Lincoln - Halloween came a week early at Memorial Stadium, as bizarre, strange and odd plays haunted the Husker offense in a 9-7 loss to Iowa State on Saturday afternoon.
The Huskers, 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big 12, were stunned by a school-record negative-eight turnover margin on a school-record-tying eight turnovers, losing five fumbles and throwing three interceptions. Iowa State, 5-3 overall, improved to 2-2 in the league by simply hanging onto the football, despite being outgained by 123 yards (362-239).
The Cyclones did not commit a turnover and converted NU's eight miscues into just nine points. However, four of Nebraska's first five turnovers occurred inside the Iowa State 10, preventing the Huskers from scoring what appeared to be imminent touchdowns or at least field goals.
The barrage of turnovers started on the game's first play from scrimmage, as Roy Helu Jr. fumbled on his first carry, giving ISU the ball at the NU 39. The Huskers held ISU to just four yards, but Grant Mahoney connected on a career-long 52-yard field goal with 13:24 left in the first quarter.
After NU's second drive stalled past midfield, Alex Henery buried the Cyclones at their own 2 on a punt. The Blackshirts forced a three-and-out and took over at the ISU 42. The Huskers cashed in nine plays later on Dontrayevous Robinson's first career touchdown run, covering three yards to give NU a 7-3 lead with 3:26 left in the opening quarter. Robinson finished the day with 77 yards on 15 carries.
While the Huskers appeared to settle into a rhythm after another defensive stop and a long march, the strange plays took over midway through the second quarter.
In a first-half filled with bizarre plays, Iowa State ran to the locker room with a 9-7 lead. The Cyclones scored their lone touchdown on a 47-yard pass from Jerome Tiller to Jake Williams midway through the second quarter. It was ISU's longest touchdown hookup of the season, and it followed a fourth-down conversion on a fake punt that turned into a 20-yard run by punter Mike Brandtner. Tiller finished 9-for-19 through the air for 102 yards, while adding 65 rushing yards on 19 carries.
That drive began with an improbable interception by David Sims, who picked the ball off the legs of NU tight end Mike McNeill and ISU's James Smith while they were lying on the ground battling for possession. McNeill had initially appeared to have hauled in a remarkable 16-yard reception down the middle of the field, after the ball was tipped mid-flight by ISU's Jesse Smith. Sims took the ball from the NU 1 and sprinted to the ISU 17 to start the drive.
The strange play stopped NU's 11-play, 70-yard drive that had consumed more than five minutes, and Iowa State then overcame a 2nd-and-20 by converting on 4th-and-5 with the fake punt on their own 33. Although the Cyclones found paydirt, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh blocked Mahoney's extra-point kick to keep the Huskers within 9-7 with 6:53 left in the half.
After the two teams exchanged punts on their next drives, Nebraska took over at its own 22 with 5:04 left in the half. Robinson opened the drive with a seven-yard gain before being thrown for a two-yard loss on the second play of the drive. On 3rd-and-5 from the NU 27, Zac Lee hit Niles Paul just beyond midfield. Paul streaked down the ISU sideline and appeared to be headed for a touchdown, avoiding being tripped up from behind at the ISU 12. But without being hit, Paul fumbled the ball, then dove and momentarily possessed it at the ISU 2, before the ball went flying toward the middle of the endzone. The fumble was recovered by ISU's James Smith for a touchback, thrwarting another Husker threat.
Paul finished the game with six receptions for 143 yards to lead the NU receivers, while Lee completed 20-of-37 passes for 248 yards. Lee completed 15 of his first 18 attempts on the afternoon. He did throw three interceptions, but two came late in the fourth quarter, including one on 4th-and-10 on NU's final drive.
The odd plays continued in the second half. After the Huskers opened the third quarter with a defensive stop, Nebraska drove inside the ISU red zone. Helu then broke free for a 14-yard gain and was stumbling to the ground at the ISU 2. As he hit the ground, the ball popped free and the Cyclones recovered in the endzone to stop the Husker threat.
The Blackshirts forced another punt on the ensuing drive, and NU took over at the ISU 41 after a 19-yard punt. The Huskers went to the ground game and struck the Cyclone red zone again, before Robinson fumbled at the ISU 5 after fighting for extra yardage after picking up a first down. It was Nebraska's fourth fumble lost and fifth turnover of the game, while the Cyclones were turnover free through the first three quarters.
At that point late in the third quarter, Nebraska had outgained Iowa State, 337-138, but still trailed 9-7.
Nebraska opened the fourth quarter with the ball inside its own 20 and on a 3rd-and-12 conversion attempt, Lee hit Menelik Holt on a quick slant. Holt was hit after the reception and fumbled, which was recovered by ISU at the NU 27. After the recovery, ISU's James Smith was called for a personal foul and ejected from the game. The penalty pushed ISU back and Nebraska's defense held, setting up a 49 ISU field goal attempt. Mahoney, who had hit a 52-yard field goal, had his 49-yard attempt blocked by Suh and scooped up by Sean Fisher, who raced to the Iowa State 35. It was Suh's second blocked kick of the game fifth blocked kick of his career.
But the Cyclones knocked NU back two yards on the drive, and going against the wind, the Huskers elected not to attempt a 54-yard field goal by Henery. Instead, Henery pinned the Cyclones at their own 6 to open the drive with 11:15 remaining in the game. Iowa State possessed the ball for 7:04 but did not reach midfield.
Nebraska took over inside its own 20, then picked up a pair of quick first downs before Lee's pass went through Curenski Gilleylen's hands across midfield and was intercepted by ISU defensive back Michael O'Connell for the Huskers' seventh turnover of the game.
The Blackshirts forced another three-and-out and after taking a pair of timeouts, turned the ball back to the offense with 1:53 left at the NU 18. NU's final turnover came on its last attempt, as Jesse Smith intercepted Lee's pass across the middle on 4th-and-10.
Nebraska hits the road next week, traveling to Waco, Texas, to take on Big 12 South foe Baylor on Saturday, Oct. 31. Kickoff is set for 11:30 a.m. with live television coveraged provided by Versus.
Final: Iowa State 9, Nebraska 7
First Quarter (NU, 7-3)
ISU - 10:21 - Grant Mahoney 52 FG - 4 plays, 4 yards, 1:20, ISU 3-0
NU - 3:26 - Dontrayevous Robinson 3 run (Alex Henery kick) - 9 plays, 42 yards, 4:06, NU 7-3
Second Quarter (ISU, 9-7)
ISU - 6:53 - Jake Williams 47 pass from Jerome Tiller (Mahoney kick blocked by Ndamukong Suh) - 7 plays, 83 yards, 2:46, ISU 9-7
Third Quarter (ISU, 9-7)
Fourth Quarter (ISU, 9-7)
Final: Iowa State 9, Nebraska 7
Time of Game: 3:09