IOWA CITY — Six for six. Mission accomplished.
Or is it?
One by one, the Legends Division champs emerged from their locker room. Each wearing a black cap with their newest title emblazoned on the front.
The news was what was, or wasn't, beneath those new flat brims.
Nary a smile.
Maybe the Nebraska Huskers' faces just hadn't thawed. That was certainly a possibility after a hard day's win over Iowa on a frozen tundra in eastern Iowa, a day when everything was frozen, including the Iowa playbook.
A title was won on Friday. But this was no celebration. And anyone who has followed Nebraska football the past three years understands why.
There's nothing to celebrate yet.
“I'm sure some guys will wear their hats for a while,” said NU senior tight end Ben Cotton. “But the job's not done. The work's not finished. We've still got one more to go.”
One more. Next week. Indianapolis. Wisconsin. Big Ten championship game.
They are 60 minutes from a return to glory, one win from a reunion with tradition, one more hard-earned, grinding win over a grinding Badgers team from a long-awaited date in a major bowl, this one in a little town called Pasadena, Calif.
But they know all too well how long a trip that is, from here to there. From division champ to conference champ, it's like jumping over a canyon.
They remember. In 2009, they were one second — one second — from beating Texas and winning the Big 12 title. Two years ago, they were up 17 on Oklahoma and couldn't close the deal.
And now these seniors, and this staff, have a third chance. By the looks under those brims, they don't aim to miss this time.
“We want to prove to people we can win a big pressure game,” said right guard Spencer Long. “We want to show we can play four quarters of consistent football.”
This from a team that is 10-2. This from a team that just won its sixth straight game.
Six straight is a load in any league, with any pedigree. Maybe it's harder when there are no easy outs, and even the alleged cupcakes will knock your teeth out.
Nebraska used to win six in a row most every year. But the Big Red has rarely done it this way.
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The 13-point dash at Northwestern. The brawl with Michigan. The Miracle in East Lansing. The touchdown that wasn't against Penn State.
And then came the perfect capper, this 13-7 thing at Kinnick Stadium that was the ugliest, most beautiful win in head coach Bo Pelini's five seasons.
In a game of punch-gut, the Huskers lost their middle. Center Justin Jackson, out. Main run-stopper on defense, Baker Steinkuhler, gone. The key plays were Brett Maher's punts. The play of the game? Probably from Rex Burkhead, burrowing like a gopher for 9 yards to the NU 11-yard line with the Huskers pinned against their goal line against the wind early in the fourth quarter.
Oh, right. Sorry. Superman was back. He bounded out of the phone booth after halftime. Just in time to save the day, and a coach's promise.
That Ohio State night, back on Oct. 6, seems like two Octobers ago. Pelini's team had collapsed, and it seemed his program was flimsy and the coach looked and sounded lost that night.
Little did we know, Pelini had a road map out of the fog. Six for six.
“After Ohio State, some of you looked at me like I was a crazy man,” Pelini said. “I may have thought I was a crazy man that night. But I believe in this team. I'm proud of these kids.
“But we're not done. We have one left. We're looking for something bigger than winning our division.”
For this Nebraska program, a division title isn't as meaningful. But it won't be meaningless.
What a six weeks. In that time, this program grew. The Huskers got some breaks. They didn't break. They made a ton of plays, huge plays. Pelini has taken giant steps as a head coach, a leader. He's coached well. He's pushed the right buttons, including Saturday, when he rolled the dice on Rex and kept the ball out of quarterback Taylor Martinez's frozen gloves.
Nebraska football accounted well for itself. The Huskers became a tighter team in the process, and the journey they've made is one they should feel proud of.
To that end, the division champion hats they wore late Friday represented an accomplishment. But these are not the kind of hats anyone wears a second time. These aren't hats that end up in a trophy case at home.
“Our objective is to win the Big Ten,” said defensive coordinator John Papuchis. “But we had to punch our ticket first. We didn't want to sit on the couch next week and watch someone else. We wanted to earn our way.”
They've done good work this season, but it's incomplete without the crowning finish. Which is a crown.
“You can pat us on the back,” said defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski, “in January.”
Contact the writer:
402-444-1025, email@example.com; twitter.com/tomshatelOWH
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>> Video: Nebraska-Iowa postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust:
>> Video: NU's Bo Pelini after the Iowa game:
>> Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the Iowa game:
>> Video: NU's Rex Burkhead after the Iowa game:
>> Video: NU's Alonzo Whaley after the Iowa game: