As I watched the extra point team set up, I knew it was going to be a fake. It almost wasn’t fair. Iowa State could every play out of the back of the playbook to win, and they’d look amazing doing it, and Nebraska would have to eat that loss for the next forty years or so.
In 2006, my parents rented an apartment that was within walking distance of Jack Trice Stadium, and since this was going to be the final Iowa State-Nebraska game for a while, I got tickets in the south end zone, ten rows up. This treated us to a bad view at times, and we always had to turn our heads to see the replay board. (Leave it to Iowa State to put in a huge video board the year after Nebraska leaves the conference.)
The view from our seats
Going into the game, I knew Nebraska might be at risk for a let-down, given back-to-back-to-back games against Texas, Oklahoma State, and Missouri. Also, quarterback Taylor Martinez and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard would be sitting out the game with injuries. In chasing the school single game rushing record a week ago, running back Roy Helu had twenty-eight carries, and wasn’t as sharp in the early going. Compound that Iowa State would be at max motivation to get a sixth win for bowl eligibility and because it was Nebraska, this was a smoldering pot.
Having beaten Nebraska 9-7 in Lincoln a year ago (a game that old men told me was the worst Husker football game they had ever witnessed) and Texas two weeks prior, the Cyclones had confidence Unlike many big play-dependent Big 12 offenses, they took what the Blackshirts gave them and didn’t get impatient. Jack Trice Stadium provided the perfect encasement for pesky team; while it wasn’t as loud as I remember it four years ago (that game was at night), the Cyclone Crazies have their way of getting things going, and frankly, it gets louder than the average Memorial Stadium crowd last five years.
Nebraska’s let down combined with the Cyclones advantages were what lead to a game that was frustratingly to close. Helu’s questionable fumble at midfield which couldn’t be overturned on replay, a 57-yard field goal made with the wind, a missed holding call on a long pass on Iowa State’s long third quarter touchdown drive, Niles Paul coming out of the end zone on the ensuing kickoff and fumbling the ball, a missed offensive pass interference call on Iowa State’s tying touchdown (the same officiating crew later called sixteen penalties on Nebraska later that year at Texas A&M), DeJon Gomes dropping an interception that could have set up a go-ahead field goal in regulation, and Cody Green not seeing an open Kyler Reed on a third down which could have set up a game tying field goal, albeit against the wind. All the while, I’m sitting in the midst of the Crazies and thinking it was almost unfair. But football isn’t fair, and neither is life for that matter.
So a long time after I turned my Dad and said “This finally feels like a Nebraska-Iowa Sate game” (third quarter), Austen Arnaud was kneeling down, and Bo Pelini and I thought Paul Rhoads would do something in overtime. Then came the overtime, which was played right in front of where I was sitting. Nebraska scored in two plays, Iowa State scored in three, again picking on one of Nebraska’s scrub corners.
Then came the extra point I knew would get faked. When I saw the holder get up and throw the ball, my first thought was, our guy is going to get to make a play on it. That guy, Eric Hagg, jumped, grabbed the ball, and fell over the back of the Iowa State tight end. Smack, game over, 31-30 Nebraska win. I went wild and high-fived the three or four Nebraska fans who were within arms reach, as the Iowa State fans just stood there stoned-faced. I went home whooping and celebrating, and wondering where Niles Paul would be taking Eric Hagg to dinner.
When I watched the play again, I saw that Collin Franklin was open for a second. Courtney Osborne and Prince Amukamara were the defenders assigned to that side, and they both rushed the kicker straight on. If the Daniel Kuehl had thrown a strike in front of the Franklin, they would have won. Based on the alignment, Osborne was the player who should have covered Franklin, and judging by the replay, Kuehl likely had an option to kick if Osborne or Amukamara were standing back in safe. It me made wonder, if Pelini kept said in his press conference they thought something was up with the extra point, why he didn’t make sure one of them was back?
Even if a mistake was made by John Papuchis, Nebraska’s special teams coach at the time, Nebraska beat Iowa State on that play for the same reason they’d beat Iowa State 16 out of the last 20 times: they had better players. When you watch the play from behind the Iowa State line of scrimmage, Kuehl looks overwhelmed and makes a desperation heave on the run. (Indeed, Rhoads asked a lot of Kuehl, a backup kicker, to complete the game winning pass. If a backup quarterback or a player who had played quarterback was the holder, it would have been a better bet.) Kuehl could have run that play ten times in practice and converted it every time, but it wasn’t against Nebraska’s defenders. Hagg covered a lot of ground in a short period of time to make the interception, from the middle of the fiend to the outside of the hashmarks, and he still had time to judge the ball in the air. His speed to the ball is the most impressive thing about the play
On my walk back to the apartment after the game, I wondered why Rhoads didn’t just leave his offense out on the field . If he really thought his best chance of winning was by getting two points right away, why not let Arnaud throw the pass? Why did even need to go for two? Keep playing, and the pressure mounts on Nebraska. Intriguingly, the three top columnists that covered this game closely took three perspectives on Rhoads’ decision: Steve Sipple supported the fake, Tom Shatel thought there was no need to go for two, and Sam Keeler thought Rhoads should have left his offense on the field for the try. It was a Liar’s Poker situation: if the right thing was to go for it, then was faking the kick the right option? And if throwing a fade against Anthony West, who couldn’t have covered a fullback, was the most likely option to covert, was it still the best option to win the game? Judging by Rhoads’ decisions in overtime this past season against Iowa and Oklahoma State, he may have decided to be patient in overtime because of that play.
For Nebraska, the faked extra point was the closest they came that year to not playing in the Big 12 title game. I still think a lot about that game, mainly because there were so many little things that could have kept it from being decided at that moment. And nearly a year and a half later, I still don’t know if it was the right call for Iowa State, or if Nebraska was lucky or good. I’m just glad my team was on the right side that day.