LINCOLN, Neb. – All the Iowa football team needed Friday was a spark.
Freshman Ihmir Smith-Marsette provided it, allowing Akrum Wadley and a resurgent Hawkeye ground game to torch Nebraska 56-14 at Memorial Stadium.
“We didn’t get off to the fastest start, but you have to keep swinging,’’ Wadley said. “Just keep at. Keep swinging.’’
Iowa finally made contact after Smith-Marsette returned the opening kickoff in the second half 74 yards, setting up a lightning-quick succession of scoring drives that turned a 14-14 game into a rout in a matter of minutes.
The Hawkeyes scored three touchdowns in a span of 3 minutes, 52 seconds at the start of the third quarter to level the Cornhuskers and retain possession of the Heroes Trophy for the third consecutive year and the fourth time in five years.
“Our first half wasn’t the best, but that’s why you play the full 60,’’ linebacker Josey Jewell said. “I think we came out hungry, ready to play our best.’’
Once that happened, there wasn’t a thing the Cornhuskers were capable of doing to stop it.
Wadley broke the halftime tie when he capped a five-play, 22-yard drive with 1-yard touchdown run with 12:24 left in the third quarter.
After the Cornhuskers went three and out, quarterback Nate Stanley hit Noah Fant with a 44-yard pass to set up a 12-yard touchdown run by James Butler.
A Ben Niemann interception followed three snaps later, positioning Wadley to score on a 29-yard carry with 8:32 left in the quarter.
Part of a 159-yard game by the senior, his third touchdown run of the game pushed Wadley over the 1,000-yard mark for the season and made him the fourth Hawkeye ever to run for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, the first since Fred Russell.
“That is big time to me,’’ Wadley said, who mostly appreciated the way Iowa’s offensive worked, piling up 313 of its season-high 505 yards on the ground.
“For the first time in a few weeks, we were clicking on all cylinders,’’ Wadley said. “The line was pushing some guys around. Tight ends blocked, receivers were going downfield and sacrificing their bodies. It was just fun.’’
The Hawkeyes collected 209 yards in the third quarter, scoring 28 points including six on a 68-yard touchdown pass from Stanley to Fant, part of a 13 of 20 effort by the Iowa quarterback.
“The offensive line, they came out and controlled things up front and that started it all,’’ Stanley said. “That helped us get things going on the ground and that opened up the play action. Everything worked.’’
And Nebraska knew it.
“Late in the third quarter, after the three quick scores, you could feel it, that they knew it was over,’’ offensive guard Sean Welsh said. “When you have it going like that on offense, it’s a great feeling.’’
Nebraska cornerback Chris Jones wasn’t feeling so hot at the end of a 4-8 season.
“It was little mistakes here and there that turned it, little mistakes that turned into big plays and bit plays that turned into points,’’ Jones said.
Coach Kirk Ferentz praised his team’s resiliency, overcoming some early issues on special teams to earn the most-lopsided victory the Hawkeyes have ever had against the Cornhuskers.
A fumbled punt snap which gave Nebraska the football on the Iowa 15-yard line and a mistake on a return which left the Hawkeyes on their 1-yard line to open a drive created early Hawkeye headaches.
“Those things can be like a lead balloon,’’ Ferentz said.
The Cornhuskers scored three plays after Colten Rastetter fumbled the punt snap, taking a 7-0 lead on the first of Stanley Morgan’s two first-half touchdown receptions.
His score on a 14-yard throw from Tanner Lee with 9:34 remaining in the opening quarter was followed by Smith-Marsette stepping out of bounds at the 1 after fielding the ensuing kickoff at the goal line.
The true freshman redeemed himself on the 15-play, 99-yard drive which followed, catching three passes for 26 yards to set up a 20-yard touchdown run by Wadley.
“The offense really responded there. I think that was the story of our team, coming off of (the Purdue loss) last week,’’ Ferentz said. “We really haven’t been moving the ball with great consistency, so to take that thing and go 99 yards was huge.’’
Iowa (7-5, 4-5 Big Ten) answered the Cornhuskers again in the second quarter after Morgan slipped behind the Hawkeye secondary for a 28-yard touchdown catch, driving 75 yards on 11 plays.
Fant sent the teams into the locker room tied at the break, grabbing a four-yard touchdown pass with :25 remaining to finish off an 11-of-15 first half for Stanley.
The quick-strike offense, which added touchdown runs of three and five yards by Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin in the fourth quarter, and a defense which limited Nebraska to 93 second-half yards combined to accomplish the mission.
“The way we saw it, it was a 0-0 game at the half, anybody’s game,’’ safety Jake Gervase said. “We came out in the third quarter and took it with how we played in all three phases of the game. Offense, defense, special teams, we executed and we got what we wanted.’’