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Burkhead's return helps Nebraska win berth in Big Ten championship game

The SportsXchange

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Nebraska's first Legends Division championship didn't come easily.

Then again, Bo Pelini didn't expect it to, either.

No. 14 Nebraska relied on its defense and an emotional spark from the return of senior running back Rex Burkhead, outlasting Iowa 13-7 on a cold, blustery Friday at Kinnick Stadium to secure a spot in the Dec. 1 Big Ten championship game.

"Well, that was hard. We knew it was going to be that way," said Pelini, the Nebraska coach. "We knew it was going to be hard. We told our team that. I don't know if we played our best, but we did what we had to do. We got it done."

Nebraska (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) gained a season-low 263 yards of offense but held Iowa (4-8, 2-6) to 200 total yards and kept the Hawkeyes scoreless after the first quarter.

The Huskers will play Wisconsin on Dec. 1 in Indianapolis, with the winner receiving the conference's automatic berth to the Rose Bowl.

Burkhead, who'd missed the Huskers' last four games while recovering from a sprained MCL, didn't play in the first half but scored Nebraska's only touchdown on 3-yard run to give the Huskers a 13-7 lead with 3:10 remaining in the third quarter.

"Some of the coaches were coming up to me (at halftime), asking me how I was feeling, how I was doing, if I thought I could go," Burkhead said. "I said, 'Absolutely, let's do this.' I was excited to get a chance to go in."

Iowa (4-8, 2-6) gained only two first downs on its final four possessions, and Nebraska linebacker Alonzo Whaley intercepted James Vandenberg at the Iowa 35-yard line with 2:11 remaining.

Burkhead, who finished with 69 yards on 16 carries, then ran four times as Nebraska ran out the clock for its sixth straight victory.

"I was just glad to be out there with the guys again," Burkhead said. "I missed being out there and just getting out there and having fun with the guys, and most importantly, putting a 'W' on the board."

On Nebraska's first drive of the second half, with the wind at its back, Burkhead carried five times for only 6 yards but gained 5 yards on a fourth-and-1 play at the Nebraska 44-yard line.

Nebraska drove 33 yards in 10 plays, enough for Brett Maher to kick a 52-yard field goal with the wind to cut Iowa's lead to 7-6 with 9:30 remaining in the third quarter.

Two possessions later, Burkhead put Nebraska ahead after Taylor Martinez delivered a 19-yard pass to tight end to Ben Cotton to start the series and Braylon Heard followed with an 18-yard run out of a three-running back formation.

Iowa led 7-3 at halftime but squandered three scoring chances into a strong north wind in the second quarter.

The Hawkeyes, with the help of two Nebraska turnovers and a 29-yard punt return by Micah Hyde, drove to the Nebraska 39-, 21- and 19-yard lines but came away empty each time.

Nebraska stopped running back Mark Weisman on fourth-and-1, the Hawkeyes had a pooch punt into the end zone, and Mike Meyer was wide left on a 42-yard field-goal attempt with four seconds remaining in the half.

Nebraska, going against the wind in the first quarter, held the ball for 8:09 and drove 75 yards on its opening drive, settling for Maher's 26-yard field goal. The Huskers ran the ball 15 times, mostly on zone read plays, and threw only one pass on their longest drive of the season, a short 3-yard swing pass from Martinez to Ameer Abdullah on third down.

Iowa responded by going 62 yards in 12 plays and also throwing just one pass -- a 25-yard completion from Vandenberg to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz to the Nebraska 25. Vandenberg scored on a 1-yard run.

NOTES: Nebraska lost starting center Justin Jackson and starting defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler to injury in the first half. Pelini said neither player will play in the Big Ten championship game ... Iowa senior cornerback Micah Hyde recovered his third fumble of his career, all this season. ... Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford had a third-quarter interception, his fourth in the Huskers' last five games. ... Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell didn't catch a pass, ending his streak of 23 games with at least one reception. ... All three of Iowa's linebackers finished with double-digit tackles.
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