LINCOLN — Nebraska punter Caleb Lightbourn this week is heading on the road for the first time, but the freshman felt as if the “tunnel vision” he took into the Oregon game will serve him well at Northwestern.
Lightbourn was named the Big Ten freshman of the week after averaging 47.2 yards on five punts, including three that made the Ducks start inside their 20-yard line.
“I just completely focused up,” Lightbourn said Monday. “I knew going into this week this was going to be the biggest week special teams-wise that we might see this entire year. I definitely buckled down, and I think that’s just going to carry over through the rest of the season.”
Lightbourn gave credit to long snapper Jordan Ober and the coverage team for his success Saturday. The focus at Northwestern will be on staying calm and consistent, which Lightbourn believes will come easier with the first three games being “really developmental for me.”
“I’m just going to stay tuned in to what I know,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be surprised by anything when I get there.”
Pierson-El getting up to speed
De’Mornay Pierson-El knew he let a good opportunity slip away Saturday. That might have led to his determination to break a 45-yard punt return later in the first half.
Pierson-El called for a fair catch on a first-quarter punt, only to realize immediately that there was plenty of room in front of him.
“Once I caught it I was upset, like, ‘Aw, that was a good one,’ ” he said. “The person I kind of felt close to me was actually my teammate. I didn’t look back out before the ball came down. So that’s kind of where I got a little nervous about it — and I’d rather just be safe than sorry, get the offense on the field and just go from there.”
In his defense, Pierson-El is still working his way back from a major leg and knee injury last October. Assistant Bruce Read even waited until the Wyoming game to first put him back on punt returns, where he starred as a freshman in 2014.
“I was just waiting on when my opportunity was,” Pierson-El said. “It was just an opportunity to get more comfortable at practice and take extra reps and everything like that. It was just whenever they felt ready to put me back there, we went with it.”
The long return by Pierson-El led to a touchdown with five seconds left in the first half that cut the Oregon lead to 20-14.
“I kind of made up my mind before I even went out there that I was gonna catch it and give as best a shot at it as I can, really,” he said.
Pierson-El is ready to return to Northwestern, where he caught three passes for 66 yards two years ago and also threw a 16-yard TD pass to quarterback Tommy Armstrong. Any chance the former high school quarterback gets another throw this week?
“You’re going to have to talk to Langs (offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf) on that one,” he said.
TE Carter back and practicing
Nebraska coach Mike Riley said tight end Cethan Carter had the wind knocked out of him on the Huskers’ go-ahead drive after taking a big hit but Carter would be good Tuesday when the team returned to practice.
The senior caught five passes for 48 yards in the 35-32 win over Oregon after having just two catches in the previous two games.
“We need to do that with Cethan,” Riley said. “He needs to have the football. We need to make sure that he’s involved. He’s a great weapon for us, and we need to grow that as we go.”
Line will be tested on the road
Riley mentioned right guard Tanner Farmer with left tackle Nick Gates as the most consistent offensive linemen in the Oregon game.
For Farmer, it was not only his first start against a Top 25 opponent but only his third career start.
“Each week I can kind of see him starting to pick up on the game plan more and more,” center Dylan Utter said. “So the less talking you have to do at the line and the more focus you can do on playing, it helps us all out to play faster.”
Farmer, right tackle David Knevel and left guard Sam Hahn all are new starters this season. The trip to Northwestern will be the first road start for each.
“They’re all getting better each week,” Utter said.
Only flash safety likes is in hair
People often assume that players are the most excited to wear alternate uniforms, and it seems that Nebraska players generally feel that way each season.
Just don’t count safety Kieron Williams among them.
The junior kind of shrugged when twice asked about the Adidas all-white, chrome-outlined jerseys that NU will wear Saturday.
“I think once you start doing all that, and you start trying to get pretty, it’s not football. It’s modeling,” Williams said. “If you wear those uniforms and you lose, what does the uniforms matter?”
Williams had his third solid game to start the season against Oregon, contributing seven tackles and a pass breakup. Williams leads the Huskers with 22 total tackles and has two of their seven interceptions.
The Oregon game followed Williams getting his Blackshirt last week in practice, but he said it didn’t change his approach.
“I was just as motivated as any other day,” he said. “I try not to make a big deal of it.”
Williams has been sporting some red in his hair near the top of his neck, which was fading a little to start the week.
“About every two weeks I have to re-dye,” Williams said, laughing. “I was thinking about doing it permanent, but my mom was very upset when I told her that.”
‘Like football in the backyard’
Riley has been told about the length of the grass at Northwestern’s field.
“Tallest grass you’ll ever see,” Riley said.
It’s the only game Nebraska is scheduled to play on grass this season. Northwestern is one of four Big Ten teams — Purdue, Penn State and Michigan State are the others — that has a grass surface, and it was longer in 2014 when Nebraska beat the Wildcats 38-17 than most grass playing surfaces.
As a result, Riley said, NU is growing out its grass practice surface this week in an attempt to emulate the length of grass Northwestern prefers.
Husker players are aware of the different surface.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about their field,” wideout Jordan Westerkamp said with a big smile. “I don’t remember two years ago. I’ve taken a lot of hits ... it’s grass. Going from turf to grass, it’s different.”
Said defensive tackle Kevin Maurice: “I wouldn’t say it’s a big factor or anything like that, but just footing and stuff like that, it’s like football in the backyard. It’s cool.”
Soreness for QB after game
Armstrong said he felt very sore Sunday after NU’s win over Oregon. The pain was in his legs, especially after Armstrong battled cramps in the second half.
Armstrong expected to be ready to practice on Tuesday. And, yes, he expected to drink pickle juice — which helps guard against cramps — before practice. He usually does.
Walk-on gets congratulations
Since catching a go-ahead touchdown pass in the first possession of the second half for Nebraska, sophomore wide receiver and Lincoln native Bryan Reimers said he’s received more than 150 text messages — and counting— from friends and family congratulating him.
The touchdown reception that gave the Huskers a 21-20 lead was Reimers’ first career reception.
“It’s just awesome knowing that I’ve had support from everybody around me,” said Reimers, a Lincoln East product. “People I haven’t heard from in a few years have even texted me.”
The reception was a dream come true for Reimers, who attended many Nebraska games while growing up. He said his parents can’t believe it’s real.
“A few years ago, them or I didn’t think I would be in this position,” Reimers said. “To make a play like that is just awesome.”
Reimers said his confidence has increased since the beginning of fall camp and experiences such as the touchdown reception build it even more.
He’s set the bar higher for himself, saying he needs to keep capitalizing on the opportunities he gets.
O-line says it can be better
Utter said the offensive line played well against Oregon but still left yards on the field.
The margin for error will be slim the rest of the season as the front will now be matching up against bulkier, more physical defensive linemen with the start of Big Ten play at Northwestern.
Despite Northwestern having a 1-2 record, Utter said the Wildcats are physical and are sound on defense.
“They are going to give you their best effort every time they are on the field,” Utter said.
He said last season the Northwestern defensive line simply played straight up and tried to out-physical the Huskers.
“They have a high motor,” Utter said. “Playing longer than they do through the whistle is going to be a big factor.”
One of the players Utter mentioned was former Northwestern defensive lineman Dean Lowry, who was chosen by the Green Bay Packers in the fourth round in the 2016 NFL draft.
Last year, Lowry dominated the Huskers up front with 10 total tackles, including two sacks and six tackles for loss.
» Wideout Brandon Reilly (hamstring) remains questionable for the Northwestern game. Nebraska otherwise remained healthy coming out of Saturday. Defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg, who had missed time with a minor knee injury, played extended snaps. Riley said Nebraska needs to rotate more defensive linemen because players got tired.
» During his Monday recap of the Oregon game, Riley said Nebraska’s top special teams point-scorer is linebacker Brad Simpson, followed by fullback Luke McNitt and linebacker Chris Weber. Gates and Farmer played the best among offensive linemen, Riley said, while Armstrong, Westerkamp, Reimers and running back Devine Ozigbo played best among skill players. “He ran tough and gained good, hard yards,” Riley said of Ozigbo. On defense, Riley praised linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, safeties Nate Gerry, Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams and cornerback Joshua Kalu. Among defensive linemen, end Ross Dzuris played best, Riley said.
» Westerkamp, who played high school football at a suburb west of Chicago, said he plans to have more than 100 family members at Saturday’s Northwestern game.
“Hopefully we get some deep dish pizza after the game,” Westerkamp joked.
» Riley was not exactly privy to the reason why Nebraska chose to play its one alternate uniform game on the road instead of having a home alternate uniform like it did 2012-2015.
“I don’t know,” Riley said. “I think it’s a good idea, but I don’t know why.”
Riley said he liked playing in an alternate uniform on the road.
» Maurice said he still texts frequently before and after games with former Husker defensive end Greg McMullen — who stopped playing football to concentrate on mentoring youth.
“I think he does miss it, but he’s got a tremendous opportunity,” Maurice said.