Iowa football observations: A lost opportunity, what senior day meant to Jack Campbell


IOWA CITY, Iowa — Fifty-eight minutes from the moment Nebraska players sprinted toward Kinnick Stadium’s north end zone and grabbed the Heroes Trophy, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz walked into his postgame news conference looking defeated but not dejected.

The Hawkeyes (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten) lost their chance at the Big Ten West title and a second consecutive trip to Indianapolis with a 24-17 loss to the Cornhuskers on Friday. It was Iowa’s first loss to Nebraska since 2014, and it ended a 14-game November winning streak in the process. But what seemed to sting more for the players was simply losing in their home finale. For Ferentz, the frustration was about not playing well throughout the game.

“The reality is we just made the hill a little bit too high to climb, and part of that was self-inflicted, and that’s always tough,” Ferentz said. “Any time you struggle with penalties, you struggle with the turnovers, and give up a big play, those are things we really take pride in doing well and didn’t do that tonight. So that is certainly disappointing.”

Offensive issues stifled Iowa all year, and they rose to the surface in this game. The Hawkeyes registered just 274 yards against Nebraska, but 202 came after halftime after they trailed 24-0. That they scored 17 second-half points was a credit to their tenacity. That they didn’t score more is just further proof of the offensive limitation.

At 255.4 yards per game, the Hawkeyes have the worst regular-season Big Ten offensive average since Ferentz took over in 1999. To avoid staying behind the current worst offensive squad — 2017 Rutgers (262.7 yards per game) — Iowa would need 354 yards in its bowl game.

Nebraska defensive end Garrett Nelson shares the Heroes Trophy with Cornhuskers fans Saturday. (Reese Strickland / USA Today)

Let’s take a look at some takeaways from Iowa’s loss to Nebraska, including some factors, a lost opportunity and what senior day meant to an all-time great.

1. Turnovers put the Hawkeyes in the big hole early.

During Iowa’s four-game winning streak, it committed just one turnover and forced eight. On Friday, the Hawkeyes had four turnovers, and they led to 17 Nebraska points. The first was a strip sack of quarterback Spencer Petras, which led to a field goal and knocked Petras out of the game with a shoulder injury. The second was a strip-sack of Petras’ replacement, Alex Padilla and led to a touchdown. The third was a dropped punt by Arland Bruce IV, and the Cornhuskers scored another touchdown.

“We had a goal coming out of the Ohio State game,” Padilla said. “We wanted to win five. We won four and had the opportunity to win today; we just didn’t play well enough. We turned the ball over, and you can’t do that against teams in the Big Ten, or else you’re not going to win the game. That’s what happened today.”

2. Protection issues plagued the Hawkeyes once again.

On two of the three sacks, Nebraska defenders were unblocked either through missed assignments or given free release. A back-side blitz from Nebraska cornerback Quinton Newsome ended Petras’ day and handed the ball to Nebraska at the Iowa 31. The Huskers drove to the Iowa 3-yard line before settling for a field goal.

On Iowa’s next possession, Padilla moved the offense to the Nebraska 29-yard line. On third-and-9, a wayward snap had Padilla off balance. Nebraska linebacker Eteva Mauga-Clements fired off the left edge untouched past Iowa right tackle Jack Plumb, who looked inside for a defender to block, and the ball fell out of Padilla’s hands when he attempted to throw it. Four plays later, Nebraska took a 17-0 lead on an 18-yard pass from Casey Thompson to Trey Palmer.

“My point is sometimes they rush six and we have five, then the quarterback has six. It’s a little bit more complex than one guy typically,” Ferentz said. “All that being said, I didn’t think the line did a bad job quite frankly.”

Iowa has allowed 37 sacks this year, the most since giving up 46 in 2007.

3. The Hawkeyes were shorthanded entering the game. 

Iowa was without multiple starters after last week’s 13-10 win at Minnesota. It was too quick of a turnaround for tight end Sam LaPorta and fullback Monte Pottebaum to play after both suffered leg injuries. Linebacker Jay Higgins was ruled out before the game after a muscle strain near his hip during Wednesday’s practice.

4. Then they suffered key in-game injuries to Petras and cornerback Cooper DeJean.

Petras’ right arm was in a sling all game after his injury with 6:18 left in the first quarter. DeJean’s was far more devastating overall. On Nebraska’s fourth offensive snap, DeJean was knocked motionless on the field for perhaps a minute. Eventually, he walked off the field, went to the observation tent and then walked to the locker room. He did not return.

Iowa’s cornerback depth took a hit this year when Jermari Harris had a procedure before the season and Terry Roberts’ leg injury cost him the last six games. With DeJean out, true freshman T.J. Hall tried to defend receiver Trey Palmer, but Hall got beat on an 87-yard touchdown pass midway through the first quarter. Early in the second quarter, Palmer again beat Hall for an 18-yard score. Iowa replaced Hall with walk-on Jamison Heinz, who gave up Nebraska’s final touchdown pass, a 14-yard pass from Thompson to Marcus Washington.

DeJean also has become a weapon as a punt returner, but without him in the lineup, there were only two of six returned for minus-2 yards and one was fumbled at the Iowa 18.

“If you think about it, it’s three corners now with starting experience that weren’t here in the second half today, so that’s impactful,” Ferentz said. “Then it forced us in a tough situation on the punt return game. It made a big difference. Maybe some of those balls would have been fielded, and who knows, maybe we would have returned a couple of them.”

5. For whatever reason, Iowa did not appear ready to play early on.

Whether it was senior day emotions, overconfidence or just a terrible beginning, the Hawkeyes could not have had a worse beginning from the first whistle.

A short kickoff gave running back Kaleb Johnson a chance at a return, but he was brought down after only 8 yards at the Iowa 14. Bruce opened the sequence with a jet sweep that gained no yards. Then Petras was off well before his injury. He completed just 1-of-6 passes for 9 yards and misfired badly on his first four throws.

The 87-yard touchdown pass crushed Iowa’s defensive stats early on. The Cornhuskers rushed for 24 yards in the first quarter, nearly half of what they had for the entire game (51).

“The first half was, how do I say it, very upsetting I guess, without using some specific language,” defensive tackle Noah Shannon said.

“I don’t think it was a lack of energy,” Ferentz said. “We didn’t play clean enough. You have to do that if you’re going to play conference football or any football. I’ll go back to the thing, we all knew what was at stake, none of us are dumb, at least in that regard.”

6. With Iowa’s lack of offense, the Hawkeyes have become a team only a fan base could love.

Frequently mocked for its perpetual issues moving the ball, Iowa still was set for a return trip to Indianapolis to face either Michigan or Ohio State, both of whom already had beaten Iowa earlier this year. All it needed to do was beat Nebraska, which was bowl ineligible and had played with an interim head coach since mid-September.

Instead, the loss ended all rational thought about a second chance against the Wolverines or Buckeyes. Iowa could back into the Big Ten title game if Purdue loses to Indiana and Illinois falls to Northwestern. But the Hawkeyes seemed to have expensed all of their karma points last year in reaching Indianapolis and might want to save them for a future season.

“Everything we had in front of us it’s kind of out the window now,” Shannon said.

Barring the ultimate backing-in situation, the Hawkeyes will take some time off before finding out their bowl destination on Dec. 4.

7. No player was more emotional following the game than linebacker Jack Campbell.

A Butkus Award finalist from Cedar Falls, Iowa, Campbell finished with eight tackles in his final appearance at Kinnick Stadium. Multiple times he had to stop and compose himself when he discussed what senior day meant to him.

“When you walk off that field the last time … everything that this program has done for me and the guys in that locker room, it means a lot and it hurts a little bit and it’s gonna,” Campbell said. “But no one’s going to hang their head again. We’re just going to keep going. We’ve got one more as a group together.”

Campbell then fumbled his words even more when he talked about running to midfield to greet his family before the game.

“Seeing those four people who’ve done so much for me, it means the world to me,” Campbell said while breaking down. “My mom, my stepdad and my stepmom, especially my dad. I feel like my dad and my grandma, she couldn’t make to the game, they’ve just always been so supportive of me and seeing things in me that sometimes I don’t even see things in myself. So running out there and getting to share that moment with them, that meant the world to me. And I’m just truly blessed to be raised by four people who love me.”

Campbell has 118 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, this season. He also has two interceptions, a forced fumble and recovery, five quarterback hurries and a safety. Campbell said he will play in Iowa’s bowl game.

“I’m always proud to be an Iowa Hawkeye, and I always will be,” he said.

(Top photo of Nico Ragaini: Matthew Holst / Getty Images)


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