LINCOLN — All that had happened in the previous five or six weeks — and really, over the last four-plus years — didn’t matter Saturday night as Corey Whitaker stood next to Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.
Starting right guard Tanner Farmer was down with about five minutes left in the third quarter. Cavanaugh turned and said go to the fifth-year senior so often dogged by bad fortune and bad timing.
“I was just waiting for my turn,” Whitaker said.
He played the final 24 offensive snaps as the Huskers closed out Northwestern in a 24-13 win. It appears that a long-anticipated first career start will follow Saturday with Farmer doubtful for the Illinois game because of a high ankle sprain.
And as in his performance against the Wildcats, Whitaker plans to be fully dialed in for the 2:30 p.m. kickoff at Memorial Stadium.
“I think I did pretty well,” he said. “I think practice reps and mental reps prepare you for that if you do it the right way. If you don’t do it the right way, and you’re not paying attention and taking it seriously, I think you could definitely go in there and feel uncomfortable.
“A lot of it has to do with Coach Cav just making sure you’re ready at all times.”
Whitaker has done his best to stay prepared — amid some challenges that easily could have tested his resolve.
The 6-foot-5, 295-pound product of Murrieta, California, injured a knee in his first year with the Huskers in 2012, leading to a redshirt and recovery. Two years later, another major knee injury cost him his sophomore season.
A less severe knee problem hit last month, but it might have been the cruelest of all.
NU lost projected starter Jerald Foster to a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 17. That figured to leave Whitaker as the No. 1 left guard, with two weeks to prepare for the Fresno State opener.
Only something else happened in that same practice.
“I felt like I just pulled something in my knee, and I finished practice,” he said. “And I went into practice the next day thinking I was going to be fine, and I just couldn’t go. So we had the MRI done.”
Minor damage to his right knee meant arthroscopic surgery, and Nebraska scrambled and moved Sam Hahn from backup right tackle to starting left guard.
Whitaker would get back in time for the Fresno State game — and be grateful his knee wasn’t worse — but Hahn had won the left guard job and would keep it during the 4-0 start.
“And rightfully so. He earned it,” Whitaker said. “That’s just kind of how things go sometimes.”
Called upon Saturday night, however, Whitaker did his part under tough circumstances, Hahn said. That was no surprise to the four linemen waiting for him in the huddle after Farmer was helped off the field.
“We just said, ‘Ya know, here’s your opportunity, bud. Make the most of it,’ ” Hahn said. “And he was more than ready. I didn’t expect any dropoff when Corey came in. Corey’s a good player, and I believe that he can play just as well as any of the rest of us.”
Four plays after Whitaker took over for Farmer, Nebraska capped a nine-play, 79-yard drive with a 10-yard run by Jordan Westerkamp that provided the 24-13 lead.
“I came back with the guys and I was like, ‘Well, at least I’m warm now,’ ” Whitaker said, joking.
NU head coach Mike Riley said Monday that Whitaker and left tackle Nick Gates graded the highest among the offensive linemen at Northwestern. Whitaker said it felt good as the Huskers finished out a 310-yard rushing game against the Wildcats after managing just 82 against them the year before.
Mostly it was just satisfying for Whitaker to finally play a little more. It’s been a “long road” with the three knee surgeries, he said. Given all that he and fellow line veterans Dylan Utter, Robby Painter and Hahn have lived through at NU, they feel like survivors.
Whitaker never let his problems finish him off, and instead believes they have prepared him to take advantage of what’s happening now.
“I never quit at anything, so I wasn’t going to start now,” he said. “And I think that was the biggest thing coming here, was that I was going to finish it out strong, regardless of the situations or anything that happened.”