Positive Takeaways from NU's 28-20 Disappointment

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Randy York N-Sider

Iowa’s 28-20 win over Nebraska in Friday’s nationally televised Heroes Game sends the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten Conference Championship Game in Indianapolis and leaves Nebraska wishing and hoping for a bowl game despite its 5-7 record in Mike Riley’s inaugural season as the Huskers’ head coach.

Instead of slicing and dicing through the disappointment, I offer up five positive takeaways from the Huskers’ heavyweight slugfest against one of the nation’s top four ranked teams in the College Football Playoff. The 12-0 Hawkeyes are also one of only two NCAA Division I schools still unbeaten. Congratulations to a fellow Big Ten West Division rival and kudos to the Huskers for demonstrating the kind of sportsmanship Nebraska is known for. Don’t take my word for that observation. Listen to Jeffrey Willey, a lifelong Hawkeye fan who took the time to write me Friday night after the game ended, earning Willey’s email this blog's No. 1 positive takeaway.

“Kudos and thanks to the Husker trainers and staff who rushed onto the field twice to care for Hawkeye players who sustained wicked blows to the head,” Willey said. “That's true sportsmanship and professionalism. Your staff deserves our heartfelt appreciation for being a positive example and for showing the correct priorities. If everyone demonstrated such character, the world would be a much better place.”

Last year, Nebraska's Athletic Medicine Team worked on Husker starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (No. 4).

Longtime Hawkeye Fan Watched Friday's Game with Elderly Mother

I returned Willey's email, asking if he attended the game. “I drove up from Texas to be with my elderly mother for Thanksgiving,” he said. “We watched the game together in the assisted living facility in Eldridge, Iowa. We both jumped when we witnessed the two players get hit. The first Hawkeye was hit by his own teammate. My attention went immediately to the Husker staff who rushed to his side and then tried to restrain him to keep him from further injuring himself. The player even tried to push them away when it was obvious he was not doing well. The Husker trainers were professional and persistent, and that greatly impressed me.”

That injury was followed by a second to a Hawkeye receiver, prompting the Husker staff to rush onto the field and stabilize the player's head until Iowa trainers could reach him. “Again, extremely professional and very impressive,” Willey said. “While I would have loved to have been at that game, being with my mother was more important. And while the Husker trainers would have loved to win the game, caring for an injured player, regardless of their jersey, was more important. That's true sportsmanship, and this is one Hawkeye fan who wanted to express my admiration and my gratitude.”

Thanks, Jeffrey, for recognizing the essence of sportsmanship between two neighboring Big Ten institutions with a burgeoning and healthy rivalry. Let the record show that Lonnie Albers, M.D., is Nebraska’s Director of Athletic Medicine and is always on the sideline ready to share his valued expertise. Also working on Nebraska’s side of the field are Jerry Weber, the Huskers’ head athletic trainer and Mark Mayer, NU’s head football athletic trainer. They're all as good as it gets.

There's an important footnote to Willey's acknowledgement. Trumble Field in Portage, Indiana, is named in honor of a person who died a few days after sustaining a sports-related neck injury in the late 1960s. "His neck was broken, but in those days, they didn't stabilize the player," Willey told me. "They just picked him up and dragged him to the side. He died a few days later, and the family has never gotten over it. Thank the Lord for the advancement of sports medicine."

Positive Takeaway No. 2: Amani Cross Making the Most of His Opportunities

Thanks also to Imani Cross, Nebraska's senior I-back (pictured above with head coach Mike Riley during the Tunnel Walk). Cross's two touchdowns Friday increased his career total to 27, enabling him to become the only player in Nebraska history to rush for at least 25 touchdowns with less than 300 career carries. 

Positive Takeaway No. 3: Cethan Carter's Career High 76 Receiving Yards

Junior tight end Cethan Carter caught a career-high-tying four passes for a career-high 76 yards against Iowa. Three receptions were 20 yards or more. He also caught four passes at Rutgers, and Friday's total bettered his previous high 63 receiving yards at Illinois.

Positive Takeaway No. 4: Byerson Cockrell's Leadership Blackshirt Role

Saturday was a busy day for Byerson Cockrell (pictured above), a senior safety who transferred to Nebraska from East Mississippi Community College in Columbus, Miss. Cockrell and sophomore cornerback Josh Kalu (Houston, Texas) led the Blackshirts with six total tackles each against Iowa. Kalu had a tackle that resulted in a 7-yard loss and Cockrell recorded a tackle for a 3-yard loss against the Hawkeyes. Cockrell was one of 18 seniors who played their final home game at Memorial Stadium Friday.

Positive Takeaway No. 5: Tommy Armstrong's Brutal Candor, Vow to Change

We end our positive takeaway list with the person who felt worse than anyone in America after throwing four interceptions against a ball-hawking team. Armstrong's No.1 objective was to take care of the football, and he didn't accomplish the mission. He said everyone else took care of the football, but not the Huskers' third-year starting quarterback, who was emotionally crushed Friday, but faced Husker Nation with brutal candor and vowed to change in his final season.

Armstrong credited coaches Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf for what he called a great learning experience. "I want to become a better leader on the field," Armstrong said. "I want to become a better person and do as much as I can improving my game mentally. I feel I have everything physically. I can run the ball. I have the arm. I just gotta make sure that I'm more mentally prepared each and every game...I just can't have mental breakdowns like I did this game."

Feeling heavy loads of anguish, Armstrong was man enough to tell the media and Big Red fans how he failed Friday and how he intends to improve dramatically, so he can help his teammates blaze new trails in 2016. The best path to seize that opportunity, of course, would be a bowl game for a  team that has lost a series of heartbreakers yet is willing to go toe-to-toe with any talented team in a number of locations. That thought process is based on the winter equivelant of a spring training period. Armstrong covets the prospect of such redemption, and that's a good sign for any dedicated leader who wants to change his team's, and his own, destiny.

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