Nebraska’s long, strange journey can end with momentum-building win

November 24, 2018

LINCOLN — Matt Farniok had a choice three years ago between two Midwestern schools with a history of strong offensive line play and hard-nosed football, growing rivals and conference foes within comfortable driving distance of his home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. • Farniok picked Nebraska over Iowa, and the Husker right tackle reflected on that decision this week as the Huskers and Hawkeyes

renew this dance of mutual dislike.

“It’s Iowa, so it’s going to be fighting for blades of grass, fighting a bloody-nose fight,” Farniok said. “It’s all you want. It’s the kind of game I really enjoy.”

That Farniok and his teammates are still in enjoyment mode with a 4-7 record speaks to the turnaround of a sour season. Here is plucky Nebraska, feeling better about itself every day. You wouldn’t know it’s a 10-point underdog. The Huskers don’t show it.

Losing seasons usually turn coaches and players to pulp by November. You can see the toll — physical and emotional — in facial expressions, shoulder sighs and diplomatic answers. You can tell by the few players who show up to talk. Proclaiming the pigskin gospel is usually far down the list for losing teams. The performance makes evident why they’re losing. What else is there to say?

“Football is simple — it’s not easy,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said.

But these Huskers have so much to say — and have been so eager to say it. A journey that started in the literal storm of a canceled game — before multiple metaphorical ones — has reached a destination where practice is fun, players bounce in the hall and coach Scott Frost, far from needing a break, wouldn’t mind riding the momentum a little longer.

He only wished his team had figured it out before a 0-6 start.

“When you go through something and it seems like you just started yesterday, but also it seems like it started 10 years ago — that’s kind of how this year’s been,” Frost said.

So much happened. Some of it wasn’t pleasant, but it was necessary for Nebraska to go in the right direction.

“It’s kind of been pretty sweet and special,” Frost said, “to see the guys band together and rally and persevere and have the second half of the season that they had.”

And barring the longest of shots, Nebraska — even with a win — isn’t making a bowl game. So this is it. Black Friday, 11 a.m., Kinnick Stadium. The final scrum on the schedule.

Last stop: Rivalry. A nationally televised date with Iowa over Thanksgiving leftovers.

It hasn’t been the most pleasant experience in recent years for Husker players — or fans.

Since 2014, when Nebraska clipped Iowa 37-34 in overtime, NU has fired two coaches, insulted the Hawkeye program by suggesting the 2014 win didn’t mean much, and botched — for only two years, thankfully — the tradition of playing Iowa on Black Friday. (Former Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst gets credit on those last two items.)

Oh, and Nebraska has lost three straight to the Hawkeyes. The last two — 40-10 in 2016 and 56-14 in 2017 — were blowouts.

What had been a series controlled by the Huskers now belongs to Iowa, which has averaged 5.98 yards per carry the past three meetings.

“That game last year was a total nightmare,” inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “It was a demoralizing game. The fact is that they’re going to try to run it down (our throats), and they’re just going to keep on going over and over again.”

Outside linebacker Luke Gifford, who missed the 2017 contest with a hip injury, has never watched film of that game.

“I don’t plan on watching it ever, either,” Gifford said. “It has been tough watching it from the sidelines.”

Nebraska’s offense performed just as poorly in both games. In 2016, quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe were so banged up that Armstrong — the runner — couldn’t really run, and Fyfe — the passer — couldn’t really pass. Nebraska gained 217 yards as a result. Nebraska had 267 in 2017. The Huskers’ run game was nonexistent in both.

In 2018, Nebraska’s offense, even in the forecast rain, is less likely to fall apart because of freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, whose dual-threat talents fit well into Nebraska’s no-huddle, fast-paced attack.

“He seems to be the center of everything,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s hard to believe he’s a freshman. He’s very, very impressive.”

NU players had their own praise for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa’s offensive line moves quickly off the ball, Barry said. Hawkeye tight ends, including Omaha South graduate Noah Fant, are plenty dangerous, Gifford said, which means Nebraska will have to be smart with its run/pass reads. Iowa’s defensive line is just as good as the Michigan State bunch that stymied Nebraska last week, offensive line coach Greg Austin said.

The Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) are not only Nebraska’s lone rival in the Big Ten, but an obstacle to a happy ending.

Nebraska has won four of its past five, and if it upsets Iowa, would head into the offseason with a full tank of momentum, energy and perhaps hype.

Beat Iowa and the Huskers may show up on those way-too-early Top 25 polls. Beat Iowa and Nebraska’s recruiting pitch gets a little better. Beat Iowa and Nebraska players have bragging rights — and a heavy Heroes Trophy — for the first time since 2014.

“Iowa is our rival, we don’t like them, and to stop their run game, to beat them in their house, it means everything,” Barry said. “There’s no motivation needed. Everyone should be self-motivated this week.”

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