The Hail Varsity staff offers final thoughts on Nebraska’s 28-7 win over Maryland.
Several of Nebraska’s seniors showed up big time on Saturday. Names like Jordan Westerkamp and Josh Banderas, Terrell Newby and Michael Rose-Ivey, Brandon Reilly and Nathan Gerry. Even long-time back-up quarterback Ryker Fyfe had a chance to start and lead the Huskers to victory.
However, the game was especially meaningful for a couple of less-heralded Husker seniors: kicker Spencer Lindsay and safety Tanner Zlab.
The Huskers lost starting kicker Drew Brown to a concussion when he had to make a tackle on the opening kickoff. Enter Lindsay, a walk-on from Kearney. On the field, his career had consisted of 13 kickoffs and one extra point heading into Saturday.
Off the field, he endured tragedy, first losing his older brother Matt to cancer in 2014 and then losing his best friend, Sam Foltz, over the summer to a car accident. Lindsay’s college career has been marred with heartache.
However, in his final game as a Husker at Memorial Stadium, Lindsay got to take the field as Nebraska’s kicker. He went 4-for-4 on extra points and kicked off four times. Saturday wasn’t perfect, as Lindsay had his only field goal blocked after a break down in protection off the right side, but he got to play and that’s what truly mattered.
“It’s something that you can’t draw up, probably,” Lindsay said after the game. “It can be weird how things work out. Definitely I could feel Sam and Matt kind of giggling up top and helping me get through today. Obviously you never want to see Drew go down. He’s been such a rock for our team and is such a good kicker, the best kicker in the Big Ten in my opinion. But it’s weird; I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, it’s just kind of a high that you’re on. It’s special. This place is very special and I’m glad today went as well as it did.”
It almost didn’t happen, however. Lindsay had planned to transfer to Hawaii to get a shot at kicking. But after the coach who was recruiting him to Hawaii left for Oregon State, it was Sam Foltz who convinced Lindsay to stay in Lincoln.
“I’m glad that I stayed, especially after a day like today when you kind of feel like all of your work paid off,” Lindsay said.
Hard work also paid off for Zlab. In fact, for the Wilber-Clatonia alumnus, it was years of hard work and a refusal to give in that ultimately allowed him to fulfill his dream.
After a stand-out high school career, Zlab played his freshman year at Doane, but then transferred to Nebraska to study agronomy. He participated in a walk-on tryout, but failed to make the cut. The next year, he tried again, and this time he did make it, only Bo Pelini and his staff got fired before Zlab was allowed to officially join the team. When the new staff hosted open tryouts last year, there was Zlab yet again. However, Mike Riley and his staff ultimately decided not to add any new players in their first year in Lincoln.
Heading into his final year of college, he had one last shot – and one last tryout – and he took advantage. After watching him work out, the Huskers and cornerbacks Brian Stewart invited Zlab to join the team as a defensive back.
Who was there throughout the process, encouraging Zlab to keep going and reminding the coaches about him? Sam Foltz, who Zlab had become friends with through senior and fellow small-town Nebraskan Sam Hahn.
All year long, Zlab was part of the team. However, on Saturday, he finally got to play. Leading 28-7 with less than two minutes to go, Zlab checked in for the first time. He played throughout that final series and even recorded a tackle.
“He’s on the books, forever more,” Riley said. “As a matter of fact, we tried to make sure guys that were seniors that had been in the program and had not been in a game. We tried everything we could to make sure we got them all some minutes in the end and Tanner made a play. He’ll be in the records for a tackle.”
Nebraska’s senior day held great meaning for each of Nebraska’s 28 seniors, but I think it’s safe to say that for Spencer Lindsay and Tanner Zlab, Saturday’s game meant just a little bit more.
Over the course of Nebraska’s season, there have been moments that have given me pause. Like the moment it was pouring rain up until kickoff for Nebraska’s season opener – rain like the night of Sam Foltz’s death and the morning of his funeral. Or the moment the double rainbow appeared in the northeast corner of Memorial Stadium as the rain passed. Or when Nebraska ended with 27 points in back-to-back games.
And then Saturday, as the seniors were honoring Foltz and hugging their parents, a loose red balloon floated and landed on the 27-yard line. You just can’t make that kind of stuff up.
That’s the thing about Foltz this season. He’s been everywhere, from start to finish. When quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and kicker Drew Brown were sidelined with injuries against Maryland, there was really only one explanation: Foltz.
“He’s up top and he’s loving that right now,” Spencer Lindsay said. “Sam didn’t want anything more than Ryker [Fyfe] to get a chance. That might be a hidden story that media doesn’t know too much. Sam and Ryker were incredibly close. Us three formed a bond, we all played together in high school and we all came in here together. So the fact that the gunslinger and I both get to [play] on Senior Day, our last home game, it’s just stuff you can’t make up. I can feel him [Foltz] up there laughing, and smiling.”
Sure, Lindsay, Fyfe and the entire team would never wish ill will on anyone to get a chance to play. That doesn’t mean it didn’t give me – and quite a few others – pause. Foltz was there, leading his friends along to their destiny, just like he has been all season. It was fitting. It was perfect.
“It can be weird how things work out,” Lindsay said. “I could feel Sam and Matt [Sadler] kind of giggling up top, and helping me today.”
If you’re a Husker fans who wants to feel good about the Blackshirts, go look at the stats right now. There you will find that Nebraska ranks 22nd nationally in scoring defense, 25th in rush defense, 51st in pass defense (but 26th in pass efficiency defense) and 21st in total defense.
Not bad, right?
Not bad at all, even if that’s kind of the kindest context possible. Look at the Huskers’ number on a per-play basis (the better way to do it) and the rush defense comes down closer to average (49th), the pass defense gets a little better (26th) and total defense dips (41st).
Still, that’s marked improvement from a year ago. Just to big-picture this thing, Nebraska ranked 92nd in total defense (yards per play) a year ago and 75th in scoring defense. The season’s not over, of course, but the Huskers are currently giving up a half-yard fewer per play in 2016 and nearly a touchdown less per game. Part of that is simply a matter of exposure, or the interplay between offense and defense.
Through 11 games this season, Nebraska’s defense has defended 717 plays. That ranks as the 19th-fewest nationally and the 11th-fewest among teams that have played 11 games at this point. On a per-game basis, the Huskers are defending 65.2 plays this season opposed to 68.1 a year ago. That may seem like a small difference, but that has played a part, too. More than that, the bend-don’t-break plus control-the-clock combo is sort of a proven model in the Big Ten.
I came into this season thinking it was a pivotal one for defensive coordinator Mark Banker. His last handful of seasons at Oregon State weren’t strong and neither was his first season at Nebraska. If the Blackshirts weren’t better in 2016, who knows what happens?
Put those concerns aside, for now.