LINCOLN, Neb. — There’s an old joke that goes like this:
I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet. So I took his shoes. He didn’t need them, anyway.
So it was Friday in Memorial Stadium. Iowa, a football team that had rushed for a total of 107 yards in its last two games and had been held under 20 points in six of its first eight Big Ten games, arrived here shoeless. But Nebraska, which had surrendered 54 or more points in three of its five prior outings, had no feet.
The Hawkeyes beat the Huskers, 56-14. It was a competition for a half, a cruelty after that. Iowa put together 30 minutes of coldhearted football on an unseasonably warm late-November day on the prairie. The Hawkeyes were so ruthless, you would have thought they were playing Ohio State.
What a strange month. A bloodletting of the Buckeyes, two bloodless losses to Wisconsin and Purdue, and this splattering of Big Red to finish 7-5 overall, 4-5 in the Big Ten.
“If we hadn’t won today,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said, “it would have been quite a challenging entire month (of December). This one doesn’t assure us anything moving forward, but it certainly puts everybody in a better place.”
‘Tis a far, far better place than Lincoln. The Huskers were all they were billed to be and much less.
Even a 56-14 victory probably wouldn’t have saved coach Mike Riley’s job, but he began cleaning out his desk early in the third quarter. With his team down 21-14 early in the third quarter, he had his team punt into the wind on 4th-and-1 at his own 34.
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His defense was a rumor, his best hope was to match Iowa touchdown for touchdown like his team did in the 14-14 first half, and he needed his guys to be aggressive. Instead, he threw a white flag and gave the Huskers all the reason they needed to roll over for the rest of the game.
“Should have, could have, would have there,” Riley said. “I just, at that point, didn’t want to fail and give them what would be a very, very short field at that time. What I know now, it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Two plays after the punt, which was for a net of just 22 yards after Matt Vandeberg’s 14-yard return, Iowa scored again. And soon after that, again. And soon after that, yet again.
That was all in the third quarter. The Hawkeyes needed something to make them feel better entering this game. Nebraska gave them an entire pharmacy.
Here’s how good things were for the Hawkeyes: Freshman Ihmir Smith-Marsette went out of bounds with a kickoff return at the Iowa 1-yard line in the second quarter. Instead of exiling the freshman receiver to Ogallala for such a blunder, Iowa’s coaches let him play on the subsequent possession.
Smith-Marsette, who will be a potent receiver before he’s done at Iowa, caught three passes on the Hawkeyes’ 99-yard touchdown drive. He also did better on his second kickoff return, a 74-yarder to start the second half that tilted the field his team’s way for keeps.
Iowa, rushing-challenged everywhere else it had played on the road in the Big Ten, had 313 yards on the ground Friday. Akrum Wadley gained 159 and was happy.
“Did you get fed?” I asked Wadley, using one of his favorite phrases.
“Full,” he said with a nod.
Wadley had three touchdowns, and three other Iowa running backs got one.
“Everybody got love,” Wadley said. “Everybody got fed.”
At 4-8, Nebraska’s worst record since 1961, Huskers fans have much to dislike. But it had to really gall them to see Iowa sophomore Noah Fant of Omaha trampling their team with touchdown catches of 4 and 68 yards.
Fant has 10 TDs this season, a ridiculous number for a tight end.
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“He’s just extra-athletic, extra-motivated,” Iowa center James Daniels said. “I’m a good athlete, but Noah is like a very good athlete. He has size, he works hard, he pretty much does it all.”
“Obviously,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said, “he runs away from people.”
Except Fant didn’t know it. On his sprint down the right sideline for the long score, he took no chances of getting tackled and did a splash-dive into the end zone as the closest of the four Huskers chasing him was reaching the 5-yard line. He got a penalty for showboating.
“I did it because I wanted to score,” Fant said. “It was called as a flag. I personally don’t think it was unsportsmanlike conduct.”
The real insult was Iowa outscoring the Huskers 42-0 in the second half. The Hawkeyes saw some light again. Meanwhile, “Black Friday” was a severe understatement around here.