LINCOLN — Ask a Nebraska player about Iowa. The stories that follow aren’t feel-good tales.
Linebacker Luke Gifford sat out injured during last year’s 56-14 loss and never watched the game film — he probably never will. Defensive lineman Mick Stoltenberg sprained his ankle early and couldn’t finish. Linebacker Mohamed Barry called the day a “total nightmare” and a demoralizing experience as the Hawkeyes moved the football with ease.
“Iowa, that’s our rival,” Barry said Monday. “We don’t like them. To stop their run game, to beat them in their house, means everything. So there’s no motivation needed. Everyone should be self-motivated this week.”
No current Huskers have played in a win over the Hawkeyes. Big Red has been outscored 124-44 since Tommy Armstrong & Co. seemingly saved Bo Pelini’s job with a 37-34 overtime win in 2014.
So while the familiar rewards hang in the balance — another chance to improve, momentum into the offseason and sending off the 19-member senior class well — the 11 a.m. Black Friday showdown also holds a personal tinge for the Huskers.
“For the most part it’s just another game,” said Gifford, a senior co-captain. “But I think with the way that it’s gone the last couple years, it definitely plays into it.”
Not even Nebraska’s coaching staff is free of the tension between border states. Scott Frost said he and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, a former Iowa player, used to argue frequently about which team was better.
“Now he’s finally on the good side,” Frost said, but he expects his longtime friend’s return to Kinnick Stadium to be emotional.
NU quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco worked at Northern Iowa from 2001-14 and also knows the Hawkeye coaching staff well.
Frost also took a playful jab during his 16-minute press conference at Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who he got to know during his time as a UNI assistant in the late 2000s. After calling him “one of the good guys in the sport,” he added that “his sustained success is impressive, but you still don’t get to 150 (wins) unless you’re a little bit old. I’ll make sure to remind him of that when I see him.”
Nebraska’s preparation began Sunday — normally the team’s day off — with meetings on early game planning. The workout Monday was what the Huskers usually do Tuesday as they trim a day off their routine for their 12th consecutive week of playing football. It helps, Gifford said, that Iowa resembles the same power-running, pro-style offense and physical, top-25 defense Michigan State presented Saturday.
Still, Barry said, Iowa has the best offensive line he’s seen the last two years. It’s a “complete” team with a pair of the best tight ends in the country — T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant — who have a combined 79 catches for 1,170 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“If we win this game,” Barry said, “it would mean a lot and it’d be an evidence to the change of culture.”
Stoltenberg called it an opportunity to continue their “upward climb.”
“This would be a great win to cap off the year and send some momentum into the offseason for these guys,” Stoltenberg said.
Frost said rivalry games are more for fans than players and coaches. As far as he’s concerned, there are no extra emotions for trying to follow Thanksgiving with a win over the school 300 miles to the east.
“We have to prepare like we’re playing anybody else,” Frost said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for their coaching staff and their program, so there’s not any animosity or hatred between the coaches. I know the fans probably argue and don’t like each other. But they run a good program. We’re trying to run one here.”
Shot Kleen takes ‘a lot of memories’ into retirement after 24 years with HuskerVision
Shot Kleen has been working with Nebraska’s HuskerVision unit since 1994, and he’s been an assistant athletic director since 2009. Given the production work on this year’s “Red Burns Brighter” pre-Tunnel Walk videos, Kleen remains at the top of his game, too.
But Kleen, 74, said Monday he’s ready to commit more time to the community and his church. A tribute video shown during Nebraska’s 9-6 win over Michigan State revealed what many around the Husker program already knew: Kleen had worked his last Husker football game and will be retiring.
“A lot of memories,” Kleen said of the video. “What made it especially special is we played a Nebraska-style football game and won. That really was icing on the cake.”
HuskerVision’s brand is well-known, and the rest of the video production inside Memorial Stadium ran parallel the glory years of Nebraska football. The Tunnel Walk sequence — featuring the “Sirius” song from The Alan Parsons Project — has been a staple. The 1995 version, in which the first Sears Trophy with the crystal football atop the black base broke through the middle of the field, is particularly memorable.
Kleen said he’s proudest, though, of the all the college students who worked for him over the years and progressed into full-time jobs elsewhere.
“It’s really neat to see them go out and make a name for themselves,” Kleen said. “They say they came through HuskerVision and they’re proud of that.”
That’s the story of Brandon Meier, NU’s senior associate athletic director for marketing and media. Just hired from Oklahoma in October, Meier’s job is a merging of two former positions held by David Witty and Steve Waterfield.
Meier worked for Kleen as an undergraduate and graduate student. At OU, Meier oversaw SoonerVision and a broadcast department of 17 full-time employees and 100 part-time employees, mostly college students.
Now he’s back at NU and was on the field for Kleen’s tribute Saturday. Kleen was also a groomsman in Meier’s wedding.
“We live on a lake and Brandon’s a big fisherman,” Kleen said. “He’s there all the time.”
Transfer Tre Neal happy to be part of Husker rebuild
LINCOLN — Tre Neal watched Central Florida on television Saturday night. That could have been him in Orlando, where ESPN’s “College GameDay” was and where the Knights moved to 10-0 with an easy win over No. 19 Cincinnati.
Instead, the graduate transfer at Nebraska followed his former teammates while being thankful for where he ended up.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Neal said Monday. “God led me here for a reason.”
The senior figured his fellow Husker defenders would have questions about the new scheme when he arrived, and they did. He thought Nebraska would start better than 0-6, and it didn’t.
But through it all, he’s seen daily improvement. He’s observed players learn something new every week. Now the Blackshirts are happy for each other when someone makes a play. The aggression and “no fear of failure” mantra feels like it did at Central Florida last year.
Neal said he’s still deciding what happens for him after football. Maybe go into dentistry. Maybe try coaching. No matter what, he’ll track what happens in Lincoln, particularly within the secondary. He named sophomore Deontai Williams as someone to expect a big jump from in his second year in the program.
“I think it’s All-American or bust for him,” Neal said. “He thinks that’s not a big task for him just because he has that kind of ability. But if he puts it all together like I can see it, he has that kind of potential and talent.”
Ferguson healthy — and talking
Long time, no talk, Tyrin Ferguson.
The outside linebacker and Blackshirt — who repeatedly turned down interview requests throughout spring camp and the season — came up to the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium on Monday and chatted for as long as reporters wished.
Where had he been? For the past month, recovering from a severe ankle sprain suffered in practice before the Purdue game that kept him out for a month. Ferguson returned in October but had arguably the best game of his career Saturday in a 9-6 win over Michigan State, finishing with five tackles, including one for loss.
“It was basically just getting the confidence back in myself,” said Ferguson, known among teammates as one of the most vocal leaders and a potential 2019 captain. “I didn’t want to talk to the media about doing this or that. Why not just do it? That was the best thing I could say.”
The defense’s performance against Michigan State, Ferguson said, “shows flashes of what we can become.
“Everybody’s buying in,” Ferguson said. “This team starts 0-6 and works and works and works … the coaches make it fun. The coaches make it enjoyable.”
And outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt, Ferguson said, stayed loyal through Ferguson’s injury. Ferguson was, indeed, Nebraska’s best option at outside linebacker — that was obvious on Saturday, and equally so whenever other outside linebackers, such as Alex Davis or Caleb Tannor, were on the field — but Dewitt didn’t isolate Ferguson from the rest of his teammates even when Ferguson said he felt like isolating himself.
“I’d do anything for that guy,” Ferguson said of Dewitt.
Raridon wants bragging rights
Husker offensive lineman John Raridon grew up in Des Moines, but he wasn’t an Iowa fan since his dad, Scott, played at Nebraska, too.
But the backup guard would rather not “catch an earful” from the Hawkeye fans he knows. For the past two seasons he’s been at NU, Raridon has heard plenty of guff.
Iowa’s 40-10 and 56-14 wins will do that.
“People are mostly just joking around, but I’d like to be able to have some ammunition for the holiday break,” Raridon said.
Raridon, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound sophomore, said he’s pleased with the progress he’s made in the weight room and in the few snaps he’s received. Last season, Raridon said, was the toughest because of NU’s losing late in the year. This season has been fun.
“It’s tough to find a place where you don’t start, but when you’re going into the game each week, you’re having just as much fun as the starters,” Raridon said. “It’s tough to explain, but I think everyone just loves football a little bit more. Last year we lost some of our juice. But this year, even with the 0-6 start, we never lost the juice.”
Offensive line coach Greg Austin keeps practice lively, Raridon said — and could still play. Sometimes, Austin demonstrates blocking technique for his players.
“It’ll hurt,” Raridon said.
Farniok likes this kind of fight
Matt Farniok hasn’t forgotten the recruiting battle between Nebraska and Iowa for his talents.
The Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native heavily considered both schools at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. Ultimately, he picked Nebraska. So did his younger brother Will Farniok, who had an offer from Iowa, as well. The Hawkeyes were coming off a 12-2 season at the time Matt Farniok picked NU.
“Honestly, it was just kind of what I saw as the best fit for me and what was going to be the best option to develop as an offensive lineman,” Farniok said. “Iowa’s known for offensive linemen, D-linemen. Same with Nebraska. It was a really close call. But Nebraska — the atmosphere of it, the fan base, the people that support you here — it was a hard thing to pass up.”
Farniok expects Iowa’s defensive ends, including reigning Big Ten player of the week A.J. Epenesa, to be a tough challenge.
“It’s Iowa, so it’s going to be fighting for blades of grass — fighting a bloody-nose fight,” Farniok said. “It’s all you want. It’s the kind of game I really enjoy.”
Martinez did ‘really good job’
The statistics don’t necessarily bear it out. But after watching film and talking with quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco, Scott Frost said his freshman quarterback actually played one of his better games.
The 18-year-old Adrian Martinez completed a season-low 43 percent of his passes (16 of 37) and only ran for a net gain of 18 yards on seven carries. But he weathered the frigid, snowy conditions well enough for Nebraska to secure its best win in two years.
“On a day like that, you gotta just be patient, be smart with the football and wait on your opportunities to make a couple plays here and there,” Frost said. “I thought for the most part he did a really good job with that.”
Martinez called the day “a good lesson in perseverance” as he navigated what the best decision was for each play. That wasn’t always easy when a chunk of the offense was unavailable because of weather.
The big bugaboo for Martinez was two more fumbles, including one that the Spartans recovered at the Nebraska 21-yard line. Martinez leads the nation with 12 fumbles, according to TeamRankings.com, and is well aware of his ball-security issues.
“Fumbling the ball one time is too many,” Martinez said. “Just have to keep on working on that in practice. You know coach (Verduzco), he’s going to be on me about it. Something I definitely need to work on and I’m going to continue to work on.”
Blackshirts: Coordinator all ours
Erik Chinander may have once played for Iowa. But the Huskers made one thing clear Monday — that’s ancient history.
Senior linebacker Luke Gifford said the Blackshirts are even more eager to perform for their defensive coordinator given the circumstances. Not only did Chinander play for Kirk Ferentz as a walk-on offensive lineman from 1998-2002, he spent the next seven years coaching in the state with either Ellsworth Community College or Northern Iowa.
“He’s like, ‘I play for Nebraska,’” Neal said. “But deep down, you know, you love your alma mater. So it’ll be different for him. I’m excited to see how he reacts, just going back over there and coaching.”
Frost said he and his longtime friend used to argue about the Husker-Hawkeye rivalry and “now he’s finally on the good side.” He said he imagines Friday’s return to Kinnick Stadium will be as emotional for Chinander as coming back to Memorial Stadium was for Frost.
Linebacker Mohamed Barry said his coordinator has a new favorite team now.
“I don’t think he’s thinking about his playing days at Iowa anymore,” Barry said. “He’s the Blackshirts coach now, so that’s all that matters.”
» Barry, a junior, said 100 tackles was a goal of his since the spring. He’s up to 101 following his team-high eight tackles Saturday and the first Husker to reach the plateau in four years.
“Every time I go out and play, I play for my teammates,” said Barry, who is 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds. “What fuels my fire is the love I have for this game and this program. So I just get to the ball as much as I can. … It just says that I’m doing my part and I’m giving my all for this team, week in and week out.”
» Senior safety Antonio Reed received a Blackshirt following his Saturday game in which he recorded seven tackles, forced two fumbles and grabbed an interception.
“I certainly felt like he could have been recognized as a conference player of the week with the difference he made in a defensive struggle in a 9-6 football game,” Frost said. “But in our eyes, that’s what he was.”
» Aurora quarterback Baylor Scheierman may have made a new enemy Monday when Frost was told the prep standout broke his C-1 record for total offense in a season. Scheierman and Aurora face Ord for the title Tuesday at 2:45 p.m. at Memorial Stadium. Quipped Frost: “We’ll have to see. I might not let him in the stadium.”
» Iowa tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson received plenty of praise from the Huskers, who identified the position as a defensive priority for Friday. The sophomore Hockenson (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) leads the team with 41 grabs and 663 receiving yards to go with 10 touchdowns. Fant (6-5, 241), a junior and Omaha South graduate, has 38 for 507 and seven scores.
Both are also excellent blockers, Frost said, and “are as good as there is in this league.” Neal, an NU safety, called them “glorified receivers” for what they can do in the passing game.
“They might not be receivers by what they look like,” Neal said, “but their skill set is of a really good receiver who can also block.”
Nebraska at Iowa
When: 11 a.m. Friday (6 a.m. Pregame)
Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
Radio: 103.1 FM