I dare say many Husker fans had similar “here we go again” reactions when the Huskers started turning the ball over in the fourth quarter against Illinois. Nevermind ESPN’s consistently overstated “win percentage” of 99%; Nebraska’s offense was taking a hard left turn towards the banana peel.
Our Jon Johnston tried to claim that there was no way Illinois was going to come back barring some sort of “horrible screw-up” by Nebraska, to which I responded:
“Have you completely forgotten the last eight years, where Nebraska found ways to lose games?”
I probably should have said “invented” instead of “found”. From Mike Riley calling a pass play on third down on that very field in 2015 to punting to Michigan State away from coverage in 2021, it’s been one mind-numbing late-game debacle after another. And three fourth quarter turnovers by the Huskers seemed like the latest episode of the Huskers horror story. “Horrible screw-ups” have seemed to be embedded in Nebraska’s DNA in the post-Pelini era.
Matt Rhule knows the backstory; he knows there isn’t any institutional knowledge about winning at Nebraska anymore. It’s something he has to teach. And for 2023, it’s by relying on the defense, especially with an offense that’s down two I-backs, a quarterback for the time being, and now three of the top four receivers. And defense saved the the night in Champaign.
It didn’t start out that way; Illinois opened the game marching down the field inside the Husker one yard line, only to have the Blackshirts deny the Illini twice on the goal line. And from that point forward?
12 Illini rushes; Negative four yards lost rushing in the last three quarters.
That’s winning defense. Hell, Iowa has a 5-1 record with a Brian Ferentz offense that’s not even remotely on track to match Iowa’s modest “Drive to 325” requirements.
Update on the Drive to 325 for Iowa pic.twitter.com/cdDAswVmvt— Frank Male (@FrMale) October 8, 2023
Does Nebraska need to find more offense? Absolutely. But this defense should keep this squad in most of the games the second half of the season. Maryland, maybe not. Wisconsin, we’ll see. But Northwestern and Michigan State have their own inner turmoil with interim coaches, Purdue is hot and cold, and that Blackshirt Friday match up with the Hawkeyes that seems to be destined for a 4-2 final score. (With Brian having to walk home from Lincoln.)
A winning record is absolutely realistic for 2023. By no means assured mind you, but absolutely possible. And for a program that has had losing records seven out of the last eight seasons, an unmistakable sign of progress.
With that, it’s onto the report card. As always, your feedback is welcome in the comments.
QB: Heinrich Haarberg didn’t have a great second half throwing the ball, but to be honest, he doesn’t have a lot of weapons left in the passing game. Scott Satterfield is going to have to find something on offense that works besides the quarterback run game in this bye week. Haarberg was noticably limping after the game, and while I expect Jeff Sims to be ready to return against Northwestern, I don’t it’s sustainable to beat up the quarterbacks like this in the second half of the season. Grade: C
I-Back: Two fourth quarter fumbles by Anthony Grant and Emmitt Johnson in the fourth quarter were not helpful. Johnson did seem to have a bit of a spark running the ball prior to that. Joshua Fleeks only got one carry; so much for that move into the backup spot on the depth chart. Grade: D+
WR: Marcus Washington helped get the Huskers offense out of a huge hole on the opening drive. Presuming he’s out for an extended time, it’s going to demand that freshmen Malachi Coleman and Jaylen Lloyd not just get on the field, but start contributing. Coleman played most of the game, but didn’t find himself in spots where Haarberg was looking for him. I’d love to see Lloyd stretching the field to loosen up defenses, because right now, they can load the box to stop the run. Grade: D+
OL: Teddy Prochazka’s inexperience got the better of him on the opening drive, especially with the Illini playing tricks to get him to jump. I suspect this was one of Turner Corcoran’s better games, as not only did he not jump out as missing blocks, he got a shoutout from Mark Helfrich on the FS1 broadcast. Grade: C
DL: Nash Hutmacher blew up the Illini on both of their attempts to go on fourth down. There was no running room for the Illini whatsoever. Grade: A
LB: Nick Henrich did his best WWE move helping finish off Hutmacher’s second fourth down stop. A very solid effort for all. Grade: A
Secondary: Phalen Sanford filled in quite admirably this week, forcing that Illini fumble. Isaac Gifford had a huge game with three pass breakups. And this week, Quinton Newsome’s interception held up after further review. Grade: A
Special Teams: I’m going to continue to keep pointing out that Nebraska is LOSING yards every time they return a kickoff and fail to make it to the 25 yard line...which is pretty much every time. In a close game, those yards might turn out to be important. Another missed field goal this week, but I can’t get too mad because Grant Tagge was ready and waiting to pounce on that wind-blown kickoff that the Illini lost track of. Grade: B-
Overall: B- My PTSD didn’t allow me to fully appreciate how well the Blackshirts played in finishing out this game. Memo to Trev Alberts: Make sure that Matt Rhule has the resources to keep Tony White in the fold once this season wraps up.
Oh, and winning is FUN!
How would you grade the Huskers for their 20-7 victory over Illinois?
This poll is closed
A - All about the DEEEEEEEEE-fense!
B - Awesome defense; meh offense
C - Could be a LOT better on offense
D - Don’t think the defense can cover for this offense the rest of the season.
F - I’m an Iowa fan who doesn’t want to be reminded of Brian’s "Drive for 325".