When it was first announced that the newly-created rivalry game between Nebraska and Iowa would be known as The Heroes Game, most fans were less than lukewarm about the title.
But in the inaugural Thanksgiving-weekend matchup between the Huskers and Hawkeyes, the name seemed appropriate considering the many heroes that emerged wearing Scarlet and Cream.
The coaches and players were embarrassed after their showing last week at Michigan, and fans were rumbling with disapproval. Friday’s game may not have been meaningful in the Big Ten Championship race, but it had the feeling of being a must-win for the Huskers. In Nebraska, nine-win seasons are not only craved, they are expected.
A loss to Iowa would have dropped Nebraska to 8-4 — and coupled with a Northwestern victory over Michigan State — would have dropped the Huskers to a fifth-place finish in the Legends Division. In a year when the competition was down and Nebraska was a title-favorite, that would have been unacceptable.
Luckily, several Big Red players stepped up to beat the Hawkeyes and make the results of this regular season a little easier to swallow.
Leading the way, as usual, was Rex Burkhead. The junior running back not only rushed for 160 yards and a touchdown, but also set a school record with 38 carries. Burkhead has been the workhorse all season and proved exactly why against the Hawkeyes.
Burkhead’s nickname, “Superman,” was more than appropriate this week considering what he endured. The bruising style of Big Ten football had taken its toll on Burkhead, who missed practice time and had his foot in a boot. But come game time, he proved once again why he is the heart and soul of the football team, running over, around and through the Iowa defense.
But Nebraska’s offense was far from one-dimensional, collecting 163 yards and a touchdown through the air. Taylor Martinez didn’t put up gaudy numbers — going 12-for-22 — but he managed the offense and didn’t take a sack or throw an interception. He also spread the ball around, completing passes to five different receivers.
Kenny Bell had a bit of a coming out party, grabbing a career-high five catches for 93 yards. They weren’t routine plays, either, as he made a couple of outstanding catches. His 93 yards were the most by a Husker in any game this season.
Expectations were high for Kyler Reed after an eight-touchdown campaign last season, but he has been hampered by injuries this season and hasn’t been the game-breaker many expected. He did, however, make a big play Friday, scoring his first touchdown of the season on a 6-yard reception with just 32 seconds remaining in the first half. The score increased Nebraska’s lead to 10-0 and gave the Huskers the momentum heading into the locker room.
The defense has been hit-and-miss all season, but Friday was one of the high points. The Huskers limited Iowa to 270 total yards — including just 88 on the ground — and seven points.
Lavonte David continued to shine, leading Nebraska once again with eight tackles. He also posted the only sack of the game and forced and recovered a fumble by Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz after a 24-yard reception in the third quarter.
Finally, there was Andrew Green. The sophomore cornerback collected his first career interception on Iowa’s first drive of the fourth quarter. It marked just the sixth time this season that Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg was picked off.
Nebraska’s win marked the 38th time in the past 42 seasons that the Huskers had at least nine wins in a season. Pelini also has reached nine wins in all four of his seasons with Nebraska.
Things were a bit grim after the Huskers were demolished by the Wolverines. But thanks to several players in The Heroes Game, Nebraska has some much-needed momentum heading into the postseason.
Josh Kaufman is a sports reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Contact him at jkaufman@columbus
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