The tension in Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium Friday could be so thick that you could cut it with a — stop right there.
This is no time for cliches. We’re in uncharted territory here for Iowa’s football team, and old, corny slogans won’t cut it. The Hawkeyes haven’t had an unbeaten regular-season since they went 7-0 in 1922, when Nile Kinnick was a 4-year-old.
Beat Nebraska, and Iowa takes a shiny 12-0 record to the Big Ten title game next week. But going 12-0 is hard. It’s beyond hard, actually, no matter your conference, schedule or skill level.
That was illustrated last Saturday with the realization Clemson and Iowa were the only 11-0 teams left. Houston fell. Ohio State fell. Oklahoma State fell. It seemed it was just yesterday when the Hawkeyes were just faces in a crowd of unbeatens.
Knifing through a regular-season without a scratch truly defies the odds. Only 10 teams went 12-0 between 2010 and 2014. Ohio State is the only Big Ten team that has done it since the NCAA went to a 12-game regular-season in 2006.
On at least one given day out of 12, you probably won’t be on your game no matter how good a team you have. On at least one given day out of 12, you’ll probably face an opponent playing over its head. But sometimes odds do get defied.
Alabama played a loose game at home against Ole Miss and got beat. Oklahoma played a loose game in Dallas against Texas, and got beat. Michigan State got jobbed by the officials at the end of its loss against Nebraska. But it didn’t bring its ‘A’ game to Lincoln and left itself vulnerable.
However, the Hawkeyes haven’t had what you would call a flat game. Nor have they encountered a buzz saw. Which isn’t to say things won’t be different against the Cornhuskers.
That’s what makes this game so intriguing. Nebraska is a 5-6 team, but one that has outscored its opponents by an average of nearly six points per game. That’s crazy math for a team that’s had a kooky year.
The Huskers don’t appear to be content to play out the string and be done with this season, as witnessed by their victories over Michigan State and Rutgers in their last two games.
Obviously, it doesn’t help Iowa that this game is in Lincoln. There are all sorts of places where fans stop caring and stop attending games when times aren’t great. Especially on a holiday weekend. Nebraska isn’t one of them.
But Iowa has done much of its best work on the road. The win at Iowa State was far from easy. ISU is the only team the Hawkeyes have trailed at halftime. Iowa won at Wisconsin despite facing a Badgers defense that gave a grand performance.
The Hawkeyes crushed Northwestern, and the Wildcats haven’t lost since. Of Indiana’s home losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan, the Hawkeyes were the team that had the most breathing room late in the game.
Iowa has allowed just one second-half touchdown on the road. But it has a defense that has been chipped at the last three games, and it’s facing a Husker offense that put up 39 points and 499 yards against Michigan State’s salty defense.
So it’s difficult to imagine this game will be anything but difficult for Iowa. If the Hawkeyes are to get that 12th win, they must earn it. Would you want it any other way?