IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Winning five straight games mostly without him, didn’t mean Nebraska doesn’t need Rex Burkhead.
On a cold and blustery afternoon with a spot in the Big Ten title game on the line, Burkhead proved why he’s so valuable to the Huskers.
Burkhead scored the go-ahead touchdown in his return from a knee injury and No. 17 Nebraska beat Iowa 13-7 on Friday to claim the Legends Division’s berth in the championship game.
The Huskers (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) will face off against Wisconsin next Saturday in Indianapolis after winning six straight since a loss at Ohio State.
It’ll be a rematch of Nebraska’s thrilling 30-27 home win over the Badgers in late September.
“I remember after Ohio State, I said what we needed to do, and you all looked at me like I was a crazy man. I probably thought I was a crazy man that night. I believe in this team. Honestly, I’m proud of those kids in that locker room,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.
Burkhead had to be at the top of Pelini’s list.
Burkhead, making his first appearance since aggravating a sprained left knee on Oct. 20 against Northwestern, broke through with a 3-yard TD run to make it 13-7 late in the third quarter. He rushed for 69 yards, all in the second half.
Alonzo Whaley’s interception with 2:11 left sealed the victory for Nebraska.
The Huskers defense held the Hawkeyes (4-8, 2-6) scoreless in the final three quarters in windy conditions.
Mark Weisman had 91 yards rushing for Iowa, which finished the season on a six-game losing streak. The Hawkeyes will miss out on a bowl game for just the second time since 2000.
“Nobody’s happy about where we’re at,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We fully realize we have a lot of work to do right now.”
Nebraska’s offense spent much of the day stifled by a stiff wind that gusted up to 40 mph and a surprisingly stout Iowa defense.
Fittingly, quarterback Taylor Martinez and Burkhead teamed up to put the Huskers ahead.
Martinez beat quadruple coverage for an 18-yard completion to Braylon Heard, an impressive hookup considering the conditions. Burkhead was in the end zone a few plays later to give Nebraska a six-point lead with 3:10 left in the third quarter.
Iowa pinned Nebraska at the 1 with 12:03 left, but Burkhead willed the Huskers out of harm’s way with runs of 9 and 8 yards into the wind.
Though the Huskers were later forced to punt, Burkhead helped them avoid the worst while burning valuable minutes off the clock.
“I just thought it would be a mental boost for us. I went into the game thinking we’re only going to play him if we need him,” Pelini said of Burkhead, who rushed for 57 yards in the fourth quarter. “I asked him `How do you feel about it? And Rex said `Let’s go.”‘
A mild fall in the Midwest came to an abrupt end on Friday.
During the national anthem, the breeze at Kinnick Stadium was so strong it nearly blew over the American flag – and the man holding it. The wind chill hovered in the teens all day.
The conditions made passing a risky venture. Martinez threw for just 63 yards, while Iowa’s James Vandenberg had 92 yards passing and two picks.
“It was really difficult. That wind and that cold weather,” Martinez said. “My hands were frozen.”
Nebraska threw just once on a 16-play drive that led to a field goal, and Iowa did the same on a 62-yard drive that led to a 1-yard plunge from Vandenberg and a 7-3 lead it held at halftime.
The Huskers muffed a punt and Martinez fumbled and nearly threw a pick in the second quarter. But Iowa’s offense, which was lackluster all season, couldn’t turn those miscues into points.
The ineptitude of Iowa’s offense reached its nadir late in the first half. They were penalized for having too many men on the field – even though they were coming out of a timeout – and Mike Meyer followed with a missed field goal.
“They’ve really had a great season, but they have turned the ball over and we were hoping to be opportunistic that way,” Ferentz said. “Overall, they just did a better job than we did in that second half.”
Nebraska finished with a 7-1 conference mark for the first time since 2001, when it posted the same mark in the Big 12.
With one more Big Ten win next weekend, Burkhead and his teammates are headed to the Rose Bowl.
“I was just glad to be out there with the guys again,” Burkhead said. “I missed being out there.”