By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa -– The best way to define a football team is how it plays when the calendar reaches November. University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has always believed that.
After Friday’s 40-10 domination of No. 15 Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium, November feels pretty good to the Hawkeyes.
This victory, paired with a 14-13 victory at home over No. 2 Michigan two weeks ago, sandwiched around a 28-0 shutout win at Illinois, means the Hawkeyes go into the bowl season with an 8-4 record overall, a 6-3 mark in the Big Ten and a lot of momentum.
This fast finish came after a humbling 41-14 loss at Penn State to start the month.
“You learn a lot about yourselves,” Ferentz said. “I don’t know if we could have gotten any lower than we did three weeks ago. We had a tough loss to open the month. But what these guys have done, day in and day out, the past three weeks, has been great to watch.”
Iowa also improved to 7-1 in regular-season trophy games over the past two seasons — sweeps of Iowa State, Minnesota, and Nebraska and a split with Wisconsin.
“We wanted to win all the trophy games,” said Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, who won his 21st game as a starter and threw three touchdown passes. “But we fell one short. Certainly seven of eight is pretty darn good. We’re happy with that, to bring home seven of the last eight.”
The Hawkeye defense was strong for a third straight game. After allowing Penn State 599 yards of total offense, the last three teams have managed just 616. Nebraska had 217, Michigan 201 and Illinois 198.
Iowa used big plays to beat Nebraska for the third time in the last four games. It was the Hawkeyes’ first victory over Nebraska in Iowa City since the 1981 season opener, which happened to be Ferentz’s first game on Hayden Fry’s coaching staff.
Ferentz is now eight wins shy of catching Fry as Iowa’s winningest coach.
It was also a big day for running back LeShun Daniels, Jr., one of 14 seniors playing their final game at Kinnick. Daniels rushed for 158 yards on 29 carries, scoring twice and reaching 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. Daniels now has 1,013 yards this season. The program’s last 1,000-yard rusher was Marcus Coker with 1,384 yards in 2011.
“Reaching 1,000 yards is a big deal for a running back, in the Big Ten,” Daniels said. “We haven’t had someone do it since 2011. I thank the offensive line, the fullbacks, the tight ends, everyone who goes out there to give it their all so I can get yards.”
Teammate Akrum Wadley had 105 yards in just 11 carries, with a touchdown. He now has 966 yards this season. They are the most productive running back tandem in the history of the program.
“It’s an honor to block for them,” said starting offensive tackle Sean Welsh. “Those guys do a great job. Even on plays where we screw up, they’ll find a way to make it happen.”
Like Iowa’s first touchdown, for instance. Beathard checked out of one play and into another on the third possession of the game. Wadley went 75 yards for a touchdown. He juked Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas just past the line of scrimmage, and was gone.
“There was a missed communication,” Beathard admitted. “It worked out pretty well. That was kind of a lucky play, to be honest with you. Half the line went one way, half the line went the other way. Then Akrum made a guy miss and turned it into a touchdown.”
Keith Duncan’s point-after was blocked, but Iowa scored again on its next play from scrimmage. Beathard found wide receiver Riley McCarron on a crossing pattern and he went 77 yards for a touchdown.
“It was a game plan play we’d been working on, with all the running we’ve been doing,” said McCarron, a senior. “We thought we could catch them with a quick play-action pass. It worked perfectly.”
After a Nebraska field goal made it a 13-3 game in the second quarter, Daniels scored in a 4-yard touchdown. The score was set up by Daniels’ 56-yard run to the Nebraska 8. Fullback Brady Ross had the block that opened the door for Daniels.
Tight end George Kittle, another senior, caught a pair of second-half touchdown passes from Beathard to say goodbye to Kinnick Stadium with a victory.
“I’m just really pleased for George,” Ferentz said. “We can go down every senior if you want. They’re all good stories.”
All-American cornerback Desmond King set up Kittle’s first touchdown with a nifty 44-yard punt return to the Nebraska 26. A personal foul moved the ball to the Cornhuskers’ 13.
Beathard found Kittle three plays later. Kittle also caught a 6-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
The next time Nebraska punted, McCarron returned it 29 yards to the Nebraska 45. King made the block that sprung his teammate.
“To me, that was a Kodak moment, just that play in itself,” Ferentz said of King’s block. “It speaks to the kind of guys we get to work with.”
Daniels passed 1,000 yards for the season on the drive that followed, capped by his 1-yard touchdown run.
And an Iowa team left for dead three weeks ago is now on a dead sprint toward bowl season.