May 25, 2024

Nebraska facing pivotal game to inch a step closer to bowl eligibility

Nebraska Cornhuskers Football

Nebraska Coach Matt Rhule walks along the sideline during the first quarter against Illinois Friday October 6, 2023 at Memorial Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

The Huskers are coming off a bye-week with a 3-3 record, which means they have officially hit the reset button on Matt Rhule’s first season in Lincoln.

Now Rhule has an opportunity to post a winning record for the first time this year if Nebraska can take down Northwestern Saturday. Both teams appear to be overachieving, considering their identical records through six games.

Although the Huskers didn’t receive much preseason love, all they need to do now is win half of their remaining games to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2016. Everyone thought the Wildcats’ ship would sink after Pat Fitzgerald’s departure, but somehow Interim Coach David Braun has kept them afloat.

However, Nebraska throttled Northwestern 56-7 the last time it invaded the Sea of Red, which was arguably the best victory of the Scott Frost era. Rhule is a veteran coach who’ll be matching wits with a rookie on the sidelines. Both teams were victorious in their last contest, and didn’t play last week, so the momentum is flowing.

Northwestern hasn’t won at Memorial Stadium since 2017, and Rhule intends to keep it that way. The Wildcats are scrappy though, and most of the time these games go down to the wire. Both fan bases remember the Huskers’ Hail Mary touchdown catch by Jordan Westerkamp.

The winner of Saturday afternoon’s matchup will still be in the thick of the Big Ten West race, but the loser will be on the outside looking in. There’s no denying that Rhule desperately needs this win if he has any hopes of leading the Huskers to the postseason.

Quarterback Heinrich Haarberg continues to gain more confidence each game, and it’s obvious his teammates are rallying behind him. Haarberg plays with toughness and passion, which gives Nebraska an identity on offense. He’s a solid passer, but his mobility is what makes him dangerous at times.

Rhule has dealt with a slew of injuries in the backfield this fall, but running back Anthony Grant is still standing. Grant has had issues with fumbles, but when he holds onto the ball, he’s a very impactful runner. Nebraska is averaging 200.5 rushing yards per game, which is second-best in the conference.

The Huskers really don’t have a deep threat at wide receiver, so Rhule has to keep coming up with ways to move the ball. The offensive line is still a work in progress with all of the penalties and fundamental mistakes, but is starting to gel at the right time.

The Blackshirts have been the strength of the team all season. Nebraska currently ranks fifth in the Big Ten, and 25th nationally in total defense. Not to mention the Huskers are dominating against the run, and rank third in the FBS in rushing defense. That’s going to take the team far as they navigate through the Big Ten meat-grinder.

Big Red Nation is starting to believe again, and it’s up to Rhule to deliver the goods. Northwestern, Purdue and Michigan State are winnable games at this point. After all, the three teams have a combined record of 7-12. The week off allowed Rhule time to add wrinkles to the playbook, and for the players to get healthy. So Rhule needs to take advantage, and continue laying the foundation to his groundwork piece by piece.