AMES, Iowa – Down a point in overtime to a Nebraska team that's dominated Iowa State for a century, coach Paul Rhoads decided to take the biggest gamble of his career.
The Cornhuskers were waiting for it and Eric Hagg stopped the Cyclones from stunning Nebraska for the second year in a row.
Hagg intercepted a short, floating pass by Iowa State holder Daniel Kuehl on a fake conversion kick in overtime and No. 9 Nebraska beat Iowa State 31-30 Saturday in a thrilling final meeting between the two schools as Big 12 rivals.
"I think about half the people on the team had just expected it to be some kind of fake. The coaches, they kind of prepared us. They knew that coming into this game that they'd have something up their sleeve," Nebraska defensive back Austin Cassidy said.
Rex Burkhead ran for 129 yards and two touchdowns for the Huskers (8-1, 4-1 Big 12), who played without star quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Burkhead ran for a 19-yard touchdown to start overtime, but Iowa State answered with a 9-yard TD pass from Austen Arnaud to Jake Williams.
The Cyclones went for the win, but Kuehl's soft toss was picked off by Hagg near the goal line.
Though Rhoads might be questioned by some for risking it all with his holder, Arnaud staunchly defended his beloved coach.
"Great call," Arnaud said. "It will be ridiculed and whatever by the public, and you know, I could care less what the public thinks. We're in this thing together, and I'm with (Rhoads). I've never played for a man like him ... I have all the confidence in him the world in him, and there's no way nobody on this team doesn't."
Iowa State certainly looked confident in rallying from a 24-10 deficit to tie the game early in the fourth quarter.
Cassidy put Nebraska ahead 17-10 midway through the third quarter on a 29-yard interception return, and Burkhead's 2-yard TD run made it 24-10.
The Cyclones needed just 49 seconds to tie it up at 24-all, though, as Arnaud followed a 1-yard TD plunge with a 14-yard scoring pass to Alexander Robinson with 10:40 left in the fourth quarter.
Arnaud threw for 203 yards and three TDs but also had two costly picks for Iowa State, which lost for the 29th time in its last 33 games against the Cornhuskers.
This one wasn't nearly as easy as most of their wins over the Cyclones, who tried to close out a lopsided conference rivalry dating back to 1896 with a program-defining win over a top-10 team.
Kuehl had tight end Collin Franklin open in the end zone. But the backup punter's pass into the wind floated behind Franklin, and Hagg made the grab for the Huskers, who moved one step closer to the Big 12 North title.
"It's a game of inches. I had no hesitation whatsoever," Rhoads said. "If we execute, game over. We're the ones running in the end zone to celebrate."
Iowa State's Grant Mahoney, who drilled a career-long 57-yard field goal in the first half, sent a 55-yarder wide and short with 3:23 left. Nebraska's final drive of the fourth quarter stalled out at midfield, and Iowa State took a knee to force OT.
Iowa State used eight takeaways to stun the Huskers 9-7 in Lincoln last season. In the third quarter, the Cyclones were burned by turnovers.
Alex Henery's 25-yard field goal tied the game at 10-all early in the third quarter. Just 43 seconds later, Cassidy stepped in and gave the Huskers the life they'd been searching for all day.
Cassidy jumped in front of Arnaud's pass over the middle and broke right for a touchdown, putting Nebraska ahead 17-10.
Arnaud then made another ill-advised toss, this time under pressure, and Hagg made the interception. Burkhead took a direct snap 2 yards to make it 24-10 with 21 seconds left in the third quarter.
But Nebraska's offense clearly wasn't the same without the electrifying Martinez, who was in uniform.
With backup Zac Lee nursing a sore throwing arm, Nebraska turned to Green, who started two games in 2009 but had played sparingly this season.
The Huskers didn't seem to trust Green throwing the ball in the first half, They ran on 24 of 28 plays, falling behind 10-7.
Cody Green threw for just 79 yards on 7-of-12 passing in place of Martinez, who sprained his right ankle last week.
"He's a great player and he makes big plays, but we had to rely on the run game," Burkhead said of Martinez. "New formations and all that, but we still managed."
Nebraska's departure to the Big Ten in 2011 likely means the Huskers won't face Iowa State unless the pair meet up in a bowl or a nonconference game somewhere down the line.
Nebraska picks up another rival from Iowa next year in the Hawkeyes. But the Hawkeyes and Huskers will be hard-pressed to match the drama's of Saturday's Big 12 finale for Nebraska and Iowa State, which capped the series with one of the most memorable plays the rivalry had ever seen.
"It was a gutsy call by coach Rhoads," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. 'Our guy made a play."