Published Friday, November 23, 2012 at 2:20 pm / Updated at 11:29 pm
FOOTBALL
Burkhead helps battered Huskers hold off Hawkeyes, earn Big Ten title game berth
They said it
Well, that was hard. We knew it was going to be that way. We knew it was going to be hard. We told our team that. With everything Iowa had going on with it being their Senior Day and the whole deal. And those were tough conditions out there. I don't know if we played our best, but we did what we had to do. We got it done. We're proud of our team, and we give Iowa a lot of credit. They played hard. It was difficult. It was a game of field position. I thought we did a really good job, other than the first drive defensively, we played really good. We played physical. That's a physical team. I told the team in the locker room before the game it was going to be about winning on the line of scrimmage and being physical up front on both sides of the football. We did that well enough to win the game.
— Nebraska coach Bo Pelini

I talked to him. I thought it would be a mental boost for us. I talked to him, and I talked to the trainer. I went into the game thinking I was only going to play him if we needed him, and I thought we needed him at that point. The other guys were running good, too, but I thought it was something that would give us an emotional boost. He's a huge part of our team and gives an emotional lift. He gives us another weapon. Rex just gives us another element.
— Pelini on the decision-making process at halftime regarding Rex Burkhead

I believe in this team, and honestly I'm proud of those kids in the locker room. We're not done. We have one left. I told them enjoy it today, but we're looking for something more than winning our division. The team has come together and put ourselves in this position. After Ohio State, I thought that is what we were capable of doing. We're going to have to play well next week.
— Pelini on winning six in a row

The wind especially. Wind is the biggest factor, I think, in football typically. Probably comparable to the 2004 game over at Illinois as far as pretty much all the action went one way. Penn State '08, it was similar. I think this was a little more significant. That's where all the scoring was going to take place. That's a big, big factor. They did a better job of it in the second half than we did.
— Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz on how tough it was with the wind and the temperature

As I said, in my mind he's really a dynamic player. He just changes the tempo of things out there a little bit. That's what good players do. Again, they've got a lot of good players. To me, when he's in there, they run at a little different level. I'm not taking anything away from No. 8. He's a good back, too. We had a hard time tackling him. That was a factor.
— Ferentz on how the dynamic changed when Burkhead entered the game

Yes and no. The yes part is that I've got a great appreciation for winning. Always have. I'm not sure everybody always does, including players. It's something you have to educate them on, just how hard it is to win a game. I heard Jim Leyland say that on the radio, a week before the World Series. Winning a baseball game is hard, and they've got 162 of them. I think anybody that's competed learns to appreciate the fact that wins are hard to come by. But I'll flip it around, too, and say our expectations are certainly to go to bowls every year, but realize they're never automatic. This year is certainly evidence of that. That's behind us now as of about a half-hour ago. Now we go back to work and see what we can do about moving forward in a positive way.
— Ferentz on if there was ever a point in the summer or fall camp when he thought this team would sit out the bowl season

No, I don't. Nobody's happy about where we're at today, obviously. Big-picture wise, no. Nobody is happy about today or this season.
— Ferentz on if he has concern about the progress of his program

Our players. Start with that. We've got some good players on our football team. There's no reason we can't be successful. We fully realize we have a lot of work to do right now.
— Ferentz on what gives him confidence there are better days coming for this program

>> Video Below: Bo Pelini, Taylor Martinez and others after the Iowa game

* * *

IOWA CITY — Won out. One more.

Accepting and fulfilling coach Bo Pelini's challenge to control its own destiny, Nebraska won its last six regular-season games, clinched a share of the Legends Division title and secured a berth in the Big Ten championship.

Michigan and probation-shackled Ohio State play Saturday for posterity — and nothing more. The Huskers advance directly to Dec. 1 in Indianapolis, where they'll play Wisconsin for the conference title. Winner goes to the Rose Bowl.

“We had a tough road, but we bowed up,” a grinning Will Compton said. “We got the wins.”

“We've been through a lot as a team to get here,” coach Bo Pelini said.

And win No. 6 in the regular-season streak — a 13-7 slugfest over Iowa Friday — was a lot all on its own. Pelini suspected it would be and warned his players all week not to take their families' Big Ten title ticket orders before they were punched. He was right. The four-win Hawkeyes played their proverbial bowl game before a chilled crowd of 69,805 at Kinnick Stadium and led for nearly three quarters.

Ľ A wicked, swirling 26-mph north wind played tricks with the ball and froze quarterback Taylor Martinez's hands before the game, forcing him to wear gloves. The wind ruffled the red “Huskers”-embroidered scarves of NU cheerleaders, flapped Iowa's team flags and danced as both offenses stood still, trying like heck to contend with it.

“By far the coldest game I've ever played in,” Martinez said.

Ľ Nebraska also lost its starting center (Justin Jackson) and top defensive tackle (Baker Steinkuhler) to injuries. Pelini expects neither to return for next week's game.

Ľ And to add insult, NU gift-wrapped two fumbles in the first half for Iowa, which controlled the tempo and led 7-3 at halftime.

It was, in other words, business as usual for the Huskers during this win streak.

“It felt like we were ahead,” Pelini quipped.

Not yet. But NU's coach made calculated choices to help get that lead.

Pelini chose to play with the wind for the third quarter, which required the Blackshirts to get a stop on Iowa's opening drive. They did.

And then Rex Burkhead trotted onto the field.

Burkhead — sidelined for nearly five games with a left knee sprain — sat out the first half. He started the second.

“We're only going to play him if we needed him,” Pelini said. “I thought we needed him.”

Pelini asked Burkhead if he was ready to go.

“Absolutely,” Burkhead said. “Let's do this.”

Burkhead converted a fourth-and-1 on his first series. That drive led to Brett Maher's 52-yard field goal.

Two drives later, the Huskers churned out their only touchdown. Martinez started it with a 19-yard pass to Ben Cotton. Sophomore Braylon Heard ripped off 18 yards to get NU to the Iowa 6. And Burkhead finished off the game-winning drive with a 3-yard run.

But Burkhead saved his game-defining runs for Pelini's most nervous moment in the fourth quarter, when a Hawkeye punt, pushed by the wind, rolled to the Nebraska half-yard line.

Just get me one first down, Pelini thought.

Burkhead helped the Huskers get two. He carried several Hawkeyes 9 yards for a first down. Next play: 8 more yards. NU had room to punt.

“It was a game of field position with the wind and all, so it was nice to get out of there,” Burkhead said.

The Blackshirts did the rest. Pelini thought NU would have to pitch a second-half shutout to win, and it did, holding the Hawkeyes to 70 second-half yards.

Any holes running back Mark Weisman had on Iowa's first-quarter touchdown drive gradually disappeared, as Nebraska adjusted to the Hawkeyes' three- and four-wide-receiver sets with more defensive backs who could tackle in space. Safety P.J. Smith finished with eight tackles, while defensive backs Daimion Stafford and Andrew Green finished with seven.

NU's pass defense swallowed up Iowa's outside receivers and intercepted two James Vandenberg passes in the second half to help the seal the win. The second of those picks came on the Hawkeyes' final drive, when Pelini unleashed back-to-back blitzes that he'd held back all day.

To bring pressure, Pelini relied on linebacker Alonzo Whaley to cover an Iowa tight end man-to-man. When Vandenberg threw the ball, Whaley jumped the route, intercepting the ball with 2:21 left in the game.

“Good job by him taking the coaching and not backing up out of there, because in that situation you don't have any help behind you,” Pelini said of Whaley, who finished with 11 tackles.

BIG RED TODAY ON FACEBOOK
Discuss the Huskers' 13-7 win on the Big Red Today Facebook page.

Nebraska held Iowa (4-8, 2-6 in the Big Ten) to just 200 total yards and a 33 percent conversion rate on third downs. Eric Martin had a sack, three tackles for loss and two hurries, harassing Vandenberg throughout the game. Martin carried the Heroes Trophy off the field while a throng of cold-but-thrilled Husker fans cheered around him.

In the locker room, NU players had boxes of Chick-fil-A sandwiches and another present waiting: black Legends Division Champions hats. Many Huskers emerged from the locker room with the reward earned for winning their last six games — three on the road — and making good on the statement Pelini had made in the wake of a 63-38 loss to the coach's alma mater, Ohio State.

That night, Pelini twice said Nebraska had to “win out” to secure a berth in the Big Ten title game. It was a proclamation, a challenge, a dare, a gamble.

“You guys all kind of looked at me like I was a crazy man,” Pelini said Friday. “I probably thought I was a crazy man that night. But I believe in this team.”

And Nebraska players believed they'd pull it off. But as the wind continued to whip its way through the tunnels under Kinnick Stadium, the Huskers had already adjusted their gaze toward the Badgers. Compton said he and Martin might just sleep in the film room this week. Offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles summed up the accomplishment — and new goal — in a sentence.

“It's great to be wearing this hat,” he said. “But it's not the hat I want to wear.”

Contact the writer:

402-202-9766, sam.mckewon@owh.com; twitter.com/swmckewonOWH

* * *

>> Video: Nebraska-Iowa postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust:



>> Video: NU's Bo Pelini after the Iowa game:



>> Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the Iowa game:



>> Video: NU's Rex Burkhead after the Iowa game:



>> Video: NU's Alonzo Whaley after the Iowa game:

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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