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IOWA CITY — As you continue to fold the Hawkeyes’ 2016 season and prepare to pack it away, there are certain things you stop and dwell on for a minute, just as there are things that you will hang on to long into the winter.
On one end of the spectrum, you have the final drive of the North Dakota State game. The Hawkeyes went into the drive needing to run 3:41 off the clock in order to hang on to a 21-20 victory.
That didn’t happen. Iowa lost 10 yards in a three-and-out that took just 1:48 off the clock. You know what happened from there, the Bison drove for the winning field goal as time ran out and recorded a well-earned 23-21 victory.
OK, that drive had to come up. If you don’t examine the ugly end of the spectrum, you can’t appreciate the pretty side.
Nebraska scored a touchdown with 7:47 left in the third quarter last Friday to pull within 26-10. You didn’t know what was going to happen. This season read like Evel Knievel’s EKG before, during and after a motorcycle jump over 18 buses and a pool of sharks.
It was 26-10 and there was a lot of ballgame left.
What happened next was the exact opposite of the final drive against North Dakota State. It was one of those things that you’ll turn to in the winter and maybe draw a little enjoyment from. It’s also, perhaps, a glimpse of what the Hawkeyes might be able to be in 2017.
The Hawkeyes engineered scoring drives of 12 plays and 44 yards and 13 plays and 45 yards. They slam dunked excellent field position and drained nearly an entire quarter of time off the clock. (Seriously, the drives totaled 14:25 in time of possession. Iowa held the ball for 12:12 in the fourth quarter.
Suddenly, 26-10 and a hint of doubt was 40-10 and a trophy celebration. The body blows came in the form of big plays in the first half — running back Akrum Wadley and a 75-yard TD run, WR Riley McCarron and a 77-yard TD pass and then RB LeShun Daniels and a 56-yard run that set up a TD.
The knockout was those two drives in the third and fourth quarters. A lot of it was the offensive line, which was boosted by the return of right tackle Ike Boettger, who missed Illinois with an ankle injury.
“They did a great job today and they’ve done a great job the last three weeks,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “We’ve had injuries here and there, especially at tackles. We’ve had guys moving around, guys who haven’t played, but they’ve stepped up and haven’t complained or argued about it. They’ve just gone out to work and practiced hard and played hard.”
Junior Boone Myers started at left guard against NDSU. Against the Huskers, he was the left tackle, the position he landed on after senior Cole Croston was lost for the final four games of the season with an ankle injury.
“We knew this game was going to be won in the trenches,” Myers said. “They’re a good team, a really good defense. We just practiced all week being physical, coming off the ball and running the ball, playing Iowa football. As the game went on, we really wanted to stick with that and didn’t want to veer from that.
“That’s how you get (264 rushing yards). We just came off the ball and just kept hammering. Sometimes, it didn’t look pretty and it was ugly and we didn’t get many yards, but they started breaking and that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to keep playing.”
The 13-play drive was 13 rushing plays, the longest of which was a 13-yard bootleg by Beathard, that grinded along at 3.4 yards per.
Also, Iowa has used seven offensive line combinations this season. Who knows which one is the best? Maybe it all can be tracked in the growth of sophomore guard Keegan Render, who got his first start against NDSU. The Bison held Iowa to 34 rushing yards, Iowa’s lowest output in a span of 36 games.
Render got his seventh start against Nebraska.
“They focus on what they can work — focus on improving,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They focus on what they can do to help the football team, but it all starts, they care, and they care greatly about what they do and their performance, and they’ve worked hard.”
All five of the starters vs. the Huskers were underclassmen, including center James Daniels, who actually did lead the way for his brother, LeShun, on his 4-yard TD run in the second quarter.
“It’s definitely something we can share for the rest of our lives,” LeShun Daniels said. “My family has really been enjoying it over the entire year. Him and the whole offensive line, they’ve been doing an excellent job all year, but to be out there with my brother, the person who’s been basically my best friend since we’ve been little, it’s something you can’t describe. It’s a feeling we’ll carry throughout the rest of our lives.”
Another nod to the future came on the first grinder drive. Iowa faced a fourth-and-8 when Beathard hit tight end Noah Fant for a 10-yard gain. Fant ran along where the first-down marker was. This made everyone a little nervous, but the true freshman from Omaha, Neb., knew what he was doing all along.
“Fourth-and-whatever it was, he makes a huge play,” senior tight end George Kittle said.
Fant could be the primary target at tight end next season. Peter Pekar and Nate Wieting, two proven blockers, also return.
You can’t erase the North Dakota State result, but you certainly can draw maybe a little optimism for 2017 Iowa from those two late drives against No. 16 Nebraska.
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