling back to a larger lament in the wake of Friday’s 27-24 loss to Iowa. This wasn’t what they wanted for the seniors.
Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez said he couldn’t get his mind beyond the outgoing group when asked about what the offense needs to improve upon in the offseason. Junior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle shook his head when asked about the team’s demeanor in the moments after the last-second field goal.
“It hurts,” Bootle said. “It’s a lot of emotion in that locker room right now. Guys walking around crying because they want it so bad. I shed some tears for my seniors because this will possibly be their last time putting on this uniform. Just wanted to send them out the right way.”
Added junior defensive end Ben Stille: “Everything they’ve been through, I was just sorry we couldn’t get it done for them.”
“I just told the seniors that I love them and appreciate them,” Frost said. “They’ve been through a lot.”
The smattering of seniors who spoke with reporters were more upbeat. Cornerback Lamar Jackson said he had no regrets from his final season, one year after recovering from a midseason benching and playing his way into a likely NFL draft pick. Defensive lineman Khalil Davis emerged from the locker room wearing a candy necklace given to each departing player by the family of position mate Vaha Vainuku.
Most of all, seniors said, they are glad the next crop of players will have more stability than they did — many were recruited by one coaching staff, developed with another and stayed on when Frost took over. Their position coaches were even more numerous. Frost told the team in a meeting this week that the experience for future Huskers will be different.
“Those guys are going to have steady coaches,” Carlos Davis said. “It’s going to be the same game plan, there’s nothing changing on them. They’re going to be able to build off of that — that’s something I didn’t have. ... But the future looks bright for this program and I’m happy for them.”
One day after Thanksgiving, captain and inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said he was grateful to Nebraska for his experience since taking a chance as an 18-year-old who played high school football in Georgia.
“This place means so much to me,” Barry said. “I will always keep this place near and dear to my heart.”
Nebraska scored as many points on Iowa’s defense as anyone this season. It did so despite consistently struggling on first downs.
The first half was particularly unsightly, producing a combined 10 yards on 14 first-down plays. The number overall was 29 plays for 56 yards, good for just 1.9 yards per play.
“That falls on my shoulders,” Martinez said. “Part of it is getting good plays on first down. I think it put Coach Frost in a tough spot and it puts our offense in general in a tough spot when you don’t get positive plays to start a drive against a really solid defensive team.”
The breakdown includes seven plays for negative yardage, six for no gain and three for one yard. Swing passes and short screens were especially leaky, as Iowa defenders consistently diagnosed the plays and bowled into the backfield.
An interception and a score
Cam Taylor-Britt told JoJo Domann to break hard on the upcoming out-route.
Domann did, but the pick slipped through his hands. Taylor-Britt was there to catch the deflection.
“Just tried to high-point the ball like we do in practice,” Taylor-Britt said. “I wasn’t worried about them catching me.”
His 38-yard interception return for a score made it 24-17. It was Nebraska’s second pick-six of the year. Eric Lee had one on the same sideline against South Alabama in the season-opener.
“I think when Cam got that pick, I think it turned everything around,” Carlos Davis said. “It gave us some life and we were able to build off of it and come back and tie the game.”
Taylor-Britt finished the game with four tackles, one pick, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery.
Domann said he wasn’t all that upset he missed on that pick.
“As long as it went to the crib, I’ll take it,” Domann said.
Spielman misses record
JD Spielman continued his march up a few Nebraska career charts while falling just short of a major single-season record.
The junior receiver caught three passes for 34 yards Friday, including a 39-yard touchdown in the third quarter. He moves into third in school history with 170 catches, just 19 shy of Stanley Morgan’s mark.
Spielman’s career total for receiving yards increased to 2,546, bringing him within 201 yards of Morgan’s career mark (2,747). His single-season production for receiving yards ends at 898 — he had needed 141 Friday to break Morgan’s record of 1,004 from last year.
No hard feelings?
There was quite a bit of enthusiasm on the field in the rivalry game on Friday.
“I mean, we hate each other,” Wyatt Mazour said bluntly with a laugh postgame. “There’s a respect as well. Football is a game of testosterone and a lot of energy so, it’s tough to keep that all inside.”
There was only one personal foul — on Iowa — for extracurricular activity, but there could have been more.
That’s OK, though, Mazour said.
“That’s how Nebraska and Iowa needs to be every year,” said Mazour, a senior. “And it wasn’t the outcome we wanted but we’re going to work in the offseason to get ourselves right so we can overcome these close games that we’ve been having which has continued to be our arch nemesis.”
Redshirt seasons complete
No additional Huskers burned their redshirts in the season finale Friday.
The only player in danger of losing his was freshman running back Rahmir Johnson, who had already appeared in the maximum number of games (four) allowed to retain redshirt status. As expected, Johnson was a no go against Iowa.
Among Huskers to compete in their fourth contest were at least three freshmen in receiver Darien Chase, tight end Chris Hickman and quarterback Luke McCaffrey along with sophomore kicker Barret Pickering.
Freshmen who previously had exhausted their redshirt status were receiver/back Wan’Dale Robinson, linebacker Garrett Nelson, defensive back Quinton Newsome and walk-on linebacker Luke Reimer.
You’re saying there’s a chance
Despite failing to win its sixth game, Nebraska still carries the faintest of bowl hopes into the weekend.
Following Mississippi State’s win Thursday and Kent State’s victory Friday, three open bowl spots remain entering Saturday.
Seven games feature a team that can reach six-win status. Three of those are favorites: Michigan State (23-point favorite over Maryland), North Carolina (10.5-point favorite over NC State) and Liberty (14-point favorite over New Mexico State). Four others are underdogs: Boston College (8 points to Pitt), Oregon State (19.5 to Oregon), Colorado (28 to Utah) and UL-Monroe (19.5 to Louisiana).
Nebraska also needs a pair of teams with 4-7 records to lose in Duke (9-point underdog to Miami) and Middle Tennessee (8.5 underdog to Western Kentucky). Both are ahead of Nebraska in the tiebreaker, Academic Progress Rate (APR).
Boston College, at 5-6 and with a better APR than Nebraska, would be in over the Huskers regardless of its outcome. So NU needs at least seven of the other eight contests to break its way to extend its season.
— Chris Heady and Evan Bland