IOWA CITY --- Looking for a spark at halftime, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini found one in Rex Burkhead.
The senior I-back who has been dealing with a knee sprain throughout much of the season took the field for the first time in a game since Oct. 20 on Friday and helped rally the Cornhuskers for a 13-7 win at Iowa.
In addition to scoring the game-deciding touchdown on a 3-yard run late in the third quarter and gaining a team-high 69 yards on 16 carries, Burkhead provided his teammates with an emotional lift after the Hawkeyes took a 7-3 lead into the locker room at halftime.
“I went into the game thinking I was only going to play him if we needed him, and I thought we needed him at that point,” Pelini said. “The other guys were running good, but I thought it was something that would give us an emotional boost.”
Burkhead gained four yards on Nebraska’s first carry of the second half, drawing cheers from the 10,000 or so Cornhusker fans at Kinnick Stadium.
“They’ve got a lot of good football players on that team, but I don’t know if they’ve got one more valuable than Burkhead,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “… To me, he does something special for them.”
FERENTZ DENIES DAVIS RUMOR: Internet speculation that first-year Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis would not return next season was news to Ferentz.
“Up until about eight minutes ago, I heard nothing about that, then someone said it was out there floating around in cyberspace or something like that,’’ Ferentz said. “That’s the first I’ve heard of that.’’
Ferentz said Iowa’s 4-8 season will lead to plenty of reflection in upcoming days, but he added he is comfortable with the make-up of his coaching staff.
“I need to take some time and look at everything, starting with my performance, going right down to the bottom,’’ Ferentz said. “We’ll do that like we do every year. We have good coaches, good people. There were a lot of things that went into this being a 4-8 year.’’
AHEAD OF THE GAME: When James Vandenberg scored on a 1-yard run with 28 seconds remaining in the first quarter, Iowa found itself playing with a lead for the first time since the fourth quarter of its game against Indiana on Nov. 3.
The Hawkeyes had played 85 minutes, 30 seconds of football covering more than two games since a Cody Latimer touchdown catch with 10:58 left in the game erased the 21-17 lead Damon Bullock had given Iowa with a 4-yard run a little over a minute earlier.
SITTING OUT: The Hawkeyes played Saturday without senior defensive end Joe Gaglione and running back Damon Bullock.
Both missed the final game of the season with injuries. For Bullock, it was the sixth game he sat out during his sophomore season.
SELLOUT STREAK ENDS: With students away on Thanksgiving break, the home team sporting a losing record and a wind chill at kickoff of 15 degrees, Iowa had a streak of 30 consecutive sellouts at Kinnick Stadium end on Friday.
The Hawkeyes and Nebraska played in front of 69,805 fans, the first time since a match-up against Arkansas State in 2009 that all 70,585 tickets were not sold.
FINISHING STRONG: With a defensive effort led by double-digit tackle totals from all three of its starting linebackers, Iowa held Nebraska 56.9 yards below its season-rushing average. The Cornhuskers finished with 200 yards on the ground.
“I’m proud of my teammates and the way we fought,’’ said James Morris, who finished with 13 tackles. “We didn’t back down. We battled on every snap and gave our team a chance to compete to the end. That’s all you ask.’’
EMOTIONAL DAY: This was the second Senior Day that Ferentz has played the role of coach and father in at Kinnick Stadium and things weren’t any easier the second time around as son James made his way to midfield pregame to be met by his parents.
“He’s probably a little more emotional than (Brian). He came out and was all welled up. That didn’t help anything at all,’’ Ferentz said. “Just like not going to a bowl is not any easier, that wasn’t easier, either.’’
CATCHING ON: Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz led Iowa in receptions for the second straight week, catching six passes for 56 yards against Nebraska. The junior totaled 14 receptions for 155 yards in his final two starts.
“I feel like I’ve moved forward the last couple weeks,’’ Fiedorowicz said. “The ball has been coming my way a little more and I’ve caught some balls and picked up some yards. I feel like I’m getting things figured out.’’
LEGGING IT OUT: A friendly roll allowed Connor Kornbrath to uncork a 61-yard punt in the fourth quarter, the longest of his freshman season.
It was one yard longer than his previous best set a week ago at Michigan. Kornbrath averaged 39.8 yards on five punts and downed two inside the 20.