When this season began, I had planned a big data project for the Iowa-Nebraska game, but the season did not play out anywhere near the way I expected, and that project simply doesn’t make sense now. So I’ll save it for another year. Instead, I present a People’s History of the Iowa-Nebraska Football Series in 53 facts, the number chosen in honor of this being the 53rd all-time Iowa-Nebraska matchup.
Also, I must give a shout out to an old buddy of mine, a Nebraska fan and all around Good Dude, who provided a little of Nebraska perspective on this series history. He shall remain nameless (for his own safety) unless he chooses to identify himself.
Please note that this post and the facts in them is not meant to inflate Iowa and put down Nebraska (though they sometimes do) nor to inflate Nebraska and put down Iowa (though they sometimes do that, too). This is just a story about two brothers arbitrarily separated by an accident of geography, whose fates have been intertwined in peculiar ways, and who clash and conflict with each other, but, ultimately, have more in common with each other than not.
Without further ado:
Fact 1. The first ever game of college football was played between Rutgers and Princeton on Nov. 6, 1869, less than one year after Nebraska became a U.S. state.
Nebraska was admitted to the union as the 37th state on March 1, 1867, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was chartered shortly thereafter in February of 1869. At the time, football was regarded as an “eastern” sport, and Nebraska was, geographically, at the far western edge of the nation’s primary infrastructure. For perspective, Leland Stanford drove the golden spike to connect the transcontinental railroad in May of 1869, three months after UNL was chartered..
Fact 2. Nebraska leads the all-time series 29-20-3.
You probably know this already. I get reminded of it at least one a year. Recently, that reminder tends to come in the evening on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Fact 3. Iowa has held the overall series lead only once.
On Nov. 26, 1891, Iowa played Nebraska in the first-ever game of this series. Iowa won, 22-0. The teams tied 10-10 the following year. Nebraska then rattled off three straight from 1893-1895 and have never relinquished the series lead
Fact 4. These teams once played each other in back-to-back games over the course of a weekend in Omaha..
On Nov. 26, 1896, they played to a fitting 0-0 tie, only to turn around and play again on Nov. 28. Iowa took the second game, 6-0.
Fact 5. Nebraska’s mascot - the “Cornhusker” - is a reference to an upset victory over Iowa.
In 1893, Nebraska upset Iowa, 20-18, and a school newspaper ran the headline, “We Have Met the Cornhuskers And They Are Ours.” The term “Cornhuskers” was a reference to Iowa getting “husked” by Nebraska. The moniker was adopted by Lincoln-area writer Cy Sherman (himself originally from Iowa), who disliked the old team name, the “Bugeaters” (an unflattering reference to a bat). After Sherman’s continued usage in the Lincoln press, the school adopted the name. 40 years later, Sherman would found the AP Poll, which would, in a twist of historical irony, torment Nebraska for decades.
Fact 6. The first 9 games in this series weren’t played in Lincoln or Iowa City.
The first seven were all played in Omaha, followed by two in Council Bluffs. Since then, the series has largely traded off between the two home venues, with some exceptions.
Fact 7. The longest hosting streak belongs to Nebraska.
Nebraska hosted the 1933, 1934, and 1937 games. The series wasn’t played in 1935 or 1936.
Fact 8. Iowa’s longest hosting streak is 2, and has happened twice, both times split by long breaks.
Iowa hosted in 1919 and, after a lengthy break, 1931. Iowa also hosted the last WW2-era game in 1946, and the first game when the series briefly returned in 1979.
Fact 9. Iowa and Nebraska have never played when both teams are great.
Both Iowa and Nebraska have had runs of greatness, but they have almost never been at the same time, and, in those few eras where there was overlapping greatness, the teams simply have not played. Of particular coincidence, despite playing almost every year through the Great Depression and World War II, the series happened to be off in 1939, the Ironmen season and Nile Kinnick’s Heisman Trophy year.
Fact 10. The current run of 11 consecutive annual games is the longest in the history of the series.
Before that, the longest run was from 1891 to 1899, during which time the teams played ten times in nine seasons.
Fact 11. Iowa is 2-7 against ranked Nebraska teams.
Nebraska has been ranked in 9 games against Iowa, and won all but two of them. For 7 of those games, the Cornhuskers were in the top 10. Naturally, one of Iowa’s two victories is over a top 10 Nebraska team (1981).
Fact 12. Nebraska is 0-4 against ranked Iowa teams.
In fairness, Iowa hasn’t been ranked in many of these games because, as noted, the teams have rarely played when both are good.
Fact 13. The first ranked Iowa team Nebraska played was in 2015.
Iowa won that game in Lincoln to complete an undefeated season. The other three games where Iowa was ranked were the last three: 2019, 2020, and 2021.
Fact 14. Nebraska won the only overtime victory in this series.
The now-legendary 2014 “That’s Football”/”We Had to Evaluate Where Iowa Was As a Program” game is the only regulation tie in this series since the overtime rules went into effect. Nebraska won on a touchdown catch by Kenny Bell, who appeared to bobble the ball as he stepped out of bounds, but the call stood. I was furious about this at the time (in part because Iowa had blown a 17-point lead), but, in hindsight, it was probably for the best.
Fact 15. Nebraska holds the longest win streak in this series.
Nebraska won 8 straight from 1931-1941. The teams didn’t play in 1935, 1936, or 1939.
Fact 16. That record is in jeopardy.
The Hawkeyes have won 7 in a row going back to 2015, the second-longest streak in the series.
Fact 17. Nebraska has the largest margin of victory in the series.
They won by an appalling 57-0 in 1980.
Fact 18. Iowa’s largest margin of victory in this series came in Lincoln.
In 2017, the Hawkeyes won 56-14. The game was tied at halftime.
Fact 19. Iowa has scored more than 30 points only six times in this series.
The Hawkeyes are 5-1 in those games, the lone loss coming in the 2014 overtime game.
Fact 19. Iowa has been shut out ten times in this series.
The years were 1894, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1913, 1917, 1931, 1937, 1938, 1980. In case you’ve forgotten how good the Nebraska’s defenses used to be. The Blackshirt thing used to be real.
Fact 20. In 21 of Nebraska’s 29 wins, they held Iowa to single-digit points.
Again, the Blackshirts were once a thing. Also of note, Iowa has also won two games over Nebraska while scoring in the single digits. Because of course they have. We might get a third in 2022.
Fact 21. Nebraska and Iowa both have FIVE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS!
Actually, they both have either zero, or more. It depends on how you count national championships. The thing is, the NCAA has not historically recognized or set up a mechanism for determining the collegiate football national champion. Instead, it has relied on recognition by non-affiliated organizations, chiefly sports writers, newspapers, and analysts. Depending on the prestige of the organization, the NCAA would recognize that organization’s national champion in its record books, which is why we have a lot of split championships. Such organizations are known as NCAA-recognized selectors.
Of the NCAA-recognized selectors, Iowa has five national championships, but only one of them is from a major contemporary selector: the Football Writer’s Association, which was, at the time, arguably the most prestigious. However, the Hawkeyes finished #2 in the AP Poll that year to LSU.
If you include all NCAA-recognized selectors, Nebraska has like 15-20 natties.
Fact 22. Nebraska once completed a conference season without surrendering a single point all year.
Seriously. Back in the Missouri Valley days, the Cornhuskers Dan Gabled their way through that conference and went 9-0 without giving up a single point.
Fact 23. Nebraska tried for decades to get into the Big 10.
Early on, Nebraska had difficulty finding good opponents. Located on the far western reaches of the nation’s major transportation infrastructure at a time when travel was much slower, the Cornhuskers sometimes resorted to playing high school teams for lack of other opponents. Nebraska’s administrations felt they’d never receive national recognition if they didn’t play better schedules, and, given their dominance in the Missouri Valley, you can see why.
They applied for Big 10 admission repeatedly, including in 1899, 1902, 1903, 1907, and 1913. They were kept out while teams they were beating were let in (notably among them, at the time, was Iowa). The Cornhuskers continued to seek Big 10 admission over the years, making their last big push when the University of Chicago Maroons dropped out of conference athletics. Michigan State was added instead.
Fact 24. Kinnick Stadium almost killed the Iowa program.
Flush with athletic department revenues in the roaring 1920s economy, Iowa built Kinnick Stadium in 1929, then called Iowa Stadium, and borrowed a ton of money to do it. Does the year 1929 stick out to you?
The stock market crashed that year and sent the nation into the Great Depression. With it went Iowa’s fortunes. The Depression, droughts, a sluggish agricultural economy, and crippling debt to finance the stadium all brought Iowa to its knees. On top of that, the program was caught operating an illegal slush fund to pay players in 1930 and temporarily kicked out of the Big 10.
Fact 25. The Cornhuskers got jobbed repeatedly by the AP Poll.
The AP Poll was introduced in the 1930s, and, at first, crystalized the fears of Nebraska’s administration that their remote location and weak schedules would keep them out of the national spotlight.
Despite the Cornhuskers’ gaudy records and repeated conference titles, perception lingered in the national sports media that Nebraska was a fraud, and their rankings reflected that skepticism.
For example, in the 1936 AP Poll, 7-2 Nebraska finished behind 6-2 Notre Dame. Nebraska had lost to the only ranked team it played (Pittsburgh), whereas Notre Dame had beaten Ohio State, Army, and #1 Northwestern (you read that correctly).
But then in the 1937 season, Nebraska went 6-1-2, its lone loss coming on the road at #1 Pittsburgh, but they nevertheless finished the season ranked even further behind 6-2-1 Notre Dame and behind 6-2 Minnesota, who Nebraska had defeated earlier that year.
Fact 26. Both the Nebraska and Iowa football programs were decimated by World War II.
The Navy opened a pre-flight school at the University of Iowa in 1942 for the war (the other pre-flight schools were at Georgia, UNC, and St. Mary’s). Iowa Pre-Flight, dubbed the “Seahawks,” played at Kinnick and used Iowa’s facilities and equipment. Legendary Mizzou coach Dan Faurot coached the Seahawks to a 9-1 campaign in 1943, and finished 2nd in the AP poll, damn near winning the national championship. The war, and the pre-flight schools, drained athletic talent across the country, sending both the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers into a tailspin. No pun intended.
Fact 27. Over 60% of Nebraska’s wins over Iowa are from the WW2 era or earlier.
Iowa and Nebraska played off-and-on from the 1890s through the 1910s, and settled into a pattern of playing almost every year from 1930 to 1946. However, Iowa was a deep financial hole and, other than the 1939 Ironmen season, generally uncompetitive. Nebraska head coaches Dana Bible and Biff Jones pummeled the Hawkeyes year after year, building up a series lead of 20-8-3 by the 1946 season. Three of Iowa’s wins during that time period were during the Iowa Pre-Flight seasons, when neither school had any talent.
Fact 28. Iowa was going to be Nebraska before Nebraska was Nebraska.
From 1956 through 1960, the Hawkeyes went 38-7 and won two Rose Bowls and one (or two) national championships (depending on which selectors you recognize). In 1960, Iowa played one of the most difficult schedules any team has played in the history of the sport, with every opponent on the schedule but one being ranked, and they finished 8-1, losing only to eventual AP national champion Minnesota. Even then, several NCAA-recognized selectors chose Iowa as their national champion (but, of course, not the AP).
After the 1960 season, Head Coach Evashevski retired to become the athletic director. At the start of the 1961 season, the Hawkeyes were pre-season #1 and expected to explode out of their small-population state and become a perennial powerhouse for decades to come.
Narrator: They did not become a perennial powerhouse for decades to come. A different, small-population state did.
Fact 29. Bob Devaney was Nebraska’s 4th choice.
Nebraska did not recover quickly from the devastation of WW2, and the team was terrible in the 1950s. They fired their coach in 1961 and bid for the hottest hire at the time: Ray Nagle. But it was widely believed that nobody would ever win a real national championship at Nebraska and Nagle wanted nothing to do with the job. Neither did Nebraska’s second choice, John Ralston, or third choice, Duffy Daugherty.
The Cornhuskers eventually convinced one of Daugherty’s assistants, a guy named Bob Devaney, to reluctantly take the job, on Daugherty’s confident assurances that Devaney could win a national championship there.
And he did. Two of them, back-to-back. And 8 conference championships. Nebraska already had national championships from other NCAA-recognized selectors, but Devaney got them the elusive AP Poll championship they long dreamed of, and the national stature and recognition that came with it.
Fact 30. Iowa football was worse than Chris Ash Rutgers in the 1960s and 1970s.
Pre-season #1 Iowa got off to a bang in 1961, going 4-0 to open the season but the team fell apart as Iowa’s administration bungled its way through off-the-field drama and scandal after scandal. NCAA violations, Big 10 rules violations, social justice issues on campus, legal troubles, and a carousel of poorly managed firings and hirings of head coaches (including, eventually, the same Ray Nagle that Nebraska coveted). It all culminated in an open revolt within the the athletic department.
Thus, while Bob Devaney was and Tom Osborne were winning 10 games a season, Iowa’s moribund football program was adrift in one of the worst 20 year slumps of any program in NCAA history, going 49-120-5 for a winning percentage of 0.259. For comparison, Scott Frost was 0.340 at Nebraska.
Fact 31. An upset over Nebraska made Hayden Fry into Hayden Fry
In 1978 Iowa hired an unconventional southerner with a thick Texas drawl named Hayden Fry as head coach. The Hawkeyes had already agreed to a 4-game series with Tom Osborne’s Cornhuskers from 1979 to 1982 before Fry arrived. The first two games went about how you’d expect, but, in 1981, unranked Iowa opened the season by hosting #7 Nebraska and shocked the Cornhuskers by a very Iowa score of 10-7.
The 1981 Hawkeyes would go on to upset #6 UCLA and #5 Michigan on the road, eventually being ranked as high as #6 in the AP poll themselves. Due to the Big 10’s arcane tie-breaking rules, the 8-4 Hawkeyes got a trip to the Rose Bowl. The loss meant little to Nebraska, but it put Hayden Fry on the map and set the stage for Iowa’s best run of football since Evashevski’s teams of the 1950s.
Fact 32. Hayden Fry saved Iowa football and Nebraska is looking for their Hayden Fry now.
Nebraska fans often find Iowa fan reverence for Hayden Fry baffling, and view it as further proof that Iowa is content with mediocrity. After all, Nebraska’s lasting impression of Iowa from the 1980s was exuberance over being 8-4 and going to the Rose Bowl. But Nebraska fans weren’t really paying attention to Iowa when Fry got good. The teams otherwise didn’t play again until 1999, when Iowa was terrible, and Cornhuskers fans had their attention on Oklahoma.
On paper, Fry’s record is good but certainly not elite. But, success is contextual. Iowa was coming off 20 years of significantly worse than Scott Frost football. Fry upset three top 10 ranked teams, got Iowa back into the AP top 10, got to the Rose Bowl, and a few years later, had Iowa cruising at #1 in the AP Poll. He establish win streaks in which Iowa demolished its most hated rivals for more than a decade and he did it with swagger while producing perhaps the greatest and most prodigious coaching tree in the history of the game.
C’mon, Nebraska fans. This is the hire you’re looking for now. But imagine that what you’ve gone through for the last 5 years goes on for twenty before you make that hire. You have kids, raise them, and send them off to college before Nebraska so much as sniffs another bowl game. Then you hire a guy that brings you back. That’s what Hayden meant to us.
Fact 33. Fry’s 1981 win over Nebraska is Iowa’s best win in the series.
Most of the Nebraska teams Iowa has beaten have not been very good. Not just by Nebraska standards, but by any reasonable standard. But the 1981 team was very good.
Fact 34. Nebraska arguably doesn’t have any “good” wins in the series.
Most of Nebraska’s wins over Iowa teams either pre-date the forward pass or were over terrible teams with losing or middling records. This is due to a mixture of factors, chiefly schedule and fate. These teams grew up in different conferences and never played each other when both were good. The best Iowa team Nebraska has beaten is arguably the 1982 team, though the 2014 win was probably the most gratifying for them.
Fact 35. Modern Nebraska fans first met Iowa when Iowa suuuuuucked.
If you’re under about the page of 50, you probably have no memory of the 4-game series against Iowa from ‘79 to ‘82. Your first memory of Iowa is the 1999 game, which happened to be Kirk Ferentz’s first game. Nebraska was elite then.
Iowa ... wasn’t. They went 1-12.
Predictably, Nebraska destroyed Iowa that year (I was at that game and I have stories). Thus, current-day Nebraska fans saw the absolute worst Iowa team since the Ford administration. So, when they began Big 10 play in 2011, that’s what they expected to find waiting for them.
Narrator: That’s not what they found waiting for them.
Fact 36. For as much crap as we give them, Nebraska in the 1990s really was incredible.
From 1994 to 1997, the Cornhuskers put up an utterly preposterous 49-2 record, three undefeated seasons, two AP #1 final rankings, three Coach’s poll #1 final rankings, and a winning percentage of 0.960. To put this into perspective, Saban’s best four-year run at Alabama was 0.933.
This timing of this era is, to Nebraska, analogous to Hayden Fry arriving at Iowa. By the end of the 1980s, Tom Osborne had yet to win a national title after a lengthy drought, and Nebraska was developing a reputation for being a post-season choke artist. The Cornhuskers were also consistently finishing outside the AP Top 10, and some were suggesting that Osborne was past his prime and didn’t have it in him to reach the mountaintop. When Nebraska won its three titles in the 1990s, they were coming off three straight 9-win seasons (and we all know how they feel about those) and 7 straight bowl losses. Osborne’s run of dominance hasn’t been equaled.
But, as we’ll see, it also marked the end of an era.
Fact 37. Osborne retired just as the entire landscape of college football was about to shift dramatically.
Osborne retired after the 1997 season, right as the entire landscape of college football was about to change. I’ll write a fuller post about this some day, but the short version is that the addition of Texas and Texas A&M, the Big 12 Championship game, and the change to the BCS system broke Nebraska’s recruiting base and mucked up not just it’s winning formula, but that of most of the bluebloods in college football. The BCS in particular was designed by SEC commission Greg Sankey to inflate the SEC’s profile, and it worked brilliantly. After winning just 3-4 national titles during the classic bowl era from the late 1970s to 1998, after a full 4-year recruiting cycle under the BCS system, the SEC won 75% of the remaining BCS titles before the CFP was adopted.
The Cornhuskers rode the momentum of their mid-1990s success into a third national championship in 1997, but Sports Illustrated astutely saw the end coming, predicting in 1996 that that “Nebraska may win another national title, but the days when such a colossus ruled the game are over.”
Narrator: They were right.
Of particular interest is that Osborne’s retirement, the institution of the BCS system, and Iowa’s hiring of Kirk Ferentz all occurred within a 12 month time period, which makes Osborne’s retirement and/or the beginning of the Ferentz era at Iowa an interesting point in time to compare the respective fates of these two programs.
Fact 38. Kirk Ferentz was supposed to be Bob Stoops.
If you remember Iowa’s coaching search, Stoops was made the offer and was all set to come to Iowa City, but Iowa’s administration somehow bungled it and Stoops took the Oklahoma job. Iowa hired Kirk Ferentz instead. Kirk went 1-12 that year. Stoops went undefeated and won the national championship the following year, upsetting #1 Nebraska 31-14 in the process.
Fact 39. Since Osborne retired, Iowa and Nebraska both have exactly 7 seasons of 10+ wins.
Nebraska won 10 or more games in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2009, 2010, and 2012.
Iowa won 10 or more games in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2015, 2019, and 2021.
Fact 40. Since Osborne retired, Iowa has had one head coach. Nebraska is about to hire its 6th.
The Cornhuskers fired Frank Solich, Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini, Mike Riley, and, earlier this year, Scott Frost. Iowa hired Kirk Ferentz in 1999 and, for better and for worse, he’s still here and remains the longest-tenured Division 1 coach.
Fact 41. Since Osborne retired, Iowa has played in more NY6/BCS bowls than Nebraska.
Nebraska has played in two - the 2000 Fiesta Bowl and the 2002 Rose Bowl.
Iowa has played in three - the 2003 Rose Bowl, the 2010 Orange Bowl, and the 2016 Rose Bowl.
Fact 42. Since Osborne retired, both Iowa and Nebraska have 1 win in NY6/BCS bowls.
Nebraska won the 2000 Fiesta Bowl and Iowa won the 2010 Orange Bowl.
Fact 43. Since Osborne retired, Iowa has more conference championships than Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers won the Big 12 in 1999. Iowa won the Big 10 in 2002 and 2004. However, Iowa’s championships are shared. Although undefeated in conference play in 2002, Iowa did not play the also-undefeated Ohio State “Luckeyes” that year due to a quirk of scheduling, and there was no Big 10 Championship game at the time.
Fact 44. Nebraska’s loss in the One Second Left game put Iowa in the 2010 Orange Bowl.
In 2009, we were still under the BCS system, which had 5 games featuring 10 teams. The six major conference champions were “AQ” - automatic qualifiers - and received automatic bids, leaving only four “at-large” spots for others. Iowa was in 2nd place in the Big 10 at 10-2 and, going into conference championship weekend, there were just enough at-large spots for Iowa. The loser of the SEC championship game would get an at-large bid, as would both TCU (then in the Mountain West) and Boise State. Iowa was the consensus pick for that final spot at #10.
But that assumed Texas beat Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game. Texas was BCS #3 and Nebraska, at 9-3, was #22. If the Cornhuskers won, they would get a BCS game under the AQ rules, and Texas, at 12-1, would certainly not fall out of the BCS Top 10 and instead take of the at-large spots. As the lowest-ranked BCS team, that would push the Hawkeyes out.
But Texas did win, 13-12, on a walk-off field goal. But, on the immediate prior play, with the game clock winding down, Colt McCoy threw a pass downfield and out of bounds and the game clock appeared to expire. It looked like the ball landed out of bounds with one second left on the clock (this is debatable), but clock errors weren’t reviewable except under “egregious” circumstances. Ballgame. Nebraska wins. Iowa is out of the BCS.
But wait! The video replay official determined that the clock error was indeed “egregious”, and ordered one second put back on the clock. Texas kicked the winning field goal, Nebraska was out and Iowa went to the Orange Bowl, where the Hawkeyes defeated the ACC Champion Georgia State Yellow Jackets to win their first BCS level game since the 1950s.
Six months later, Nebraska announced that it was leaving the Big 12 and, at long last, joining the Big 10.
Fact 45. The AP Poll is to Nebraska what the Rose Bowl is to Iowa.
Until the mid-1970s, the Big 10 only permitted one Big 10 team to participate in post-season play, and that game was the Rose Bowl. As such, the Rose Bowl became, over the generations, the Holy Grail of Big 10 football achievement. There was literally nothing else to achieve due to conference rules. Those rules changed in the 1970s, and the Rose Bowl isn’t really special any more, but the romance of the venue is in Big 10 DNA, especially for those teams who haven’t won it in a long time. It represents the pinnacle of excellence.
Not so for Nebraska. For them, that’s the AP Poll. The AP Poll was founded by one of their own, yet it looked down upon generations of Cornhusker teams. The elite ranks of college football have always been a gated community and Nebraska was long perceived as being unworthy. Fair or not, this perception was reflected AP Poll rankings. Over the decades, the national recognition symbolized by the AP Poll came to be Nebraska’s Holy Grail in the same way that the Rose Bowl was to the Big 10.
This disparity resulted in Nebraska fans looking down on the Big 10, especially since the conference’s arcane selection rules could send an 8-4 Iowa team to the “Grandaddy of them All.” “That’s the best the Big 10 has to offer? 8-4?” This is, I suspect, why Nebraska fans, especially those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, look down on the Big 10 for fetishizing the Rose Bowl.
Fact 46. As a program, Iowa exceeds Nebraska in one major category: bowl wins.
If you stack Iowa and Nebraska up side-by-side, it’s hard to compare the two. Iowa is arguably a borderline Top 25 program all-time (which is remarkable considering the program has 20 straight years of sub-0.300 play), and Nebraska is Top 10 all-time in most categories.
Except one: bowl wins. The Cornhuskers all-time bowl record of 26-27-0 is actually sub-500, whereas Iowa is 17-16-1.
Fact 47. Bo Pelini went 3-1 against Iowa but only outscored the Hawkeyes by a total of 1 point.
After joining the Big 10, the Cornhuskers were paired up with Iowa in the Black Friday game starting in 2011, and they’ve played on that day ever since. Bo Pelini’s Cornhuskers easily dispatched an overmatched Iowa squad in 2011, and unexpectedly struggled against 4-7 Iowa in 2012. In 2013, Iowa went into Lincoln and dominated the Cornhuskers, 38-17. The 2014 game was shaping up to be more of the same, but Iowa choked away a 17-point lead with turnovers and inexplicably continuing to punt the ball to Nebraska’s fantastic returner, De’Morney Pierson-El, who ran one back 80 yards for a touchdown. Nebraska eeked out an overtime win that day on a questionable Kenny Bell catch that irks me to this day, and Bo Pelini was famously fired for it.
Bo went 3-1 against Iowa, but only outscored the Hawkeyes by a total of 87-86 in those games. That’s a very Iowa way to win, but Pelini was a grad assistant at Iowa under Hayden Fry. Maybe he got a little Hawkeye on him while he was here.
Fact 48. In 2021, a former Nebraska player described Iowa as “the easiest game of the year” and a team that he “never took ... seriously.”
This was said by legendary former Nebraska linebacker Will Compton, who, just before last year’s Black Friday game, tweeted that when Nebraska played Iowa in 2011 and 2012, the Hawkeyes were “the easiest game of the year” and he “never took them seriously.”
Iowa scored a total of 14 points in those two games, so Nebraska’s defense did its job and Compton’s remarks are understandable from that perspective.
But neither game was a blowout.
Iowa was a 4-8 team in 2012 and Nebraska was trailing those lowly Hawkeyes well into the third quarter, ultimately winning just 13-7 (to be fair, the weather played a significant role in this score). In 2011, the Hawkeyes, while certainly not good, were 7-5 with an upset win over #13 Michigan. Also, Nebraska’s schedule in 2011 included 3-9 Minnesota, 4-9 Fresno State, and 5-6 Chattanooga. Nebraska beat that Iowa team 20-7, but Compton thinks it was an easier out than the Chattanooga team they beat 40-7? Maybe from the defense’s perspective.
In any event, I’m pretty ok with Nebraska continuing to not take Iowa seriously.
Fact 49. Nebraska gave us New Kirk.
“But in the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was.” These words were spoken by Nebraska AD Sean Eichorst in defense of his decision to fire Bo Pelini after the 2014 overtime win, and the comment rankled Iowa fans. Eichorst’s attempts to explain it away didn’t help.
Aided by Iowa’s utter humiliation in the Hawkslayer Bowl (I’ve still never watched that game and I never will), Iowa fans impatience with Kirk Ferentz was as hot as it had been since 2007. Ferentz hired a PR firm to help him be less of a grouchy poop in press conferences, Jake Ruddock was benched in favor of C.J. Beathard, and in 2015, we got New Kirk.
Iowa went undefeated that year, capping off the campaign with a lazy win over Mike Riley in Lincoln, and the Hawkeyes were within inches of winning the Big 10 Championship Game and going to the CFP. Instead, we got our favorite consolation prize: the Rose Bowl.
Like the retirement of Osborne, Eichorst’s comments and the firing of Pelini marked another turning point in this series. Nebraska hasn’t won since, and it’s become an Iowa fan tradition, after beating Nebraska, to stop and remind ourselves to evaluate where they are as a program.
Fact 50. Since Eichorst had to evaluate where Iowa was as a program, the Hawkeyes are 7-0 against Nebraska.
Fact 51. Since Eichorst had to evaluate where Iowa was as a program, the Hawkeyes have outscored the Cornhuskers 236-137.
Fact 52. Since Eichorst had to evaluate where Iowa was as a program, the Hawkeyes have held the lead or been tied with Nebraska (usually 0-0) for 457 of the 480 minutes of game clock that have elapsed.
Fact 53. We should be rivals, and we should be friends, but we aren’t really either, yet.
Nebraska fans engage in somewhat rigorous internal debate over whether Iowa is truly a “rival.” Historically, this obviously is not true. Until 2011, the teams played only sporadically in non-conference play, never met in post-season play, and never played when anything was truly at stake for either team. There isn’t much juice there.
But Nebraska fans generally recognize that the Cornhuskers aren’t going anywhere they want to be if they can’t beat Iowa and Wisconsin. Also, you guys have been real dicks to Nebraska fans on-line. Rivalry or not, these teams stand in each other’s way, and this game is the last game of the season. It means at least a little bit more to both fan bases than, say, Purdue.
So, whether or not it’s a rivalry, it’s still a game that matters more, and that makes it special.
Also, it doesn’t have to be as vitriolic as it is. Until Nebraska joined the conference, Iowa was the smallest population state in the conference (by a significant margin. Nebraska is even smaller and, with the bulk of its population living close to the Iowa border, has much in common with us.
We’re both small agriculture states with no major metropolitan areas and no major professional sports franchises. We’re in the middle of flyover country. Iowa used to be the Big 10’s western outpost, now Nebraska is (well, until 2024). When you meet somebody from Chicago or Minneapolis, they don’t tell you they’re from Illinois or Minnesota. They name the city because they identify with the city.
But we don’t.
Whether you’re from North Platte or Kearney, you just tell people you’re from Nebraska, and whether you’re from Mason City or Ottumwa, you tell people you’re from Iowa. Relative to the rest of the nation, our cultural heritage and identity is our state identity more so than our cities. And, without any major sports franchises, the most visible symbol of that identity is the athletics department of our flagship universities, especially football.
When the programs are bad, it’s not just a bad year of football. It feels like a bad year to be an Iowan, or to be a Nebraskan.
We and Nebraska have that much in common, and while everybody loves their teams, I do think these games hit Iowans and Nebraska differently than, say, Minnesota fans (there’s always hockey season) or Indiana fans (basketball’s on!). The way our teams form a piece of us is unique within the conference, and, I suspect, probably closer to how SEC fans feel in places like Mississippi and Alabama, where there are also no major sports teams or metropolitan areas.
Or maybe I’m just talking out of my ass.
Either way, as we gather with family and friends this Thanksgiving and take time for gratitude for our blessings, keep in mind, before you fire off some acerbic, vitriolic Tweet or troll opposing fanboards, that Hawkeye and Cornhusker are flyover brothers separated only by accidents of geography and history, and we are more like each other than not.
Be excellent to each other. Happy Thanksgiving. Go Hawks!