LINCOLN, Neb. — You know what’s nice? To walk away from a Nebraska football game and not consider its impact on the state of the program.
This is how it’s supposed to go in September against a MAC team. Nebraska dispatched Northern Illinois 35-11 on Saturday in coach Matt Rhule’s first win in the home opener at Memorial Stadium.
It has been too long, Huskers. Every game for the past two years rated as an exhausting experience. Even wins contributed to the constant big-picture judgments. For two weeks at the start of the Matt Rhule coaching era, things felt almost no different.
Well, take a breath.
Stressors still exist. A quarterback debate looms. Injuries started to pile up on Saturday. The Huskers punted on six of seven possessions in a stretch that covered more than 20 minutes of clock time. They still haven’t won the turnover battle in three games this season.
But forget it for a minute.
The continuous drama takes a toll. Nebraska (1-2) needed a week or two to get away from it, to let football feel like a game. It did Saturday night in front of the 390th consecutive sellout crowd in Lincoln.
“For a lot of the fans and a lot of the people who care deeply about this program,” Rhule said after receiving a game ball in the locker room from athletic director Trev Alberts, “this game was probably about having some hope that things are moving in the right direction.”
For Rhule, Saturday was about belief.
“I believe that what we’re doing is working,” the coach said. “I believe we’re doing it the right way. I believe that we can overcome the first two games. I thought the players showed a lot of belief and a lot of belief in each other.
“I was glad they got the win the way they got it. That’s how we’re going to play, at least right now.”
Here’s how the Huskers got the win:
• With a smothering brand of defense. The Huskers held NIU to 149 yards, the lowest total for a Nebraska opponent since 2010. More than half of the Huskies’ yardage came on their lone touchdown drive in the final four minutes.
• By leaning on a ground game that gained 96 of its 224 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. Nebraska exerted physical dominance as the game progressed. It scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions in the second half to break open a two-score game at the half.
• On the back of quarterback Heinrich Haarberg, in as the starter for injured junior Jeff Sims. Haarberg was the first player signed as a scholarship QB out of a Nebraska high school to start at the position for the Huskers since Eric Crouch in 2001. The third-year sophomore from Kearney Catholic threw 158 yards on 14-of-24 passing with two touchdowns while running for 98 yards and a score.
“He did what he was called upon to do,” Rhule said.
• By playing complementary football. For instance, when punter Brian Buschini pinned the Huskies at the Nebraska 1-yard line, the defense held. And when Northern Illinois nearly botched its ensuing punt, the Huskers capitalized a short field to grab a 14-3 lead.
When Ben Scott committed two penalties during a third-quarter march, costing the Huskers 25 yards, Haarberg picked up his center with long completions to tight Thomas Fidone and wide receiver Alex Bullock.
And when Haarberg lost a fumble on the Huskers’ second possession at the Nebraska 5-yard line, the defense stiffened and held NIU to a field goal.
The Huskers’ focus helped push the doubts aside.
“The guys that have been here for three years now,” Haarberg said, “you just start thinking (about) Michigan (in 2021), all those games that we just kind of threw away, that we just shot ourselves in the foot. But tonight, we went full speed ahead.”
Haarberg’s star shined the brightest on Saturday. As Rhule exited the interview room after this victory and Haarberg entered, Crouch and fellow former Nebraska great Tommie Frazier greeted them.
Haarberg made the legendary QBs proud.
Last year, Haarberg did not travel with the Huskers. On Saturday, Haarberg, 6 feet, 5 inches and listed at 215 pounds, leaned forward at the end of several runs, sacrificing his body to crash through defenders for extra yards.
“I know that I’m not the prototypical quarterback,” he said. “I’m heavier. I’m faster. I’m stronger. So I’m going to use that to my advantage and try and push my teammates along.”
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Consider them inspired.
“My boy’s a killer,” running back Gabe Ervin said. “In the huddle, he said, ‘We’re going to pound it real now.’ Having that juice from a quarterback, I mean, it just makes you want to go through a brick wall. The dude has some swag.”
Fidone shushed perceived doubters in the home crowd after his 16-yard touchdown catch late in the first half. He has fueled his return after two knee injuries by gaining motivation from observers who questioned his ability to live up to the hype that followed him to Lincoln as a top-100 recruit nationally.
Haarberg motivated him Saturday.
“I’ve seen him in a lot of different moments,” Fidone said. “And today, he just flipped a switch.”
Fidone and Haarberg came together to Nebraska in 2021, along with Ervin and offensive tackle Teddy Prochazka, who returned to play a limited role at left tackle after battling a series of injuries.
They’ve all made strides to join forces and contribute Saturday to a win.
“That is a testament to Coach Rhule,” Haarberg said, “the culture that he’s built. If you put in work here, you will play.”
So who gets the next shot at QB? Sims suited up Saturday as the emergency No. 3 behind Haarberg and Chubba Purdy. If healthy on Saturday as Louisiana Tech visits, Sims’ six turnovers in the first two games figure to factor in Nebraska’s evaluation.
But both quarterbacks will be graded on a curve.
“A lot of things that weren’t his fault were pegged on Jeff Sims,” Rhule said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in Jeff. We’ve known all along that Heinrich can play. We’ve got a good situation. I won’t talk any hypotheticals. I don’t know who’s going to be healthy, who’s not.
“But I know we can win with both guys.”
For the moment, there’s no need to decide. Just enjoy Saturday night for what it was, a win.
(Top photo: Steven Branscombe / Getty Images)