LINCOLN, Neb. — The reality of it all hit home Friday for Nebraska. It came up one play short, one tackle, one kick and sometimes even one yard away from victory.
“Maybe this is about where we are right now,” coach Matt Rhule said after Iowa celebrated its denial of the Huskers’ sixth win in a football season for the third time in the Hawkeyes’ past five visits to Memorial Stadium.
Was this 13-10 gut punch — on a walk-off, 38-yard field goal by Marshall Meeder in his Iowa kicking debut — the most painful of all the defeats? Perhaps. But there’s no need to keep track. It does not matter right now.
Another Nebraska heartbreaker: Takeaways from a loss to Iowa as bowl eligibility slips away
What matters? That Nebraska did not improve enough in the most critical areas from Week 1 to Week 13 during the first season under Rhule to make up the difference provided by a field goal between itself and its middling opponents in a soon-to-be-defunct Big Ten West.
The Huskers lost Friday the same way and by the same score that they lost against Minnesota in the Aug. 31 opener — on a field goal as time expired after a turnover and a defensive lapse in the final minute.
It’s uncanny. But that’s life for the Huskers, who are seemingly never without a new way to crumble in a division that was there for the taking, yet simultaneously so far away for Nebraska to take.
The journey is over for Rhule’s first team. The Huskers finished 5-7, a seventh consecutive losing season and another postseason missed.
“Especially to lose in that fashion, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” Rhule said. “But what I will say, they are winners. I’m very grateful for that senior class. They stood in that gap. While everyone might not see it, I truly believe they built something special. I just hate the way it ended.”
It ended Friday in a haze as puffs of frozen breath hovered in the cold air and a crowd of bodies moved toward midfield seconds after Meeder’s kick fluttered above the crossbar in the south end zone. An unrelenting wind out of the north helped to push it for the winning points.
Iowa players lifted Meeder onto their shoulders. Other Hawkeyes ran alongside a row of Huskers, waving goodbye as the Nebraska players left their bench area. Staffers from both programs exchanged unpleasant words. Tensions served as a reminder that this rivalry remains healthy — and of the pride at stake.
In the reshaped Big Ten next year, Iowa and Nebraska persist as a staple of Black Friday. And for as ugly as it appeared to college football observers who traded insults about the two frail offenses on display in Lincoln, the Big Ten needs this.
It needs the hard-scrabbled intensity of Iowa-Nebraska. This series has developed a fierce nature that peaks annually in the fourth quarter. Last year at Kinnick Stadium, Nebraska held off an Iowa comeback attempt to beat the Hawkeyes for the first time since 2014.
Friday in Lincoln, neither offense wanted it. Iowa managed one first down in the second half until the last 30 seconds. Nebraska, after pulling even with six minutes to play in the third quarter, tilted field position in its favor, a page out of the Iowa playbook, but it could not capitalize on a trip to the edge of the red zone midway through the fourth.
When the Huskers finally got a turnover in the last minute, with an opportunity to win in regulation, they gave it right back. The Hawkeyes were happy to take the gift. And they knew what to do with it.
Therein lies the gap between Iowa and Nebraska. Nebraska doesn’t know yet what to do with an opportunity.
Look at the past four games after the Huskers arrived on the verge of bowl eligibility:
• At Michigan State on Nov. 4, down 20-17, Nebraska misfired on two drives in the final three minutes. One ended with a fumble by Heinrich Haarberg, the other as time expired.
• Against Maryland at home on Nov. 11, a 90-yard drive, with the score tied at 10, fell apart on a Purdy interception in the end zone. The Terps took the ball and won on a field goal — 13-10, just like Iowa and Minnesota.
• At Wisconsin on Nov. 18, Nebraska capped a 68-yard drive with four seconds to play in regulation by settling for a 30-yard field goal that forced overtime. The Badgers scored and held for the win.
• And Friday, when cornerback Tommi Hill intercepted Iowa QB Deacon Hill and gave Nebraska possession at its 45 with 31 seconds to play, overtime looked like the worst possible outcome for the Huskers.
If you don’t know the Huskers, that is.
The fourth quarter of the season for Nebraska went up in flames. And in those three games to finish — four games if you count the entire losing streak — the final minutes doomed the Huskers.
Rhule said he knows what the constituents of Nebraska football will want.
“People always think you fix things,” he said, “by (saying), ‘Let’s go get this player, that player.’”
The transfer portal opens in 10 days. But Rhule’s not ready to dive in.
“We’ve got a lot of really good players here,” he said.
“I’m so confident about what we’re doing and feel so great about the things that are happening, and I’m so excited to see where this is going to end up.”
Rhule said he feels crushed for the Huskers.
“As I told them, sometimes the first people to do things don’t get to see the results. The first people to storm the beach at Normandy, the first explorers, you don’t always get to see the end result.”
Returning and departing Huskers believe in the coach and his plan.
“The first year with a new coach is always a hard year,” senior guard Nouri Nouili said. “Everybody stuck here and stuck together. We’ve been through a lot. And they’re still here.”
Said freshman receiver Jaylen Lloyd: “I thank those guys. They set the foundation for us.”
Junior defensive lineman Ty Robinson, among the core set to return in Year 2 for Rhule at Nebraska, said he and the entire group of players in the locker room continued to believe they’d win. Despite four close Big Ten defeats before Friday — and Iowa’s knack to find a way — Robinson said he thought the hard work and togetherness would deliver a sixth victory.
“Unfortunately, that’s not how football works sometimes,” Robinson said.
“It’s only up from here. I’m really excited to be a part of it. That was a big part of why I wanted to come back, because I think this coaching staff has put a lot of time and effort and it has a lot to make a massive leap next year.”
Too often, Rhule said, people want to complain when things don’t go right. This debut season for him, in finishing how it started, undoubtedly did not go right.
But look closely. There’s more to this picture, he said, than an unseemly fourth quarter.
“We’re going to work,” Rhule said. “And I think we’ve got the young players to do it. So we’ll be back.”
(Top photo: Reese Strickland / USA Today)