May 25, 2024

Matt Rhule wins first Big Ten game behind Blackshirts’ stellar night

Nebraska Cornhuskers Football

Nebraska Coach Matt Rhule watches from the sidelines during the fourth quarter against Illinois Friday October 6, 2023 at Memorial Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Friday night’s game at Illinois wasn’t pretty by any means for Nebraska, and the gusty winds made matters worse.

However, that didn’t keep a hungry Husker team from snapping a three-game losing streak to the Fighting Illini in front of a hostile crowd of 46,703 at Memorial Stadium. Matt Rhule matched wits with Bret Bielema, and once the smoked cleared, Nebraska prevailed 20-7.

There’s no denying that it was one of the most sloppiest Big Ten games so far this season, but Rhule was glad to see his boys win an ugly one. After all, both teams had several mistakes, committed silly penalties and generated costly turnovers. Through it all, Rhule never doubted his players, and thought they persevered through adversity.

“I think we’re a resilient bunch, we didn’t like the way we played last week,” Rhule said. “We battled here, and when it was going well, we didn’t just relax, and I like to clean up some things, but I thought they attacked.”

Quarterback Heinrich Haarberg had a solid outing, considering it was his fourth start of the season, and his first Big Ten road clash. He completed 12 of his 24 passes for 154 yards and an interception. He also led the team in rushing, with 82 yards on the ground and a touchdown.

Running back Anthony Grant led the Huskers in carries, but only averaged 2.8 yards, and lost a critical fumble in the fourth quarter. Wideout Billy Kemp and tight end Thomas Fidone hauled in three passes apiece, but there wasn’t much fireworks to the Huskers’ aerial attack.

Nebraska (3-3) led Illinois in total yards, plays, first downs and time of possession. Rhule thought his offense was scrappy and never gave up, regardless of the turnovers. The Huskers could’ve done a better job of executing down in the red zone, instead of settling for field goals. That frustrated Rhule at times.

“We are the same team as we were last week, we’re just a work in progress,” he said. “I’m glad to see the guys have a little success during this work in progress, and they’ve got to continue to have that humble mindset of getting better this week.”

Although the offense displayed growing pains, the Blackshirts dominated with their best performance of the season. Nebraska held Illinois (2-4) scoreless in the first quarter, and the entire second half. The Blackshirts set the tone early, and dictated the flow of the game the rest of the way.

The Huskers’ defense made a statement inside their own one-yard line when they stopped the Fighting Illini on back-to-back plays, which resulted in turnover on downs. The Blackshirts limited Illinois’ offense to a season-low, seven points and 310 yards of total offense. Rhule was very impressed that Tony White’s defense came to play.

“It’s pretty good Big Ten football to hold a team to seven points on the road, and they’re in no-huddle the whole game trying to get going,” the 48-year old coach said. “So it was a pretty good balance ”

Defensive back Isaac Gifford led the defense with eight tackles, and broke up three passes. Linebackers John Bullock and Jimari Butler each recorded a sack. Defensive back Quentin Newsome tallied five stops and picked off a pass. Kicker Tristan Alvano delivered when his number was called, and connected on two of his three field goals.

Rhule thought the officials didn’t do his team any favors. The Huskers racked up a season-high, 10 penalties for 70 yards. In Rhule’s mind, that was unacceptable, and he needs his players to be more disciplined.

Above all,  the Huskers have won three of their past four games, and the team has a ton of momentum heading into the bye-week.