Cornhuskers looking to enhance their bowl position
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) For the second straight year, Nebraska will go into its last regular-season game playing for nothing more than a best possible bowl bid.
The Cornhuskers (8-3, 4-3) were eliminated from the Big Ten West race with Saturday's 28-24 loss to Minnesota. They'll enter Friday's game in Iowa City trying to avoid losing a third straight game for the first time since 2008.
''Time to go to work and put our head down,'' offensive lineman Jake Cotton said. ''We're going to play a good Iowa team in a hostile environment, and it's probably going to be real cold in Iowa City. I know we're excited for the challenge. A lot of times people think losses carry over and that losses linger, but not here.''
Nebraska squandered a 14-point halftime lead at home against Minnesota a week after it was blown out 59-24 at Wisconsin. The manner in which the Huskers have lost their last two games has a segment of the fan base grousing about the direction of the program under coach Bo Pelini.
The Huskers are 9-6 in Big Ten games the last two years, with none of those wins against teams that finished the season above .500 in conference play.
Iowa (7-4, 4-3), which beat the Huskers in Lincoln last year, played Wisconsin tough in a 26-24 loss Saturday.
Nebraska's problems in run defense continued against Minnesota. The Gophers rushed for 281 yards and four touchdowns, with quarterback Mitch Leidner going for 111 yards and two scores. The week before Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon set a since-broken FBS record with 408 yards rushing, and the Badgers totaled 581 on the ground.
The two games were the first time back-to-back opponents have rushed for 250 or more yards in Pelini's seven years at Nebraska.
Pelini was especially frustrated by the way Nebraska attempted to defend the zone-read option against Minnesota. Leidner broke off a number of big runs after faking the handoff to his running back and taking off.
''There's no excuse there,'' Pelini said. ''We have to make some changes because we didn't play very well. There are a couple positions that played horrendous.''
The offense didn't escape criticism, especially coordinator Tim Beck. Fullback Andy Janovich said Beck told the players at halftime, when the Huskers led 21-7, that there would be more reliance on the run game. It seemed like a good plan, given they were averaging better than 5 yards a carry through the first two quarters.
Beck called 15 straight running plays that averaged 6.7 yards over one stretch of the second half. Then Armstrong completed a 15-yard pass, and Ameer Abdullah ran for 9 yards to set up a second-and-1 at the Minnesota 41 with the Huskers leading 24-21.
With Minnesota's safeties within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage, Beck gave into temptation and dialed up a shot downfield. But Theiren Cockran broke through to sack Armstrong, and the Huskers ended up punting. Minnesota then started the drive that ended with the go-ahead touchdown.
''Probably shouldn't have done it,'' Beck said. ''Hindsight is 20-20. If we scored it would have been a great call.''
The Huskers still had a chance to win in the last two minutes, but freshman receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El was stripped of the ball at the Minnesota 2-yard line for his second fumble of the game.
Nebraska hasn't been a conference champion since the 1999 team won the Big 12 under Frank Solich, two coaches ago.