Nebraska sends off seniors in emotional final home game with 28-7 victory over Maryland

Nebraska sends off seniors in emotional final home game with 28-7 victory over Maryland
Photo Courtesy: World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — They stood on the field and watched the tribute video for a beloved Husker brother, punter Sam Foltz, who died in a summer car crash.

Then the Nebraska seniors lined up on the red carpet in the northwest tunnel to be introduced one last time to NU fans, greet coach Mike Riley, hug Foltz’s parents — Gerald and Jill — put a rose on the 27-yard-line in Foltz’s memory and meet their own parents on the Husker sideline.

A journey years — and tears — in the making.

The last senior to be introduced was Jordan Westerkamp. The calm one. The cool hand on third down. But it was too hard to be stoic in this moment. He wanted to be. He tried to hold back the tears. He couldn’t. Halfway to greeting Riley, emotion was pouring out of Westerkamp, who had about 100 friends and family in attendance.

“As each person was announced, it just kept getting worse and worse, harder and harder,” Westerkamp said after Nebraska’s 28-7 win over Maryland, in which he caught eight passes for 85 yards and a touchdown. “To finally go out there and seeing Coach Riley smile, it was tough. But it was great. It was a great ceremony. This class is going to be remembered.”

For Foltz — his smile, his spirit, his impact on a team and a state. For playing for two coaching staffs. For turning around a 6-7 season into a nine-win season. For going undefeated at home for the first time since 2012.

These seniors’ final home game will be remembered, too. Not for its drama — NU controlled the game from its opening drive, ran 26 more plays and gained 194 more yards than the overmatched Terrapins — but the story lines. Westerkamp’s performance — vintage for his climb-the-ladder and one-handed grabs — was one of them.

No story was bigger than Ryker Fyfe, the senior backup quarterback, Grand Island native who walked on at NU, spent five years as a reserve and beat out every scholarship quarterback Nebraska recruited above him except one: fellow senior Tommy Armstrong — who missed his own Senior Day game with a hamstring injury.

Football is fickle, with a strange sense of timing. One senior down. Next senior — a local boy, no less — up.

Armstrong appeared to take a difficult moment in stride, allowing himself a smile as he greeted Riley for his Senior Day introduction.

Photo Courtesy: World-Herald News Service
Photo Courtesy: World-Herald News Service

But it would be Fyfe’s stage — and he owned it with a strong performance. Fyfe completed 23 of 37 passes for 220 yards and that touchdown to Westerkamp. He scrambled to convert a key third down. He rumbled 14 yards on a fourth-down play that eventually led to a touchdown. He didn’t turn the ball over. In his typical frank-but-understated Midwestern manner, he answered questions from inquiring reporters.

“I’ve been here for five years, so I think they had confidence in me,” Fyfe said when asked about his teammates.

“I’m no Tommy, but I can pull it down and run sometimes if I have to,” Fyfe said when asked about the 14-yard fourth-down run and the 21-yard third-down scramble.

He may not be Armstrong, but Fyfe was efficient and effective. As Nebraska (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten, No. 18 CFP) piled up a 21-0 halftime lead, it converted 6 of its 8 third downs into first downs. Fyfe picked up five of those. Four with his arm — including a perfect 26-yard fade route to Westerkamp — and one with his legs.

“He’s got a nice release, he has obviously got poise, he’s got good vision,” Riley said. “He put a lot of balls in nice locations for guys to make some plays today.”

Far from pulling out pages of its playbook, Nebraska appeared to be more diverse against the Terrapins (5-6 and 2-6). Senior running back Terrell Newby got enough to score three times and grind out 98 yards on 22 carries — often on well-blocked outside zone plays — but there were plenty of pre-snap shifts and motions, too. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Fyfe handled the game-plan well throughout the week and got the Huskers into some good plays.

Teammates were impressed with Fyfe’s leadership.

“I’d never heard Ryker talk as much as he did today,” wideout Alonzo Moore said. “In the huddle I could hear him: ‘Let’s put together a drive, fellas, this is the time, right now.’ And I never heard that come from Ryker.”

The Huskers had never played Maryland, period. The Terrapins started their No. 4 quarterback, Max Bortenschlager, because their starter, Perry Hills, was hurt and his backups weren’t any good.

Bortenschlager wasn’t bad — he threw a couple nice screen passes, one of which resulted in a 92-yard touchdown to D.J. Moore — but Nebraska sacked him five times. Maryland got 11 yards rushing for the game and averaged 0.4 yards per carry.

“That was the whole thing — if we could stop the run and make them one-dimensional and have them beat us through the air, then we would ultimately come out on top,” said linebacker Josh Banderas, who led NU with nine tackles. “So we did what we needed to do.”

NU’s offense stubbed its toe often in the second half, punting five times. But when Nebraska needed to convert a fourth down, to extend a drive and chew clock in the fourth quarter, Fyfe found — who else? — Westerkamp, who caught the ball and wrestled for a few extra yards. He had a season high in catches, and he was the only Husker who had a giant cutout of his head made by a family member.

Actually, Westerkamp had two — one of his face that you’d find in the Husker media guide, and one of Westerkamp when he was about 12 years old.

People get a kick out of doing these things to Westerkamp, perhaps because he often seems so sheepish about his play on the field. On Monday, one of Westerkamp’s fellow seniors, Brandon Reilly, wore his No. 1 jersey to a press conference. On Saturday, he was introduced last among all Husker seniors. He was a captain and his last name started with W, which was further along in the alphabet than Josh Banderas, Nate Gerry and Dylan Utter.

Football is fickle, with great sense of timing.

So Westerkamp came out, shed the tears and played a signature game. Afterward, his parents and his older brother, Christian, were on the field with him. Christian, who is one of Jordan’s roommates, approached, wearing his own No. 1 jersey. He slapped Jordan’s hand.

“You finally did it,” Christian said.

Westerkamp, like so many of these seniors, had already done so much.

As Westerkamp stood there with his family, a young boy approached. He handed Westerkamp a football. Westerkamp signed it.

“It’s an unbelievable journey,” Westerkamp said. “It was great to go out with a bang today and have a good home game.”

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