The Hail Varsity staff offers three final takeaways from Nebraska’s 24-13 win over Northwestern.
Evanston may be a suburb of Chicago, but Nebraska proved on Saturday that the Huskers are really the Windy City’s team as fans in red seemingly outnumbered those in purple at Ryan Field Stadium for Nebraska’s 24-13 victory.
The confines of the stadium had to feel particularly friendly for wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp who, according to his mother Kim during the TV broadcast, had approximately 200 friends and family in attendance for the senior’s final game at Evanston, which is less than an hour away from his hometown of Lombard, Illinois.
“I looked at it and I had my own little cheering section over there,” Westerkamp said. “After the game, I was like ‘holy crap.’”
Westerkamp only finished with two touchdowns, but one of those was a touchdown which I broke down here.
Westerkamp wasn’t the only one who had his homecoming on Saturday; redshirt sophomore running back Mikale Wilbon is a Chicago native. Heading into the game, Wilbon had carried the ball 10 times for 51 yards in his career, including once this season for 16 yards.
Wilbon finished with no touches and just one target last week against Oregon – Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s backwards pass that the Ducks recovered. However, running backs coach Reggie Davis expressed confidence in the 5-foot-9, 195 pound back.
“Mikale’s got a chance to be able to help us out quite a bit,” Davis said.
On Saturday, Wilbon carried the ball six times for 55 yards, more than doubling his career rushing yardage in one game. I broke down Wilbon’s ability with the ball in his hands over the summer, and he showcased that again on Saturday, ripping off a 32-yard run and averaging 9.2 yards per tote overall.
Saturday may have been Nebraska’s first road game of the season, but it felt a lot like home for the Huskers in more ways than one.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. had 400 rushing yards in 2015. This was the cause of much chagrin, even if it wasn’t totally unexpected. It made sense given this coaching staff’s history that Armstrong would run a little less than he had while operating Tim Beck’s spread offense.
This season, however, looks to be a different story. With 132 rushing yards against Northwestern on Saturday, Armstrong pushed his season total to 281 yards. He’s on pace for 843, which would be more than he gained in 2013 or 2014. Turns out all of the offseason talk in 2015 about the novelty of having a running quarterback operating a traditionally pro-style system had some merit.
So did all of the 2016 offseason talk about Nebraska’s staff and players learning from that experience.
“It’s studying us, it’s studying other teams and getting to know him better and being another year with him,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “We just felt like he was a threat running the ball and we had to expand that package. It wasn’t ay revelation, it was more studying ourselves and saying, ‘we need to some more of this becaust it’s good for us.”
It’s good for Armstrong, too, apparently. He ranked 37th nationally at 278 total yards per game entering Saturday and put up 378 against the Wildcats. That’ll be good for a move up the charts.
Making Armstrong more of a multi-faceted weapon has had benefits for the senior’s passing game, too. After four games, Armstrong was completing 56.6 percent of his passes (career high for a season: 55.2) with eight touchdowns and, most importantly, just one interception.
Nebraska fans know how to travel. That shouldn’t be a shock to anyone at this point. For head coach Mike Riley though? He’s still discovering just how special it is.
“We talk about identity in football,” Riley said. “That’s an identity for Nebraska, the whole state of Nebraska. How much they care, how much they support their team. It’s a real identity statement by everybody about the Cornhuskers. It’s special.”
Yes, it is special. It also is a huge benefit to a team, which the Huskers recognized many times Saturday night. With a visiting crowd close in size to that of the home crowd at Ryan Field, the Huskers (and especially the Blackshirts) gained a lot of momentum from Nebraska fans.
“When you have a lot of people who support you travel that far, it shows they care about you and you got someone watching your back all the time so it’s nice that they travel so deep,” safety Nathan Gerry said.
Brandon wrote a great piece on Chicago being a great city for Husker fans. It’s worth checking out. A lot of what he offered up was echoed by quarterback Tommy Armstrong during Saturday’s post-game press conference.
“It was great,” Armstrong said. “I’ve been here. This is my second time here and seeing that, just being able to have that support and fan base here… sometimes it was loud, sometimes you could tell when our fans were on our side. They brought great energy, especially for our defense to get good stops and that’s what we expected, especially myself being the second time I’ve come here and to experience it again.
“They travel well and do a real good job of being on our side and very supportive throughout the game and loud in certain situations. I just want to thank them for traveling and wish them safe travels back home.”
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.