Nebraska vs. Northwestern, 9/24

Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp scores on a 10-yard run in the third quarter of Saturday's game against Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois.

EVANSTON, Ill. — In the cozy confines of Ryan Field, where Husker fans are separated from postgame interviews only by a thin rope and a guy in a yellow coat, you must speak up to be heard clearly.

As Husker fans took over a stadium that wasn't theirs, loud and cheerfully accepting of an uneven, but plenty useful 24-13 Nebraska win against Northwestern on Saturday night, the mind couldn't help but contrast this postgame scene to the silence after last year's Big Ten Conference opener.

The Illinois debacle. A one-point loss still hard to figure. You almost had to talk in whispers after it in order to not be obnoxious. It's fair to wonder if last year's team could have turned Saturday's game into that sort of postgame experience, too.

Because there were critical miscues — see two fumbles on the opponent's 1-yard line — and a defense sometimes appearing like it was on skates (giving up 210 yards in the first half).

But perhaps what stands out as most encouraging about this Husker team the past two weeks is that it hasn't let adverse moments swallow it up.

"That stuff can throw you," said Husker coach Mike Riley. "We got (what should be) two touchdowns early in the game, but there's no points on the board. And so it's like, 'How are you going to react to that?' So I'm really pleased with our reactions. I'm a big believer that you have to go into a game thinking it’s going to be hard and not thinking the other way."

Nebraska, putting up 556 yards of offense, made it harder than needed against Northwestern. Listen to Riley talk about the fumbles and you could hear his disgust about the lost points. As he said after the Oregon game, there are warts.

But Riley also thought Saturday produced moments that could be "real good for us." Once again, his team was asked to respond. Once again, unlike this time last year, the Huskers did.

"We ended up doing that when we could have taken a back seat a little bit after having not scored early in the game," Riley said.

Because of it, Nebraska is now ranked No. 15 in both polls and one good Saturday from equaling last year's regular-season win total. Because of it, there was another Husker party at Ryan Field.

To the Yays and Nays:

Yay: After those two Husker fumbles a yard from the end zone, which both resulted in touchbacks, look at Northwestern's two ensuing drives: The Wildcats picked up just one first down and no points.

"That's definitely big, because that's when the offense needs you the most to keep you in the game," said junior safety Kieron Williams.

That's how you don't let the snowball turn into an avalanche. For whatever lapses, Nebraska gave up 13 points in the only stat that really matters.

"We made mistakes," said senior defensive tackle Kevin Maurice. "But the most important thing is we bowed up and we did what we had to when it was time."

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Nay: The run defense still isn't where Mark Banker wants it to be. The Huskers gave up just 137 rushing yards a week after giving up 336 to Oregon, and a big chunk of it came on a 42-yard touchdown run by Clayton Thorson.

But that big play, from a quarterback who had a previous long run this season of 14 yards, won't sit well in film-room studies.

"We just lost our eyes on it, as far as the one position that needed to fit the run on that," Banker said. "It doesn't ever do any good to (say), 'Hey, it was this guy.' Overall, when it comes to the pass, it's team defense, when it comes to the run, it's team defense. All the parts have to fit and we need to do a better job."

Yay: Maurice had 1½ career sacks before Saturday. He picked up two on back-to-back plays that screwed up Northwestern's drive just before halftime. That'll look good to D-line coach John Parrella.

"Coach Parrella has really been harping on us to get after it in the pass rush and it all paid off this week," Maurice said.

Nebraska had four sacks Saturday, and now has 10 for the year, which are 37th nationally. Not top-tier, but not bad given all the offseason talk wondering about NU generating pressure.

Nay: Nebraska's special teams were well-prepared for a fake field goal by Northwestern at the end of the first half, but also leaked yardage on kick coverage, including a 35-yard return.

The Huskers also burned a timeout when they didn't appear to have enough guys on the field for one punt-return situation and missed a golden chance to down a punt inside the 5-yard line.

Yay: To Danny Langsdorf, who sure has figured out when to burn a team with a well-timed quarterback draw. He called a beauty Saturday, and those two scoring drives to start the third quarter had Northwestern completely off-balance.

To Stanley Morgan. Go watch his block on Jordan Westerkamp's 10-yard touchdown run. He takes a defender with him about 10 yards to clear the way.

To Nathan Gerry. Got taken out on the long Northwestern TD run, but it felt like he was all over the field. Eight tackles, 1½ for loss, two pass breakups.

To Tommy Armstrong. Has 281 rushing yards. Averaging 5.4 a carry. Eight TD throws. Just one pick.

To the alternate uniforms. Nebraska's best ones so far. Could even read the numbers this time.

Nay: To key injuries. Right guard Tanner Farmer hurt his ankle. Severity unknown. Senior Corey Whitaker might need to step up.

And what about Alonzo Moore? One of Nebraska's greatest weapons has a shoulder injury that is really hurting him. You wonder if the Huskers hold him back this week with a bye week on the horizon.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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