Huskers overcome touchdown-killing fumbles, dance past Northwestern to open Big Ten play

EVANSTON, Ill. — Just after Nebraska’s 24-13 win over Northwestern Saturday night, offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh trudged through chewed up, spongy turf toward a trio of his offensive linemen. “Hey!” he barked happily at them. But they couldn’t hear him over the cheers of Nebraska fans who invaded the Big Ten’s quaintest stadium.

Cavanaugh settled for handshakes from the university president, Hank Bounds, and a line of Husker fans who leaned over the wall to congratulate him. Cavanaugh — along with the rest of the offense — had given these NU fans just what they wanted. A taste of Husker home cooking.

A fat 310 rushing yards.

That’s coach Mike Riley’s run-the-ball vision to a T. Run it and run it and run it, with six ball carriers, 47 times. All that was missing was a fullback trap. Nebraska coughed up two touchdowns on goal line fumbles and struggled at times in the first half to push around Northwestern’s front seven. But Nebraska (4-0 overall and 1-0 in the Big Ten) didn’t abandon the run game plan. It doubled down on it and eventually wore out the Wildcats.

“I thought our offensive line stayed with it and I thought, by the end, we were actually moving the pile the other way,” Riley said. “It took a long time in the game to do that, but when you do, the tide usually turns.”

In front of 40,284 fans — more than half in red — that tide turned in the third quarter, when Nebraska turned a 10-7 halftime lead into a 24-13 cushion with back-to-back touchdown drives of 80 and 79 yards. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who ran 13 times for 132 yards, had a keeper play for 17 yards and draw for 12 on the first scoring march.

On the second touchdown drive, little-used back Mikale Wilbon — a Chicago native — ripped off runs of 7 and 12 yards before two end-around plays. Tight end Cethan Carter gained 16 after a perfect downfield cut block from running back Terrell Newby. Three plays later, wideout Jordan Westerkamp — in his Chicago homecoming, with hundreds of family members and friends watching — took a reverse and had a barge of Huskers in alternate chrome white uniforms in front of him. He weaved his way into the end zone.

“I thought the perimeter was very good,” said offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, whose unit produced 556 total yards. “Really good effort blocking downfield. We were springing some runs.”

Langsdorf’s willingness to stick with the run — and think of creative ways to get yards — allowed the Huskers to spring them. Last season, when Nebraska couldn’t move the pile much against Northwestern or a few other teams, the Huskers more readily embraced the passing game. Nebraska threw 48 passes against the Wildcats a year ago.

Saturday, just 29 passes. Some were very important — such as the 59-yard, double-move pass play from Armstrong to Alonzo Moore, which set up Nebraska’s second-quarter touchdown — but the main diet was to stick to the ground game. Langsdorf did.

“We have faith and confidence in how we’re running,” Langsdorf said. “It’s important — it’s been important. We’re doing our best to stay with it.”

Center Dylan Utter said he liked the commitment and the faith a robust run plan showed in the offensive line.

“That was kind of our problem last year — we wouldn’t get those yards and then Coach wouldn’t really have our trust to run the rock,” Utter said. “But I think throughout the year, they gained more trust, and that’s what he’s done so far.”

The run game helped the Huskers possess the ball more than 35 minutes. That helped keep the pesky-but-mistake-prone Wildcats’ offense on the bench.

Northwestern (1-3, 0-1) stressed Nebraska’s defense at times with an up-tempo, no-huddle approach. Quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for 251 yards — but had two costly second-half interceptions — and ran for a 42-yard touchdown on a designed keep around Nebraska’s left flank that gave Northwestern its only lead at 7-3. The Huskers’ defense missed tackles and struggled a bit with their footing on Northwestern’s patchy, loose turf.

But the Wildcats also were flagged for two holding penalties on third-and-short plays, which eventually turned into punts. Kicker Jack Mitchell missed a 27-yard field goal and was not able to successfully execute the fake of another field goal attempt. Nebraska got four sacks — two from defensive tackle Kevin Maurice — and held Northwestern to just 5 of 14 on third down.

By game’s end, those Wildcat errors had partially offset the two lost Husker fumbles that should have been touchdowns. Newby romped 49 yards on the game’s third play, only to have the ball pop out of his hand at the half-yard line — and through the back of end zone.

“There’s no need whatsoever to do that with the football,” Riley said of Newby leaping to extend the ball toward the pylon.

In the second quarter, running back Devine Ozigbo lost a fumble at the half-yard line when he was stood up by Northwestern’s defense and separated from the ball.

Had the Huskers converted either of those chances, perhaps they’re not sweating a little at the end of a muggy night, but Riley liked the resiliency his team showed to overcome those mistakes. Last season’s team might not have done that.

“That stuff can throw you,” Riley said. “You’ve got two touchdowns early in the game and there’s no points on the board. So how are you going to react to that? So I’m really pleased with our reaction.”

So was Cavanaugh.

“I felt like we played a little bit slow in the first half, then we made some adjustments and did some good things in the second half,” he said.

It was Cavanaugh who set the hook in his offensive line in the week before the game. On the board inside his coaching room, he’d written the yards per carry Nebraska averaged last season against Northwestern.

The number was ugly: 2.16.

“That was all emphasized all week long — that it can’t happen again, or we’ll lose,” Utter said.

On Saturday, Nebraska averaged 6.59 yards per carry.

That’ll win a lot of football games.