10 things we learned from Nebraska's win over Northwestern
EVANSTON, Ill. - Nebraska improved to 4-0 with a 24-13 win over Northwestern on Saturday night. Here are 10 things we learned about the Huskers from the victory...
1. Armstrong once again leads the way
Once again, senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong made it abundantly clear that this is his team, and his play will ultimately be the biggest factor of all in determining Nebraska’s 2016 success.
While early turnovers threw a wrench in an otherwise promising start for the offense, it was Armstrong who found a variety of ways to come up with clutch plays that kept the Huskers on track and under control.
Armstrong accounted for 378 yards of total offense in the victory, including setting a career-high with 132 rushing yards on just 13 carries (10.2 ypc).
He’s now rushed for 227 yards over the past two games, and his running ability and NU’s willingness to use it has completely changed the identity of the offense.
“I just want to make sure that I put myself and my teammates in the right position to win games,” Armstrong said. “I think I’m doing a great job of that. I think I can do a lot more things to improve, but I’ll just take it one week at a time, one play at a time, and make sure that I’m staying on key and am on the right page with my teammates.”
2. Versatility makes NU's run game dangerous
It took awhile for Nebraska to get things going with the running game, but the Huskers finally got rolling with the help of a variety of different looks and combinations.
In all, six different players carried the ball on Saturday night. That included three running backs, a quarterback, a wide receiver and even a tight end.
That total group effort ended up racking up 310 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 6.6 yards per carry as a team.
Four players rushed for at least 41 yards, while receiver Jordan Westerkamp scored on a 10-yard reverse and tight end Cethan Carter picked up a key first down on an end around of his own.
“That was a great mixture, wasn’t it?” head coach Mike Riley said. “Really good stuff I thought with the ability to run the tailback or the quarterback and mix that stuff together. There were at least three drives there where there was just a great mix.”
3. The run defense still has issues
As good as Nebraska feels about its 4-0 start, its recent struggles in stopping the run on defense have become a point of concern.
After giving up 336 rushing yards and five touchdowns in last week’s win over Oregon, the Huskers had a better but not exactly satisfactory showing against Northwestern’s ground attack on Saturday night.
Running back Justin Jackson ran 20 times for a team-high 79 yards, while Caleb Thorson added a 42-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
The Wildcats ended up posting 137 yards on 32 carries, but it was the manner in which they got those yards - predominantly with runs right up the middle - that bothered defensive coordinator Mark Banker so much after the game.
“Our run defense has to improve,” Banker said. “As happy as I am that we’ve got a better understanding and we’re doing a better job with our pass coverage, our run defense has to improve. In this conference, if you can’t stop the run, you’ll get run over, literally. We’ve got to do a better job at that.”
4. Wilbon can be a factor
Having carried the ball just one time for 16 yards over Nebraska’s first three games of the season, Mikale Wilbon’s sudden impact against Northwestern was easily one of the biggest surprises of the night.
The sophomore running back ended up putting together the best game of his young career with six carries for 55 yards, nearly all of which coming in the second half.
Prior to Saturday, Wilbon had only ran the ball 10 times for 51 yards in his college career.
It was especially gratifying that the Chicago native could have his breakout performance back in his home city, but Riley said that had nothing to do with his increased role against the Wildcats.
“It wasn’t a sympathy thing, that’s for sure,” Riley said. “He’s earned some playing time, and he’s a good player. With those three guys and really with Tre (Bryant), we feel like we have a good group there. Mikale has sort of worked his way into that position where we’re giving him some turns in some certain personnel.”
5. Good things happen when Cethan Carter is involved
For the first time this season, one of Nebraska’s best offensive weapons finally found the end zone.
With nine minutes remaining in the third quarter, Armstrong found Carter for a four-yard touchdown pass, marking the senior tight end’s first score of 2016.
When all was said and done, Carter had two catches for 31 yards and a touchdown to go along with a 10-yard rush for a first down. The touchdown was the fourth of his career, and he’s now just one reception shy of becoming the eighth Husker tight end with reach 50 for his career.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said that while Carter’s stats probably aren’t where they would ideally want them to be, he’s found a number of different ways to make an impact this season.
“He’s been doing a nice job blocking, we run him at times, and then we throw him the ball,” Langsdorf said. “He’s a versatile player, and he did a great job tonight.”
6. The offense needs Alonzo Moore
Now four games into his senior season, wide receiver Alonzo Moore has established himself as Nebraska’s most dangerous big-play threat.
He added further claim to that title against Northwestern by hauling in the longest play of the game with a 59-yard catch in the second quarter. That set up a touchdown run by Terrell Newby to put NU up 10-7, and the Huskers would never look back.
Even more impressive has been that Moore has made so many plays despite playing through a lingering shoulder injury that at times gets so painful that his entire arm goes numb.
Riley said Moore again re-aggravated the injury in the second half on Saturday, forcing him to leave the game. The plan going forward will be similar to last week where the Huskers are very cautious with Moore in practice with the hopes of him feeling good enough to play in Saturday’s home game vs. Illinois.
“We won’t know until the middle of the week or later, like last week,” Riley said. "I hope he can get back and play. We’ve got a bye after that and I think he could get well. But that thing is going to bother him for a bit.”
7. Turnovers are Blackshirts' calling card
Nebraska may not have been satisfied with its run defense or even some of the coverage breakdowns it had vs. Northwestern, but once again the Blackshirts helped make up for those mistakes in a major way by feasting on turnovers.
The Huskers picked off two passes on the night, and both proved to be crucial turning points in the win. The first ended came when safety Aaron Williams snagged a Thorson pass in the end zone to end a potential scoring drive, and the second came when cornerback Joshua Kalu picked off the game-sealing interception in the final minute.
Nebraska now has nine interceptions on the season and remains +6 in turnover differential.
“That’s one of the thing that Banker always tells us, the more takeaways you have, the better the chance of you winning the game is,” senior safety Nate Gerry said. “As a defense, that’s just one of our goals every time we step onto the field is to get the ball back for the offense to score points. I think us making plays in practice has transferred over into the games.”
8. Resilience is becoming a defining trait
Had Nebraska been in a situation last season where it fumbled away a surefire touchdown run on the third play of the game and then did it again later in the second quarter, the chances of the Huskers holding on for a key road victory would be slim to none.
But maybe one of the most important differences between Riley’s first and second seasons has been his 2016 squad’s ability to overcome adversity.
Saturday was a perfect example of that. Rather than let a slew of unlucky breaks in the first half throw their entire psyche off kilter, the Huskers didn’t get rattled and refocused for a much better second half.
“We just had to come back and keep playing,” Riley said. “That was probably real good for us. I wouldn’t want to do that every week, but some more lessons there about playing the game of football and how you’ve got to keep playing. I think our kids did that.”
9. Big Red Evanston invasion pays off
There had been talk all week about Nebraska fans once again invading Northwestern’s Ryan Field and turning the first road game of the season into more of a home atmosphere.
Well, the fan base definitely didn’t disappoint.
In a game with an announced attendance of 40,284, at least half of that total was wearing red, if not more. That fact definitely wasn’t lost on NU’s coaches and players during and after the game.
“I was just unbelievably impressed about that,” Riley said. “That’s just that great loyalty and following. It’s unbelievable to have that kind of crowd and that many people at your games. We talk about identity in football - that’s an identity for Nebraska, the whole state of Nebraska.”
10. Riley 'OK' with Huskers protesting during national anthem
Ever since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the playing of the national anthem during a preseason game earlier this month, the debate over his protest has taken over the world of sports.
More and more players from the NFL, college and even high school ranks have joined Kaepernick’s protests over what he's cited as racial injustice within the country and several fatal police shootings in the United States involving African-Americans.
On Saturday, three Nebraska players followed suit, as senior linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, defensive end DaiShon Neal, and linebacker Mohamed Barry all knelt on the sideline during the playing of the anthem.
Riley said Rose-Ivey approached him Friday night and told him that he wanted to join the protest. Rose-Ivey then addressed the team about his plan on Saturday morning.
“Michael approached me about it and wanted to talk with the team, so we set a time this morning after one of our walk-thru’s and he explained it to the team,” Riley said. “I didn’t know anyone else was going to do it, but that’s OK. This is obviously a choice that they have made for personal reasons, and that’s the beautiful thing about the United States, that they can do that.”
It should be noted that four other Huskers - offensive linemen Nick Gates and Sam Hahn, quarterback Zack Darlington, and kicker Drew Brown - helped hold the American flag on the field during the national anthem.
After the game, others like safeties Gerry and Kieron Williams were seen wearing American flag hats.