Iowa burned by the big play


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As Nebraska got the ball with 3:19 left in the third quarter, Iowa led 24-7 and appeared to be in prime position to lock up its eighth win of the season.

Just 7:13 later, the Hawkeyes trailed the Cornhuskers, 28-24.

A little over seven minutes was all it took to turn a dominating Hawkeye performance into an eventual 37-34 overtime loss.

At the heart of the Nebraska outburst was a myriad of big plays.

“It’s just little details,” senior linebacker Quinton Alston said. “It could be the first step. It could be, ‘Which gap are you filling?’ It comes down to the little things that make you great, or there’s your Achilles’ heel if you don’t do them right.

“Today, that turned out to be our Achilles’ heel.”

In Iowa’s first game of the season, Northern Iowa running back David Johnson torched Iowa through the air, gaining 50-plus yards on 3 receptions. The Hawkeyes contained him otherwise in an eventual win.

But in the loss to Nebraska, big plays were the deciding factor.

Between the 3:19 mark in the third quarter and the 12:06 mark in the fourth quarter, Nebraska reeled off five plays of 25-plus yards, and four spanned more than 30.

It was an ambush from a team that ranked third in the Big Ten in plays of 20 or more yards this season.

“[Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong] has got some good receivers,” Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis said. “Kenny Bell went up and made some tremendous plays today; he’s a good receiver. [Armstrong] moved around the pocket when he felt pressure, did a good job of getting the ball off. That’s what good players do.”

In the time it spent the Cornhuskers to score 21 unanswered points, they only took up 3:07 of possession and ran just 10 plays. Nebraska helped itself with great field position through its punt returns.

Bell’s 32-yard touchdown reception to pull Nebraska within 3 points was set up by a 41-yard punt return by De’Mornay Pierson-El.

Pierson-El’s next punt return went 80 yards for a touchdown, giving Nebraska a 28-24 lead.

Pierson-El, who leads the Big Ten in punt-return average — 17.85 yards per return with 3 touchdowns — was even surprised Iowa kicked to him again.

“Once they kicked it to me again, I was like, ‘Seriously?’ Thanksgiving was the other day and that is what I’m thankful for,” Pierson-El said after the game. “I said to coach the other day that if they give me one, I’m going to be thankful for it.”

Iowa has had trouble defending punt returns this season, allowing a conference-worst 15.36 yards per return. That includes the 134 yards the Hawkeyes allowed on three returns for Nebraska.

Several players noted that Nebraska doubled Iowa’s gunners on returns, and head coach Kirk Ferentz noted that Iowa “had a plan” when asked if he wanted to punt away from Pierson-El.

However, as several players said, if the Hawks had executed their assignments, none of those factors would have been an issue.

“You just can’t do that,” Alston said. “You just can’t let up big returns like that, big plays like that. That’s a big emotional swing. Regardless of if your back is up against the wall, you got to come out there and still swing.”

Some may look at the squandering of a 17-point lead as a sign that the Hawkeyes let up on the defensive end, but they didn’t think that was the case. Alston said the energy level was consistent throughout the game.

Still, the result left a team that once had Big Ten championship aspirations with a 7-5 record.

“As far as energy-wise, I felt like we had that energy throughout the game,” Alston said. “But energy, hustle, and toughness, that just gives you a chance. It doesn’t solidify victory. We came out and played tough, but ultimately we didn’t do as much as we should have, or do things as well as we should have.”

Follow @JacobSheyko on Twitter for updates, news, and analysis about the Iowa football team.

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