Huskers find motivation for Iowa in avenging last year’s ‘total nightmare’

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.”

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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.”