EVANSTON, Ill. — Nebraska’s running backs coach had a message at halftime Saturday for a hard-working and eager sophomore, who’s always seemed to be a handful of consecutive touches away from a breakout performance.
It’s really been the theme of Mikale Wilbon’s early Husker career. He’s always been one of the last guys off the practice field — staying late so he could scamper through ladder drills a few more times, or so he could stand a few yards in front of a passing machine to catch and tuck the football, or so he could sprint his way through extra conditioning exercises.
That’s why the 5-foot-9, 195-pounder from Chicago didn’t have to adjust his mentality one bit when assistant Reggie Davis indicated to Wilbon that more touches might be coming his way in the second half. Wilbon’s been working for that — since he joined the team.
Wilbon made the most of his chances Saturday, helping Nebraska (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) seal a 24-13 road victory by running six times for 55 yards. Five of those carries came after halftime. He broke a 32-yard run in the fourth quarter that flipped the field. He had a 13-yard reception on a swing pass nullified by a penalty.
“I was ready,” Wilbon said. “All our backs, we’re all great. Anybody can (play well) at any point. It can be anybody’s game at any point. That’s what we really just harp on. Everybody be ready.”
Wilbon didn’t want to take all the credit Saturday. He thanked God. He complimented his offensive linemen for their blocks. He thanked his coaches for sticking with him.
But there were times in a brief interview session with reporters after Saturday’s game when Wilbon couldn’t help but smile. He’d been a scout team stud during his redshirt year — but he spent most of 2015 on the sideline. His nine carries last season all came in Nebraska’s first two games. Even this year, Wilbon had just one rush attempt coming into Saturday.
He stayed the course, though.
“I just work hard,” he said. “Whatever they tell me to do, I just work hard at it.”
Wilbon was rewarded against Northwestern (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) on Saturday. He did it in front of about 25 family members and friends. His parents. His siblings. A couple former teachers. His old youth football coach.
“It meant a lot (to perform well in Chicago). I appreciate the coaches giving me the opportunity,” said Wilbon, who sported a Chicago White Sox hat as he walked out of the NU locker room. “I just tried to make the best out of my opportunities.”
Senior Jordan Westerkamp could relate.
He’s a high school record-setter from the Chicago suburbs playing his last college game in his hometown — so a large contingent of supporters (many of whom were wearing No. 1 jerseys or shirts) sat just behind the Northwestern bench Saturday. Westerkamp found them afterward. He wasn’t even sure how many ended up coming. A lot, certainly, he said.
“I’m very lucky to have them,” Westerkamp said. “It was great to come back here in front of a familiar crowd, and on a familiar field. It was just an overall awesome experience.”
Westerkamp nearly had two touchdown receptions Saturday. But a third-down throw sailed high in the first half. A rollout play that appeared to be designed for Westerkamp in the third quarter resulted in an incompletion as well.
No worries. Westerkamp said he was just glad to see NU’s offense start to find its rhythm after halftime.
Then offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf dialed up the reverse that Westerkamp and the Huskers had practiced all week. It worked exactly as planned. Westerkamp trotted in for a 10-yard touchdown run with 3:06 left in the third quarter, putting Nebraska back up two scores.
“It’s been a good play for us,” Westerkamp said.
Wilbon had an impact on that possession, too. He took a handoff 7 yards and then broke free for a 12-yard gain on the next snap. His best run came two drives later.
On a zone read play, Wilbon hesitated for a moment as a running lane appeared, pausing right behind the heels of his offensive linemen just like the coaches preach. Then he cut back to his left and exploded into the open field.
Langsdorf wasn’t surprised to see it. He said there were packages in the game plan for Wilbon this week. And after Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo both fumbled in first-half red zone situations, the coaches were committed to giving Wilbon a shot in the second half.
Wilbon had 51 total rushing yards in his NU career before Saturday. He figures to have a role going forward now, too.
“He’s done a nice job of just staying with it and continuing to work hard,” Langsdorf said. “He gives you a little different energy, with some fresh legs. We had some things dialed up for him. And gosh, they looked good, so we stayed with him.”