The Hail Varsity staff offers some final thoughts on Nebraska’s 40-10 loss to Iowa.
Jordan Westerkamp is on pace to have his least productive season since his freshman year, when he played a supporting role off the bench. Westerkamp came so close to becoming Nebraska’s first 1,000-yard receiver last year, and many thought he had a legitimate chance to surpass that mark this year as a senior.
With the regular season in the books, Westerkamp has 38 catches for 536 yards. He did that in just 10 games after missing two games with a back injury, but even so that is still only 52.6 yards per game. However, if you put aside the numbers and watch him on the field, Westerkamp is playing as well or better than he ever has.
Westerkamp’s four-catch, 50-yard performance on Friday in Iowa City certainly isn’t anything to get excited over on its face, but on a day where quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. only managed to complete 13 of his 35 pass attempts, four catches looks a lot more significant. Westerkamp saw 20 percent of Armstrong’s throws in his direction and finished with 30.8 percent of Armstrong’s completions and 40 percent of Armstrong’s passing yards. Add in the degree of difficulty on some of those catches and Westerkamp was one of the few players who truly showed up on Saturday.
Westerkamp will rank right near or at the top of many of Nebraska’s receiving records, but even so his 167 catches for 2,474 yards and 18 touchdowns (with one more game to play) does not do his talent justice.
Westerkamp may not have the physical tools or eye-popping numbers NFL scouts salivate over, but he can run routes and adjust to the ball in the air with the best of them, and you won’t find a better set of hands in the 2017 draft class. Some team who does its homework is going to get a steal; I’ll be surprised if Westerkamp doesn’t carve out a nice NFL career for himself.
If I had to recap the regular season in just one word, I would select ‘consistency.’ I would choose it for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it was the one thing I kept hearing myself – and others, for that matter – say from start to finish.
Before the season began, we all talked about quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s consistency. It was one of the areas we wanted to see improvement from him most and we got it for a little while. From Fresno State to Northwestern, Armstrong threw only one interception. He completed an impressive 62.1 percent of his passes against Northwestern and then another 69.6 percent against Illinois. Then Armstrong fell to a season low at 38.5 percent pass completion against Indiana (although Wisconsin wasn’t much better at 38.7 percent), excluding Ohio State where Armstrong left early with a head injury.
There was punter Caleb Lightbourn who struggled to find a groove and rhythm during his true freshman season. The argument will stand in Lightbourn’s favor that he wasn’t supposed to hold this role – Not yet, not now. It was supposed to be Sam Foltz’s senior season, with Lightbourn learning the ropes from one of the best. When life changed that plan, Lightbourn was thrust into an unexpected role and his consistency was constantly challenged.
It goes beyond those two players, though. The offensive line was inconsistent, which many injuries could be blamed for. The defense was hit-and-miss from one week to the next and what was solid one week was not seven days later. If it wasn’t one thing, it was always another.
There were always glimmers of hope though, which cannot be forgotten or dismissed. There were performances, like the ones against Oregon and Wisconsin, where the Huskers showed exactly what they could be. Sure, what we know about Oregon today is much different than two months ago but that doesn’t change what that Husker team did then. That includes Wisconsin, where it may have ended in a loss but what was given on the field showed much more than the final score.
When it all comes down to it, Nebraska showed promise in 2016 but it was just never consistent enough to really contend for the Big Ten West. So, we’ll add ‘consistency’ back to the list for the Huskers in 2017. It’ll once again be the buzzword to hang on to and it should remain that way until Nebraska finds it.
Like a lot of observers of Nebraska football, I spent most of the back half of the Bo Pelini era wondering what the Huskers might be capable of if they could just consistently win the turnover battle. In 2009, the year Nebraska stole a conference title from Texas thanks to its defense, the Huskers were plus-five in turnover margin at the end of the season. Every season after that, however, ended with Nebraska in the red, some years just barely, other years drastically so.
That didn’t change in year one under Mike Riley. The Huskers were minus-12 a year ago over 13 games, a worse rate than any of the Pelini years. It did change in year two. After Saturday’s games, Nebraska ranked 29th nationally in turnover margin per game and forced five more turnovers than it committed during the regular season.
So how did Nebraska look with that positive turnover margin? Well, it won nine games, but in a bottom line sense it looked much the same. The Huskers still seem to be a bit of a leaky boat — plug one leak (turnovers, for example) and another springs somewhere else (special teams). The 2016 defense was probably better than expected and fixed its fatal flaw (big plays) from a year ago, but that came with a regression on offense (variety of reasons).
Most Nebraska seasons of a recent vintage look that way in retrospect. The popular questions the Huskers will have to address this offseason are still forming. Eventually they’ll solidify and become the topics of the spring and summer.
But if past seasons are any indication, maybe the questions that aren’t apparent in August are the ones that matter most.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.