LINCOLN, Neb. — The best corn and the best kicker.
Iowa’s football players claimed both at Memorial Stadium Friday, and claimed a 27-24 victory in the bargain. This border battle with Nebraska wasn’t a subject for Hawkeye talk or taunts during the week, but the emotion of a hard-fought, hard-earned, hard-headed (?) victory tends to change things in the aftermath.
“It’s turned into a hardheaded rivalry between the two of us,” said Hawkeye junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa, concisely described as “phenomenal” after the game by Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.
“I don’t know if it’s between whose corn is the best, or what team you like more, or which state is better,” Epenesa said, “but there’s a lot of pride on both sides of this.”
All NFL scouts need to see from Epenesa is on the tape of this game. Fourteen tackles, five for losses, two of them sacks. His defense, rattled in the third quarter by Nebraska’s offense and a loud, wet crowd, was airtight in the fourth quarter and put the ball in the Iowa offense’s hands with 32 seconds left and a tie game.
Seven plays later, Keith Duncan hit a 48-yard field goal with one tick left. Duncan then ran around in glee and blew kisses in the direction of the Nebraska sideline. You don’t see that against any old Hawkeye opponent.
“We’re here for entertainment, having some fun,” Duncan said.
Were you not entertained? You had a Hawkeye skill-position player do the following: Run a reverse 45 yards for the game’s first score, return a second-quarter kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, and make a 22-yard catch to help move the Hawkeyes from their 26 to the Nebraska 30 and set Duncan up for heroics in the Heroes Game.
That’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette, wide receiver/playmaker. So was this the Ihmir Game?
“Nah,” he replied. “It was the Iowa Hawkeyes’ game.
“I didn’t win it. Keith won it. Keith definitely won that one.”
Asked if kickers are good, he replied “Iowa’s is.”
“I have all my eggs in a basket with Keith,” Smith-Marsette said. “I knew he was going to come through. Even on the attempt to freeze him (with a timeout)? Nailed it. The actual one? Nailed it. So I’m going with Keith Duncan 100 percent out of 100 plays. That’s how it is.”
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Love and kisses all around, a ninth win and a regular-season finale that will be remembered fondly by Iowa’s players as the decades fly by. OK, who hasn’t been mentioned here yet who deserves, oh, a ton of credit?
“Nate Stanley continues to lead our football team,” Ferentz said. “The last three throws — the (first) one was ruled incomplete — the last three throws were all big-time throws by him.”
Big, big, big-time. Thirty-two seconds left, 44 yards to go to get a 48-yard field goal try. Stanley lofted a deep pass toward the left sideline that was drop-dead gorgeous. Nico Ragaini made a nice play on it in single-coverage and it was a 38-yard play. Except the officials reviewed it and ruled Ragaini didn’t have total possession. Second-and-10. Then, third-and-10.
There were 19 seconds and still 44 yards to go, and overtime was Iowa’s safety netting. Except they kept playing for a win in regulation. Stanley hit Smith-Marsette for 22 yards and then hit Sam LaPorta for 22 yards, and the ball was at the Nebraska 30. Enter Duncan, and soon after, elation.
Stanley? His stat line looked like the kind that gets a team beaten, if not buried. He was 11 of 24 passing for 99 yards. But 44/99ths of it came in those final 32 seconds. It was cool, calm, collected and clutch.
Give. Iowa’s. Coaches. Credit. Many of their peers in the football would have agreed with the choice had the Hawkeyes tucked it in with those 32 seconds left and not risked a turnover. They would have been wrong, of course.
“We were going for it,” Stanley said.
They went for it. They got it. The aggressor wins far more often than not in this sport.
How sweet it tastes for the Hawkeyes, whose coaches and players aren’t crazy about Nebraska’s football program or its agriculture. So, A.J. Epenesa, which state’s corn is better? Like he plays football, there was no hesitation and full conviction in his reply.
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