IOWA CITY − One win from back-to-back Big Ten West division titles, Iowa football met a familiar foe in the final game of the regular season: Nebraska.
The annual Heroes Game between the two rivals came with extra implications in 2022. The Hawkeyes had an opportunity to walk off the field at Kinnick Stadium with two trophies: one for the game and the other for the Big Ten West division title.
But Iowa's improbable run to the Big Ten championship game fell short on Friday as a lopsided first half prevented the Hawkeyes from ending the regular season with five straight wins. Nebraska defeated Iowa 24-17 to break a seven-game losing streak in the series and give Iowa a sour taste before its next game, whenever that may be.
There first few series of the game spelled trouble for Iowa with two costly injuries. On Nebraska's opening drive on offense, Hawkeye defensive back Cooper DeJean suffered an injury after absorbing a hard block by a Cornhusker wide receiver. The sophomore and Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year candidate did not return and without him, Nebraska took advantage.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker went to true freshman TJ Hall in DeJean's place initially. Nebraska targeted Hall on his first play, which resulted in an 87-yard touchdown pass from Casey Thompson to Trey Palmer to take a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter. Two drives later, Palmer beat Hall again for an 18-yard touchdown pass. Shortly after, Hall was replaced by sophomore Jamison Heinz, but he didn't fare much better as he was also frequently targeted by Thompson. Overall, 278 yards passing (on 67% completion percentage) and three touchdowns by Thompson paced the Cornhuskers' offense throughout the afternoon. And Iowa's defensive woes were matched by an equally disappointing day on offense.
Iowa's second key injury on Saturday came on its third drive on offense when senior quarterback Spencer Petras suffered a wrist injury on a sack-fumble that was recovered by Nebraska (which it converted into a field goal to take a 10-0 lead). Petras' presumed last game at Kinnick was off to a rocky start pre-injury (1-for-6 passing for nine yards) and without him the offense continued to struggle with backup quarterback Alex Padilla.
Padilla's first drive resulted in another turnover: a fumble that Nebraska scooped up and later converted to the 18-yard Trey Palmer touchdown. The Hawkeyes' first-half possessions went as followed: punt, punt, fumble, fumble, punt, punt as the team went into halftime with a 17-0 deficit. Iowa's third turnover, which opened the second half, proved to be the dagger. After Iowa's defense forced a punt on Nebraska's opening possession, a muffed punt by Arland Bruce IV set up Nebraska inside the Iowa red zone. Once again, Thompson took advantage of Iowa's backup cornerbacks, this time Heinz, and tossed his third touchdown to Marcus Washington to extend the lead to 24-0.
Iowa's offense had a spark in the second half when true freshman running back Kaleb Johnson took a handoff 44 yards for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 24-7 after Washington's touchdown. And that play jumpstarted a furious second-half comeback. Iowa's defense settled in, forcing a series of punts that kept the Cornhuskers at bay after the initial score. With a little over nine minutes to play in the game, Padilla led Iowa on a 9-play, 90-yard touchdown drive capped off by a 14-yard touchdown pass to Luke Lachey midway through the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 24-14.
And at last, the Hawkeye defense came up with a needed turnover. On Iowa's senior day, it was fifth-year linebacker Logan Klemp who forced a fumble to give Iowa's offense the ball back after its touchdown. A field goal by true freshman Drew Stevens cut the lead to 24-17 with 6:03 remaining.
But the comeback fell just short. Iowa's offense had another chance, down seven with 3:20 remaining. The drive briefly showed promise on a long pass by Padilla to wide receiver Arland Bruce IV but he was called out of bounds. The Hawkeyes turned it over on downs. Iowa got the ball back again but threw an interception, and Nebraska narrowly escaped with the win.
Friday's contest was characteristic of the last several Iowa-Nebraska matchups, when one team wins the turnover battle and capitalizes on the other's mistakes. Iowa has been on the plus side of that metric during its win streak but Nebraska turned the tables and ruined the Hawkeyes' chance to walk off with the Heroes Game trophy and Big Ten West title. Iowa had its chances late but couldn't climb out of a four-score deficit it dug for itself by self-inflicted mistakes.
It's worth noting that Iowa's Big Ten Championship Game hopes took a major hit, but it's still not impossible. The Hawkeyes need help, as they did in 2021 with a pair of losses on Saturday: 1-10 Northwestern would need to upset Illinois, and 4-7 Indiana would need to upset Purdue. If those results don't happen, a late-season surge by Iowa will fall just short of the goal. And the most frustrating part would be that the Hawkeyes had their destiny in their own hands and couldn't capitalize in front of a sold-out home crowd.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa football's Nebraska loss likely dashes Big Ten West title hopes