Husker veterans carry the load in fending off Minnesota, getting NU back on track

Husker veterans carry the load in fending off Minnesota, getting NU back on track
Photo Courtesy: World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — Clear Saturday night, full moon, a punt bouncing backward from whence it came, a porous third-down defense and an offense that couldn’t whittle two sticks together to make a real fire. Nebraska had a first half fit for the doldrums.

Trailing Minnesota at halftime, the Husker elders started percolating in the Nebraska locker room.

“A lot of guys were just talking before any of the coaches got in there and made corrections,” senior defensive tackle Kevin Maurice said. “A lot of guys just getting after each other.”

“The older guys out there kind of took charge and knew what we had to do,” senior linebacker Josh Banderas said. “And you see from that result, we got it done in the second half.”

Yes, No. 19 Nebraska nabbed a 24-17 win over the Gophers. It keeps alive NU’s chances for a Big Ten title but, just as important, it washes away the taste of a 62-3 loss to Ohio State. The Huskers did so by dominating the second half, outgaining the Gophers 237-93, outscoring them 14-0 and forcing a key interception when Minnesota threatened to tie it late. That pick was caused by a deflection from sophomore nickel Aaron Williams to junior safety Kieron Williams.

But most of the big plays in front of 90,456 fans were made by men whose time at Nebraska is nearing an end.

They’ll celebrate Senior Day next week. But this was Senior Night.

“There’s a really good core of those seniors,” coach Mike Riley said. “I’m really glad I’ve gotten to coach them.”

Riley had to be glad Saturday night as Nebraska moved to 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the Big Ten.

>> Running back Terrell Newby made magic on a screen pass that he turned into a 31-yard touchdown by slicing through Gopher tacklers. On NU’s game-winning drive — a 13-play, 91-yard, fourth-quarter humdinger — Newby converted a key fourth-and-1 inside the Minnesota 20.

>> Receiver Jordan Westerkamp had a team-high six catches for 50 yards, several of which required him to slide on the turf as he caught. Another senior receiver, Alonzo Moore, made a crucial 16-yard catch on third-and-11 during the game-winning drive.

>> Banderas and Maurice turned in signature games. Banderas finished with 11 tackles, but saved his best play for short-yardage situations in the second half, when he twice stuck Minnesota ball carriers for losses. Maurice finished with eight tackles — rare for defensive linemen — and gummed up Minnesota’s interior run all night.

>> Finally, there was Armstrong. He missed the whole week of practice while he was in the concussion protocol. He said he got “ticked off” early in the week when he failed one of the concussion tests and had to take it again. On a sneak in the second half, he injured his ankle and left the field to chants of “Tommy!” Tommy! Tommy!” from Memorial Stadium fans. He left the game a second time — for good — after tweaking his hamstring as he crossed the goal-line on his game-winning touchdown.

After that, he was carried off the field by guards Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer.

“I told them to put me down,” Armstrong said, smiling. Foster and Farmer didn’t do that. The quarterback was hurt. The quarterback played perhaps his best game of the season and one of the best of his career.

Armstrong completed 19 of 27 passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for 63 yards, including the 13-yard touchdown that put the Huskers ahead for good. He talked at length after the game about the concussion protocol he went through during the week to be cleared — a lot of numbers, symbols and pictures, he said — and got the final OK on Saturday before the game.

The quarterback was his usual brief self about any of his personal accomplishments.

His thought before Nebraska embarked on the game-winning drive?

“Move the chains,” he said. “Trust in my guys.”

That’s Armstrong, and Nebraska’s coaches and players line up behind him — or carry him, if need be.

“You’ve seen him for years and he is very, very competitive,” Riley said.

“He just battles and battles and battles,” Westerkamp said.

Armstrong told coaches to “open the playbook” for the game-winning drive, bad ankle and all. He hurt his hamstring in the process of the drive. But it helped put away a solid-if-unspectacular Minnesota team that came to Lincoln having won four straight. The Gophers harbored hopes of winning the Big Ten West themselves, and had only narrow losses to Penn State and Iowa on their résumé.

Thanks to a couple Husker penalties — including a 12-men-on-the-field flag on the punt return unit that Riley called “junior high” — Minnesota scored a touchdown on its opening drive. Gopher quarterback Mitch Leidner was sharp early, hitting 6 of 7 passes in the first quarter for 57 yards.

Banderas said NU’s defense was a little “out of whack” in the first half. It gave up the passing yards to Leidner, plus a 31-yard run to Rodney Smith — who proved hard for Husker defenders to tackle — that set up Minnesota’s second touchdown, which gave the Gophers a 14-10 lead.

Minnesota (7-3, 4-3) took a 17-10 halftime with a field goal on great field position set up by Husker punter Caleb Lightbourn’s minus-2-yard kick. The punt got caught up in the wind, landed roughly 15 yards past the line of scrimmage and violently bounced backwards, landing at the NU 42.

Memorial Stadium was chilly and quiet headed into the second half. Newby’s 31-yard touchdown catch-and-run woke them up a little. Nebraska’s defense — which forced three punts and an interception — woke them up even more. Minnesota ran for 18 yards on 11 carries in the second half.

“That was major league football in the second half,” Riley said.

Nebraska’s offense was more diverse in the second half, as Newby finished with 85 rushing yards — 15 touches in the second half, compared to two touches in the first half.

Other than his touchdown, Newby’s most important tote may have been the 3-yard gain he got on fourth-and-1 from the Gopher 16. Armstrong scored on a read option one play later. NU has now converted 8 of 14 fourth downs this season.

Nebraska still had to stop Leidner and Minnesota on one final drive. The Gophers — aided by a pass interference penalty on Joshua Kalu — reached the Husker 17. There, Leidner threw the pass that was deflected by Aaron to Kieron. Game over. Losing streak over.

“I really had faith that this team would come back and play, and they did,” Riley said.

Invariably, that’s because of NU’s seniors, guys put so much through the wringer over so many years that they know what it’s liked to be pressed — none of them more than Armstrong.

He limped some in his postgame press conference. Riley called the hamstring injury scary. Just a week before, Armstrong was in an ambulance after a head injury. Saturday, he was smiling.

One more home game to go for this old veteran.

“My last home game here — I won’t be sitting out for that,” Armstrong said. “I guarantee you that.”

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