By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
In his first and only career game as a Nebraska football player, Tanner Zlab may have set a team record.
Surely no Husker has ever embraced more well-wishers on the football field immediately after a game than did Zlab, a senior from Wilber, following No. 18 Nebraska’s 28-7 victory over Maryland on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Through all of the hugs, congratulatory remarks, pictures and smiles, a teammate stood by Zlab’s side.
His sole purpose was to help Zlab unfasten his helmet. The strap was stuck, and Zlab couldn’t take off his hat.
Perhaps that was fitting for a player who’d waited five years and four walk-on tryouts just to make the team for only this season.
“That’s a hell of way to go out,” Zlab said only minutes after he’d registered a tackle in the game’s final minute, on the second play of his career.
“Before every game, he’s like the first one up to you in the locker room,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “He’s the first one when you get out on the field, ‘Hey, good luck today Coach!’ Just a real positive attitude, a worker, just a good person. For him to be able to get out there and make a tackle, that was awesome.”
The sideline erupted with jubilation for the linebacker who’d finally made the team after unyielding support from Sam Foltz.
So many heartwarming storylines on this Senior Day tied to Foltz, the senior punter who died in an automobile accident in July. Teams throughout the Big Ten Conference, including Maryland, honored Foltz throughout the season with various tributes.
Nebraska again remembered Foltz with a pregame video tribute on Saturday, while each of the 29 seniors introduced before the game laid a rose at the 27-yard line in front of the Nebraska bench in remembrance of No. 27.
Foltz’s parents, Jill and Gerald, greeted and hugged each senior, too.
“I cried hard for about 20 seconds and then got it all out of the way, hugging Jill and Gerald,” said Spencer Lindsay, one of Foltz’s best friends, and his roomate.
Lindsay, a reserve senior kicker, then had an unexpectedly busy day, after junior kicker Drew Brown suffered a head injury on the opening kickoff.
“It’s certainly kind of weird,” Lindsay said. “It’s special. I certainly never want Drew to get hurt like that. I never wish for that. I hope he’s able to recover, is good to go next week.”
Lindsay responded by kicking four extra points and handling kickoffs, all while thinking about his fallen teammate, as well as Lindsay’s brother, Matt, who died of a rare form of cancer in 2014. He was 28.
“An emotional day for the seniors on this team, an emotional day for me, personally, with the tributes to Sam and remembering my brother, Matt, on this day,” Lindsay said. “Very, very special. I don’t know what the words are now.
“It’s just a crazy feeling. It’s crazy how life can kind of work out sometimes. I was happy I was able to come in and do the job.”
Senior Ryker Fyfe – like Zlab and Lindsay, a walk-on from Nebraska – did his job, too, in place of injured senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Fyfe, in his second career start, was 23-of-37 passing for 220 yards and a touchdown.
“I wanted to for sure get a win today, and it was my last home game, first start,” Fyfe said, “so I put a lot of pressure on myself to go out there and just play as hard as I could and make sure we got a win no matter what. So I thought we did a good job with it.”
Fyfe became the first quarterback not named Armstrong or Taylor Martinez to start a game in which Nebraska won since 2010. Fyfe played a turnover-free game, too, as Nebraska played a second consecutive game without a turnover. That hadn’t happened since the final two games of 2003.
Like his teammates, Fyfe had one player on his mind while playing his final home game at Memorial Stadium.
“I knew it was going to be a tough day,” Fyfe said, “a lot of emotions, and obviously, this should be a game that I should be walking out with Sam at my last game, but I knew he was with us, with me, in spirit.
“It was nice seeing Jill and Gerald, his parents, before the game. They talked to me, gave me a hug and said, ‘He’ll be with you out there, just go out and play hard,’ so it was fun.”
Nebraska’s more heralded seniors did their parts, too, in helping the Huskers win on Senior Day for the first time since 2012, and to an undefeated home season for only the second time in the last 15 years.
Receiver Jordan Westerkamp caught a season-high eight passes for 85 yards and a 4-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Senior running back Terrell Newby rushed for 98 yards on 22 carries and a career-high three rushing touchdowns. Newby now has 825 yards rushing this season and is 175 yards shy of 1,000 yards.
Senior linebacker Josh Banderas had a team-high nine tackles, with eight in the first half, and led a defense that held Maryland to 11 rushing yards.
So all-in-all, a perfect sendoff for a senior class that played a pivotal role in keeping the program on course during last season’s coaching transition.
“When you make a transition like this and you are fortunate enough to land with a group of guys like this … we are very, very thankful for that,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “My disappointment is that I only got to be around these guys for a couple of years. … I don’t think that we rebound from a year ago and be able to have a year like this without a really good bunch of older guys in the program.
“I believe that is true, so this group is pretty special. They are very close to one another and they have a lot of pride in their own teammates and frankly just plain old-fashioned friendships within this group. You can see it.”
And for someone like Zlab, who counted on support and friendship from Foltz, senior lineman Sam Hahn and many others, one simple tackle on Senior Day meant the world.
“I wasn’t for sure if it was just me on that or if someone snuck behind me,” Zlab said. “But then I stood up and I heard a bunch of people yelling my name. I gave a little fist-pump type of deal and it was on to the next play, I guess. It just went by so fast.”
Unlike, say, what Zlab endured to get to this point.
“Totally worth it,” Zlab said. “A long journey, but in the end, totally worth it.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.