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Nebraska shows heart, grit in loss that proves Huskers are on right track

MADISON, Wis. -- Jordan Westerkamp sat behind a table in the bowels of Camp Randall Stadium, damp hair matted under a red Nebraska hat on backward. He stared outward, his head up -- always up -- and offered assurances that the Cornhuskers football team was going to be just fine.

In the moments after Wisconsin had edged Nebraska 23-17 in overtime Saturday night, there was no dissension. No panic. Instead, an overwhelming sense of optimism prevailed as Nebraska players paraded into the interview room.

Yes, Nebraska had lost. But this Cornhuskers team wasn't going to be defeated based on one exceptionally hard-fought 3 1/2-hour performance.

"You've got to learn from your losses, and we will," said Westerkamp, who caught three passes for 62 yards. "We'll get better. It's the first one of the season. The world's not ending. We've just got to keep fighting."

If anything, Nebraska coach Mike Riley said, his team's play only served to confirm what he already knew about how far it has progressed in two seasons under his tutelage. When Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook connected with receiver Rob Wheelwright on a 9-yard touchdown to give the Badgers a 17-7 third-quarter lead, the game could have spiraled out of control. Previous Nebraska teams may have allowed doubt to creep in.

Not this unit.

All season, Nebraska has demonstrated an uncanny ability to play its best late in games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Nebraska entered the weekend having outscored opponents by an FBS-best 85 points in the fourth quarter this season, and the Cornhuskers had yet to be outscored in the final quarter of any game in 2016.

So Nebraska quickly went to work behind the play of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. He led a 14-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with his 2-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Nebraska safety Nate Gerry intercepted passes on back-to-back defensive series. The second interception helped to set up an 11-play, 52-yard drive that netted kicker Drew Brown a 35-yard field goal to tie the score at 17.

After forcing a stop and an eventual missed Wisconsin field goal, Nebraska -- 9 1/2-point road underdogs -- had willed the game into overtime.

"Once again, we really kept our poise when we were down in the fourth quarter," Riley said. "I thought that did not deter us from getting back into it. We didn't get the final result that we have been getting, but we sure got to the point where we could.

"That was so much fun to be a part of a group like that because they don't blink. They have poise. They persevere, and we gave ourselves a chance to win against a good football team."

Nebraska began Saturday ranked No. 7 in the country, but questions persisted about just how good the team was this season. Nebraska's best win may have been a 52-17 early-season blowout of Wyoming, which knocked off unbeaten Boise State on Saturday. A 35-32 squeaker against Oregon took place before the Ducks lost five consecutive games. And in Big Ten play, Nebraska had actually trailed both Illinois and Purdue during the second half.

On Saturday, however, the Cornhuskers left little doubt that their lofty status was warranted. Yes, some late-game playcalling -- particularly a fourth-quarter three-and-out in Wisconsin territory and Nebraska's overtime drive -- were disappointing. But Nebraska also controlled the time of possession against a team that ranks in the top 20 in that category while battling back from a two-score deficit.

"I would say that's the best Nebraska team I've played since I've been here," Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel said. "I can say that with a lot of confidence. That's no disrespect to prior Nebraska teams. I think it just speaks to the talents they have at the quarterback position, their O-line. I thought that they had excellent players on both sides of the ball."

Now, things become really interesting. Nebraska (7-1, 4-1) has played well enough this season to build up a cushion in the Big Ten West race. Despite the loss, the Cornhuskers still hold a one-game lead over four different teams, including the Badgers. But one more loss over the next four games, and Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2) will control its path to the conference championship game if it can win out.

Next on the docket for Nebraska? Another road night game Saturday, this one coming against an Ohio State team that is equally motivated to keep its College Football Playoff dreams alive.

Cornhuskers linebacker Josh Banderas said he had "no doubt" his teammates would be prepared to bounce back despite the quick turnaround.

"And I don't even know if it's going to even be a bounce back," Banderas said. "I don't see any type of lull or anybody feeling down or, 'Dang, now we've got another one coming up. What's going to happen now?' No. Everyone's head is on straight. We know where we want to go. We haven't deviated from the plan at all."

Added Gerry: "This team's been through so much that one loss isn't going to bring us down. We're a bunch of fighters."

Nebraska lost to an excellent Wisconsin team Saturday night, which defeated its third top-10 opponent in a season for the first time in program history. But in the process, the Cornhuskers also showed how good they can be and learned something valuable about themselves that should serve them well in the immediate future.

"We just learned how much heart this team has," Banderas said. "That's the thing that's going to take us where we want to go. The result might not have showed tonight, but we're on the right path and we're going where we want to go."