EVANSTON, Ill. – The red never fades in the stadium by the lake. In fact, it’s only getting more noticeable at Northwestern’s Ryan Field, a place Husker fans invaded twice prior to this trip as members of the Big Ten but totally overran on Saturday.
“We felt like we were at home,” said senior receiver Alonzo Moore, who had three catches for 72 yards before sitting out the second half with a shoulder injury. “It shocked me to see all of that red in the stands.”
Maybe it was the Westerkamps that pushed the Nebraskans-at-Northwestern meter more fully into the red than it has been before. There was a large contingent in and around the stadium to see Jordan Westerkamp’s final game in the area in which he grew up. His mother, Kim, said she personally wrangled 186 tickets for Saturday’s game, but that was far from the total number of family and friends that set up Northwesterkamp in the east stadium stands.
“I couldn’t even tell you [how many were here],” Jordan Westerkamp said. “But I looked at it and I had my own little cheering section over there.
“After the game, I went over there and I was like, ‘holy crap.’”
Pat Fitzgerald did his best to convince Westerkamp to play his football right here. The Nebraska senior picked Lincoln, where he scored the first touchdown of his career on a Hail Mary catch in his first game against the Wildcats and the first rushing touchdown of his career, on a reverse on Saturday, in his last game against Northwestern.
Westerkamp said the two maintain a good relationship based on their shared history. Fitzgerald didn’t have time to worry about homecomings or the one’s that got away after the 24-13 loss, anyway.
To fully complete the circle of a home team playing a road game, essentially, in its own stadium, Fitzgerald was saying things Husker fans had gotten used to hearing in recent years.
“Recurring theme in the three games this year we’ve ended up on the short end is we’ve beaten ourselves,” Fitzgerald said.
All football coaches say this, but he wasn’t totally wrong. Through the first half, Nebraska looked just uneven enough to be in danger. A brisk opening drive ended with a fumble at the 1-yard line. So did the Huskers’ fifth drive. Thanks to those two blown scoring opportunities, the Wildcats were in the game at the half.
Nebraska wasn’t beating itself, but it was trying. One thing we might know about this 2016 Husker team, however, is that the second half is a different story.
The Huskers have scored a touchdown on their opening drive of the second half in three of four games thus far. The Fresno State and Northwestern scoring drives gave Nebraska a little breathing room. The march against Oregon gave Nebraska its first lead in that game. For the season, the Huskers are averaging 5.2 yards per play in the opening 30 minutes and 6.4 in the second.
That says something about adjustments, yes, but it also says something about Nebraska learning how to win.
Maybe it’s a little early for that assessment, but the Huskers are 4-0 and have yet to play anywhere close to their best football. There are still things to fix. There always are. But the real change from 2015 to 2016 is that Nebraska’s errors – its four turnovers inside the opponents’ 15-yard line this season, the penalties, “procedural stuff,” as Mike Riley always says – haven’t been mortal wounds. Just something to overcome and good teams overcome them.
Northwestern saw the other side of that equation on Saturday. Continuing a season-long trend, it didn’t convert its scoring opportunities, crossing the Huskers’ 40 five times and coming away with 6 points. Two holding penalties negated third-and-1 conversions that would’ve kept drives alive.
Maybe if Nebraska hadn’t fumbled twice those things would’ve mattered less. When a team is losing, however, they become blot-out-the-sun big.
“Those are critical penalties,” Fitzgerald said. “You cannot do that and expect to win. Those are the things that losers do, and when you’re 1-3 that’s why you’re at where you’re at.”
The scores of Nebraska fans that flooded Evanston didn’t have to feel that way after this one. They got to cheer their Huskers off the field, flood the picturesque neighborhood around Ryan Field, maybe hop on the train and go off in search of a little more joy.
That’s what winning does. In reality, the only difference between winning and losing is what’s still possible.
At 4-0, Nebraska has some things to fix but it also has a lot that’s already working.