Published Friday, November 29, 2013 at 6:47 pm / Updated at 9:27 pm
Barfknecht: Nebraska shows signs of mediocrity as Big Ten foes rise

LINCOLN — Beep! Beep!

Move to the side, Nebraska. Football foes in the Big Ten are passing you by.

In the past 12 months, we've seen the Huskers fall 70-31 to Wisconsin, 34-23 at Minnesota and, on Friday, 38-17 at home to Iowa — the third double-digit loss at Memorial Stadium this season.

Next year, looking at the current trajectories of these programs and their returning rosters and coaches, Nebraska looks no better than a fourth-place preseason pick in the new seven-team West Division.

Let that soak in.

Nebraska will be pegged as a middle-of-the-division program in a middle-of-the-road league. That should make for a long, cold offseason at a school that prides itself on winning championships.

Speaking of long, cold offseasons, that's what Iowa (8-4, 5-3) suffered through last year after finishing 4-8.

Normally, if a coach goes from 4-8 one season to 8-4 the next, the discussion turns to a pay raise and a contract extension. We'll skip that exercise here since Kirk Ferentz already makes more money than God ($3.8 million a year) and has a deal almost to eternity (2020).

Those contract terms and Iowa's recent three-year decline put Ferentz in the town-square crosshairs last winter for underproducing while overcollecting.

No such criticism was heard Friday. The only hitch with Ferentz was being 20 minutes late to the postgame media scrum because of the celebration in the Iowa locker room.

“He was emotional,'' Hawkeye defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat said. “Coach Ferentz is pretty emotional after a lot of victories.

“But I think this one was special to him, given the fact that he hasn't beaten Nebraska as a head coach here. He lifted the trophy up, and everyone was real happy for him.''

Iowa might have generated enough spark to consider this Black Friday matchup as a budding rivalry after all.

“It's a start,'' Ferentz said. “It's still pretty lopsided, the record is. But this was a good step forward, for sure.''

The Hawkeyes last won a football game in Lincoln in 1943. Among the spectators that day was Iowa broadcast legend Bob Brooks. Now in his 80s but still filing reports for station KMRY, Brooks was front and center for Friday's postgame presser.

When I asked Brooks if this win was better than the one 70 years ago, he heartily replied: “Yes!''

That optimistic sentiment filled the Iowa interview room.

“It will be real exciting to go back home,'' said Hawkeye sophomore defensive end Drew Ott from Trumbull, Neb. “I won't have to take crap from anyone. Last year kind of stunk.''

Last year's 4-8 record — Iowa's first losing mark in the regular season since 2000 — dropped the current senior class' career count to 19-19. Seeing it at 27-23 now with a bowl game coming up had the veterans smiling wide.

“It took a lot of hard work,'' senior linebacker James Morris said. “After this game last year, we came in on the following Tuesday and started conditioning and all kinds of grueling exercises.

“What we really wanted to do was re-establish a foundation of hard work and toughness. It was not a fun process, but it needed to be done and we were willing to fix it.''

Morris said the grind of school, football conditioning and knowing the season was over made for a miserable December.

“I was like, 'What are we doing? This stinks,' '' he said. “That extra-long break, people cope with that in different ways. Mine, I played a lot of Zelda.''

What Morris didn't do was stop his video game to watch bowl games.

“I didn't want to be around anything like that,'' he said. “I felt like I had worked hard and wasn't getting the results. We felt like we had enough good guys and good players to win more games than we did.''

Ferentz acknowledged after the Nebraska game a year ago that 4-8 was far from acceptable and that reinvigorating the program was Job One.

“We told our players to forget about it and move forward,'' he said Friday. “Credit goes to our players. They didn't sit around and pout. They didn't act like little babies. They went to work and did a heck of a job.''

Any kind of Iowa turnaround is far from complete.

In some ways, the Hawkeyes' four losses are as impressive as their eight wins. The combined record of those four teams — all in this week's Bowl Championship Series Top 15 — is 42-3.

Still, the vibe from Iowa City is much more positive than the buzz in Lincoln — now and when the Big Ten gets reconfigured next season.

* * *

Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini at the postgame press conference:

Video: NU's Jeremiah Sirles at the postgame press conference:

Video: NU's Kenny Bell at the postgame press conference:

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.



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