AP Sports Writer
IOWA CITY, Iowa — From the moment Nebraska joined the Big Ten, the league tried to make Iowa its biggest rival.
The conference didn’t need to try so hard.
The Hawkeyes and Huskers have found plenty of reasons to dislike each other and the week leading up to Friday’s game in Lincoln hasn’t been any different.
“Some of the things that are coming out of their camp toward us aren’t necessarily the nicest things, and we’re just going to go out there and do our job,” Iowa wide receiver Matt VandeBerg said.
VandeBerg didn’t specify what he heard. But his comments are indicative of just how heated the series between these border-state rivals has become in recent years.
This year’s game is a bit of a swap as the Huskers (5-6, 3-4 Big Ten) attempt to spoil No. 3 Iowa’s (11-0, 7-0) playoff hopes after years dominating an on-and-off series.
“The chore has been for us to get involved,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Our job is to be able to play with those guys, to go out and compete with them. They recruit well, they’ve had great teams in the past.”
In 2011, the Big Ten stuck Nebraska in the same division with Iowa and scheduled their annual matchup on Black Friday to ensure that the game would get as much exposure as possible. The schools got in on the fun, naming the matchup the “Heroes Game” and dedicating a trophy for the winner before a snap was ever taken.
But most of the rivalry’s growth in recent years has been purely organic.
The Hawkeyes, in the midst of a long losing streak, played inspired football in front of a sold out Kinnick Stadium but still lost 13-7 in 2012 in miserably cold weather that added some mystique to the event.
It could be argued that Iowa-Nebraska became a real rivalry two years ago. The visiting Hawkeyes hammered Nebraska 38-17, prompting then-coach Bo Pelini to famously quip “If they want to fire me, go ahead!” in his post-game press conference.
Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst kept Pelini for another year. But it was Eichorst who brought the rivalry to another level last year.
The Huskers rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat Iowa 37-34 in overtime, giving Nebraska its ninth win in what seemed like a reprieve for Pelini. It wasn’t, as Pelini was fired soon after the game.
Asked why beating the Hawkeyes couldn’t save Pelini, Eichorst said that “in the final analysis…I had to evaluate where Iowa was.”
That loss resonated deeply with Ferentz, who made major changes to his program in the offseason. What ensued was one of the unlikeliest unbeaten runs by any school in years, leaving Iowa one win shy of its first 12-0 regular season.
“They’ll definitely remember that from last year and take that into this week,” Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. “Whenever you have a tough loss like that, especially to end your season … that’s something you take to the offseason and you prepare like crazy and just remember, ‘Hey, that happened. We don’t want that to happen again.’”
Nebraska coach Mike Riley, the newest face in this rivalry, has had a tough first season in Lincoln. But a win over the Hawkeyes would send the Huskers to a bowl game, take some heat off Riley and give the program momentum heading into 2016. Oh, and it would probably ruin Iowa’s national title hopes.
“You have to have some inherent pride in being a competitor,” Riley said. “You’ve got to love that as a coach and as a player, to be able to take advantage of an opportunity to beat a well-respected team.”