LINCOLN — Don't let go.
That was Jordan Westerkamp's thought when he sprinted down the west sideline on the final play, planted himself in the end zone — a few steps behind Quincy Enunwa — and saw the ball fluttering toward him.
That was Westerkamp's thought when 3,000 pounds of red jerseys jumped on him to celebrate. Initially, he wasn't even sure he was in the end zone. He figured it out when teammate Sam Burtch said, “I love you.”
Don't let go.
That was Westerkamp's thought when he squeezed out of the pile and made his way to the fence behind the Husker bench, where he gave Mom and Dad a double-hug.
That was Westerkamp's thought when he walked through the tunnel and heard fans screaming on all sides. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis jumped into his arms, squeezing Westerkamp with his legs. And all the while, No. 1 held the ball.
Don't let go.
Nebraska's football team was in a heap of trouble most of Saturday afternoon. Darkness closed in about the time Northwestern kicked a go-ahead field goal and it looked like Big Red was dead. At least the 2013 edition. If you can't beat 4-4 Northwestern at home, well, you might as well kiss your goals — and your head coach — goodbye.
But as several hundred fans filed for the exit ramps, they forgot the No. 1 lesson of the Bo Pelini era: Whatever you think is going to happen won't. Often magic and misery are so intertwined, destiny is determined by the bounce of a ball.
And so a fifth-year, walk-on quarterback best known for signaling plays from the sideline trotted onto the field after sitting out the entire second half. And a backup freshman best known for his mustache and fair catch signals lined up wide right.
On the sideline, just before the snap, Papuchis turned to defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski and said “Jordan's gonna catch a tipped ball in the end zone.”
Kaz looked at him as if he were predicting a surprise appearance from Batman.
“I mean, I was joking,” Papuchis said. “I didn't really think that was gonna happen, but sometimes the power of positive thinking might help.”
It doesn't hurt to have Westerkamp's hands. By all accounts, they're the best on the Nebraska roster, perfected by years and years of practice with his dad, a former NAIA All-America wideout. Bob Westerkamp taught Jordan the art of the position. How to run perfect routes. How to catch with your hands.
If the ball hits his fingers, Pelini said, Jordan grabs it.
The family home is 45 minutes from Northwestern and Jordan took a few recruiting trips — Pat Fitzgerald was one of the first coaches to offer him a scholarship. But when Westerkamp laid eyes on Nebraska, it felt different.
He redshirted the 2012 season, then took his place behind Jamal Turner on the depth chart. Prior to Saturday, he'd caught 10 balls for 90 yards all year. Prior to Saturday, he wasn't sure how much he was going to play.
In coaches' attempts to get another wideout ready, walk-on Burtch was getting more reps in practice. Westerkamp was a little down. Keep your head up, Tim Beck told him. Stay ready.
Before the final play, Beck reminded Westerkamp, Burtch and Alonzo Moore to form a triangle around Enunwa. Get ready for the deflection.
“Don't go for the ball,” Beck said. “The biggest mistake guys make — they all want to jump up. (Jordan) didn't. He waited for the tip.”
For that split-second after the deflection, some 90,000 stood, breathless.
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Soon Kellogg would be sprinting for the north end zone in celebration — yes, he went away from the pile. Pelini would be standing expressionless, staring at the big screen in the end zone, trying to figure out how he'd avoided a disastrous defeat. Bob Westerkamp would be shouting “unbelievable!”
Soon Beck would be crying in the press box and Bo would be fighting tears in the press conference and teammates would be jumping up and down in the locker room as if they'd just won a national championship.
Soon Ciante Evans would post a message on his Twitter account: “We live!”
The season may collapse next week at Michigan or the next week against Michigan State. But when you're the University of Nebraska, home to 331 consecutive sellouts and five national championships, you don't give up when the clock says :04 and you're 49 yards from home.
The ball fluttered in front of him. Jordan Westerkamp reached out his hands and reminded Husker fans that great programs hold on as long as possible.
Even when it feels like it's slipping away, don't let go.
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Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:
Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern:
Video: Nebraska quarterback talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern:
Video: Nebraska wide receiver talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern: