IOWA CITY — As the pregame festivities were unfolding Friday at Kinnick Stadium, the enormity of it suddenly jumped up and hit Ross Reynolds in the face.
The 14 seniors on Iowa’s roster were being called to the middle of the field one by one, in alphabetical order, and Reynolds and Keegan Render were going to be the last two introduced.
Two Des Moines area kids who arrived in 2014 as unheralded recruits and who now were playing their final home game, both established starters in the middle of the Hawkeyes’ offensive line. Two burly, tough guys who suddenly turned into 300-pound marshmallows as they glanced around at their surroundings.
"It was a little emotional," Reynolds admitted. "I kind of had to fight back some tears. Everybody else goes and it’s us two and it’s crazy just to take a look around. During a regular game, you don’t really just sit back and look around and take it all in, but it’s something we did.
"It just kind of hit you," he added.
The feelings were much sweeter a few hours later after the Hawkeyes had put the finishing touches on a thrilling 31-28 victory over Nebraska in the annual Heroes Game.
Reynolds and Render were among the unsung heroes.
Miguel Recinos hit the game-winning field goal, Mekhi Sargent rushed for a career-best 173 yards, Nate Stanley directed the offense to the winning points, and Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa made big plays on defense.
But Iowa won this game largely because its offensive line strong-armed the Cornhuskers all over the field for most of the afternoon.
Reynolds wasn’t sure he’d call it the line’s best effort of the season — "I have to look at the film," he said — but there wasn’t much doubt in anyone else’s mind.
"They were just setting the tone right off the bat, getting off the ball, moving the line of scrimmage," said running back Toren Young, who contributed 83 yards toward a season-best 266-yard rushing effort.
"They played their butts off today," added Stanley, who was not sacked, was barely touched and who was never off his feet except for when he slid at the end of a 10-yard scramble in the first half. "I’m just thankful I can stand back there with all the time in the world to throw the ball."
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, an old line coach who has sent dozens of linemen into the NFL through the years, said there was no question that Friday’s victory "started up front."
"Our line continues to mature," he said. "They’ve really grown and gotten better. The veteran guys inside, Reynolds and Keegan, those guys really have done a good job. From where I stand, it looked like those guys played pretty well."
So did the three sophomores who join center Render and left guard Reynolds in the line: right tackle Tristan Wirfs, left tackle Alaric Jackson and right guard Cole Banwart.
Thanks to all of them, Sargent and Young had sizable holes to run through all day and occasionally were 6 or 8 yards downfield before they even saw a white jersey.
Iowa had three touchdown drives in the first half that were 79 or more yards, and all of them lasted more than five minutes.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost admitted it was frustrating because his own offense spent so little time on the field in the first two quarters during those Hawkeye filibusters.
"What disturbs me is that Iowa has a bigger, stronger team than we do," Frost said. "I never thought I’d say that about a Nebraska team. … They leaned on us pretty good, especially in the first half."
The Cornhuskers eventually fought back from a 15-point deficit to tie the game at 28-28 with three minutes, 22 seconds remaining, but Ferentz was perfectly content to put the game on the backs of his O-line at that point.
In the ensuing eight-play drive to set up Recinos’ 41-yard game-winner, the Hawkeyes ran the ball six times. Sargent found large enough creases to gain 25 yards on the first three plays.
When the drive began to sputter, the Hawkeyes went for it on fourth-and-8, and despite an all-out blitz by the Huskers, Stanley had ample time to rifle a 10-yard completion to T.J. Hockenson.
"I think you saw on that last drive, (offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz) has the utmost faith in what we can do," Render said. "It was a tough spot, but we executed. It means a lot to all of us."
"I think it was just everybody doing their job," Reynolds added. "Everybody executed the game plan, and that’s what you want. You can’t ask for anything else. Everybody did their job."