I can tell by the lack of applause many of you didn’t even know I left. That’s okay. I forgive you. Much like the past several seasons, forgetting them is probably the best way we can move forward.
In stepping away not much changed (close losses/losing records/no bowl games, etc.), then a whole lot changed, with the firing of Scott Frost and the hiring of Matt Rhule. After two weeks there may be a few fans out there that look at this team’s 0-2 start and think, “here we go again..” There’s evidence to support and refute your theory. A reinvigorated defense who ranks #1 in Sacks and might disagree with you. But there are the turnovers, the mistakes at key moments, the lack of composure when the game is on the line that still linger in the bones of this Cornhusker roster.
Coach Rhule made mention of it in his weekly press conference of a team so scared to lose, they forget to win. If you’ve never played organized sports, the phrase seems laughable. But the mental make up of an athlete can be a fragile thing. That rings especially true for the upperclassmen on this football team, and by extension us, the fan base that has supported them through this. We’ve seen this movie before. Except there is no Bill Murray or animatronic Groundhog to make us laugh when things get tough. All we, and they, have is the thought that this may never end.
The miscues and the past two weeks aside, Saturday night was a chance to go 1-0 under Coach Rhule at Memorial Stadium. Trev Alberts and the Athletic Department have some tricks up their sleeve to commemorate the 100 years of moments in this historic venue, this Cathedral to College Football in Nebraska.
In coming back to the press box and covering the team on Game Day, I knew I wanted to do something different. Corn Nation already has awesome contributions from all of our writers in the Game Thread, and we usually have several people shooting out post game content, reaction, and analysis. Not to mention our fearless leader, Jon Johnston, posting his reaction videos to social media for all the world wide web to see. So I endeavored to give you a little of both, part play by play commentary/part fan, player, and coach reaction. I pride myself of being an excellent observer of the human condition. I pick up verbal and non verbal tones very well.
In a win, or in a loss, I wanted to get the reactions of the people who this program means the most to, the entire Nebraska Cornhuskers team and staff, as well as the countless fans who support them. A pulse. The Game Day Pulse, if you will. Let’s get to it.
Pre Game Pulse
I arrived in Lincoln shortly after 3 PM on Saturday afternoon. The traffic was already starting to get hairy and from the looks of things people had been staking out their tailgating spots even as early as this morning. I had to park in the 17th & Vine UNL Parking Garage, as I didn’t have my parking pass for this game. As unfortunate as that was, walking down Vine awarded me a great opportunity. Walking through the Heart of Collegiate Greek Life on UNL’s campus.
The enthusiasm from Sorority, and Fraternity, Houses alike was buzzing as you could visibly see the student body was ready for Husker Football Saturday to return to Lincoln. I also made it just in time to watch the Unity Walk as the Husker Buses pulled up to the stadium. As a fan, the Unity Walk is one of my favorite Husker Game Day experiences. The Band, the player/fan interaction, parents watching their sons prepare to play a football game as an entire state cheers them on and wishes them well. It’s truly special.
I tried to catch passing conversations of fans as I made my way to Gate 7 and the elevators that lead to the Press Box. I heard talk about the defense. “Blackshirts are back, baby! #1 in sacks!” I heard talk of turnovers. “I just hope he can catch the snap. Wasn’t that embarrassing? How can you not catch a snap? That’s, like, your main job.” Yeah, Husker Fans sure don’t Sugar Coat it, especially around other fans. But the main conversation I heard from the moment I arrived to the moment the game started, who was going to be taking snaps at QB for Nebraska? Sims, Haarberg, or Purdy?
Fans who attended the game saw pretty early that Jeff Sims, while suited up and warming up, was not his usual self. He wasn’t attacking pre game as most starting players do. The snap count was diminished and split between Heinrich Haarberg and Chubba Purdy, with 1st team pre game reps being controlled by Haarberg. The Kearney, NE Native is the first Husker QB from the state to start a game since Noah Vedral played in 2019 against Minnesota and Indiana.
The pre game performance by the Cornhusker Marching Band was, as always, a great warm up to the Tunnel Walk. I was in Marching Band growing up, so the pomp and pageantry of it all is a nice dose of nostalgia for me. I was in favor of the Tunnel change as well, not only did it make sense with the new football facilities, but I remember when the Huskers came out of that Tunnel, and personally it made more sense. It seemed more fans could experience the Tunnel Walk too, seeing the team pass by the windows of the facility.
Captains today were Rahmir Johnson, Ty Robinson, Ben Scott, and Nick Heinrich. Huskers won the toss and differed to the Second Half.
A rewarding first series for the Blackshirts immediately following the opening Kickoff. The Huskies only managed 5 yards in 3 plays to give the defense it’s first 3 and Out of the game. Another gift occured when Huskies Punter, Tom Foley, booted the ball only 25 yards to set up Haarberg’s First Drive at the Husker 45 yard line. A what a drive it was. A six play, 55 yard drive taking 3:17 off the clock was a Taylor Made drive by Coach Matt Rhule. Four QB designed runs and two play action passes, one to Marcus Washington on a post and one to Billy Kemp in the flats for a touchdown.
This scripted first drive couldn’t have gone any better for the Frosh Signal Caller or the Husker Offense. This is their first score in the First Quarter all year. Unfortunately, it was really the only highlight drive of the quarter as some old issues with protection and drops began to creep up and not much was good about the Offense the remainder of the Quarter. We lost one fumbled and gave up one field goal, but seemed to gain our composure heading into the 2nd Quarter.
The Huskies however provided some entertainment for the fans in the 1st, well QB Rocky Lombardi did. Some of you might remember the 7th Year Signal Caller as Michigan State’s QB when the Huskers beat Sparty in the Snow in Lincoln 9-6. Anyway, the defense was credited with a Sack on one particular pass play, but if your going to give it to anyone, you give it to Tom Osborne Field, as in an attempt to evade a potential sack Lombardi backpedalled, tripping over his own feet and landing unharmed on the turf of Memorial Stadium. Stat Sheets don’t recognize inanimate objects as causing sacks as of this evening. This has been dubbed, by me, ‘The Laugh of the Half”. Yo Rocky!
With Bryce McGowens back in town, the NBA player fresh off his Rookie Season with the Charlotte Hornets was recognized in the Pro Big Red portion of stadium highlights. As well as, Danny Noonan, former Blackshirt and Dallas Cowboy Defensive Lineman, as the Homegrown Husker for the game. A lot more back and forth early in this quarter. Punter, Brian Buschini executed a great Pooch Punt and Safety Phalen Sanford was able to pin the Huskies on their one yard line. A three and out later, as well as a bobbled punt by Foley in the end zone gave us the ball on our 36 yard line.
Haarberg to Fidone II, might want to get used to hearing it. These two hooked up for two pitch and catches on this drive, capped off by a 16 yard strike for a touchdown. Ever since Haarberg has been operating under center, he seems to have made it his mission to get the heralded TE involved. I’m happy for Fidone II, he’s battled back from two injuries, and now has touchdown grabs in back to back games. Hopefully, we can expect more of this combination in the future.
A Polar Bear/Ty Robinson sandwich sack on Rocky Lombardi during the next drive provided some more laughs. A 15 yard pass interference call from Cornerback, Tommi Hill, was not. To Hill’s defense, He played the man, not the ball, had he turned around the underthrown ball would have landed perfectly in his lap for an interception. But no harm done and a Field Goal is the only damage the Huskies have against the Huskers going into Halftime.
The score is 14-3 in favor of our Nebraska Cornhuskers. Northern Illinois only has 58 yards of Total Offense, and Lombardi2 has been sacked 3 times up to this point. The Huskies have not crossed the 50 yard line in this game, they were gifted scoring position which results in their only points to this point.
Heinrich Haarberg is 8 for 12 with 75 yards and 2 TDs. Also, 11 carries for 50 yards. He’s playing within himself and not doing too much. His fumble was a sack on blown protection and not his fault. He’s done everything he’s been asked. Fidone is emerging with a few catches for 22 yards and a TD. A TD for Kemp. I truly believe this is the Matt Rhule Formula. Play ‘Lights Out’ Defense, Run your RBs and QB, Play Action for shots to your wide receivers.
Another stellar Halftime Performance from the Band and we’re ready to start the Second Half. Being up by two scores seems to have the fans loose, but not too loose, as we’ve seen the wheels fall off for this Husker team in the past.
Husker take possession of the second half kickoff, but a quick 3 and Out brings on the punting team, Haarberg showing off his arm strength almost hits Tommi Hill streaking across the field for a 30+ long incompletion, he nearly had it. Husker Receivers are still not securing the ball before the catch, Heinrich has been throwing some decent passes but there has been at least a handful of drops. You have to help your Quarterback there.
Offenses trade possessions until another methodical 7 minute and 10 second drive puts the Huskers on top 21-3. This was a wear-you-down type of drive, extending to 14 plays and 76 yards, capped off by a three yard Gabe Ervin Jr. plunge up the heart of the Husky Defense. A mixture of run and a nicely set up screen play to WR Alex Bullock, which also had a 15 yard Personal Foul attached to it by Husker Center, Ben Scott.
The offense seemed to impose their Will on this drive and really, for all intents and purposes, probably put this game out of reach in most people’s minds. Huskies got the ball back with roughly a minute and they held onto the ball to start the 4th Quarter.
Thunderstruck. The Husker Drone Show. Pyrotechnics. Red Lights and Cell Phone Flashlights lit up across every inch of the Stadium. Man, this place is fun at night. If I had my way every game the Huskers played would we underneath the lights. Night Games are special, man. I saw Alex Henery’s FG against Colorado sitting in North Stadium, I felt the foundation move under my feet that night, twice, as Ndamukong Suh put the exclamation point that was our beating of the Buffaloes.
The 4th Quarter Show had Northern Illinois out of sorts to start the 4th. Foley punts the ball away for his 9th time of the night. It was time for the Kearney Signal Caller to add his own exclamation point to Memorial Stadium.
A 9 play, 65 yard drive lasting 5:35 was punctuated by a zone read keeper for Haarberg from 20 yards out. 28-3 Nebraska. At that point, you could see the cheering fans celebrating this Hometown Hero, this Native Son, lead his team to a victory. I saw some fans get up and leave, because I assume they felt they’d finally found a reason to go home and not worry about the final 6 minutes of a football game.
When was the last time the Cornhuskers afforded their fans such a respite? There was semi-raised chatter in the Press Box. There is never semi-raised chatter in the Press Box! It was a very surreal time for me before I made my way down to field level to prepare to go into the post game press conference.
But the Huskies still had time and a couple of possessions, but I felt the game was well in hand. Turns out I am a psychic, because we finally cause the turnover we’ve been looking for for several weeks, the interception. It came courtesy of LB Javin Wright on a pass along the sideline the ultra athletic linebacker leaped up in the air for and brought down for a 12 yard return. Wright has battled injury almost since arriving on campus, played sparingly last year in Bill Busch’s defense. But seems to have found his home at LB in Tony White’s 3-3-5 Defense. A legacy player who coaches loves, particularly Coach Rhule.
Adding insult to injury, Anthony Grant took it in from 11 yards out on a 5 play 35 yard drive, eating up an additional 3:07. This all happened as I was riding the elevator down to the field so I was unable to witness it. But again, Kudos to taking it on the chin last week, AG. He was called upon to finish the game after Rahmir went out early, and Gabe was out at the end. He held onto the ball and delivered another touchdown for the offense. 35-3 Cornhuskers.
Game Over, right? No. Backup QB for the Huskies Ethan Hampton orchestrated a drive against some second and third string defensive players and managed to finally cross the 50 yard line and score a mop up touchdown and two point conversion, making the game 35-11 Big Red.
A squib kick to Barrett Liebentritt and a nice 18 yard run by reserve RB and Nebraska native, Trevin Lueben. The game was over.
Post Game Pulse
In the new Conference Room in the Hawks Center there was an even keeled Coach Rhule addressing the media, happy with the win, but understanding that this team was nowhere near perfect tonight. Some of the same issues cropped up tonight that have come up in previous games. Players handled it better, yes, but the opponent was not of the same caliber as the previous two.
Yes, say what you want about NIU, but they provided only a challenge to our Offense with an athletic Defensive Line and by the end of the game we were gashing runs on them regardless, 44 rushes on 224 yards total. 382 of Total Offense.
I am very much in the minority among Corn Nation Writers. After the 20 yard TD run by Haarberg I sent out a message saying, “Only Sims comes back on the field is if Haarberg is injured.” Kind of an in-the-moment reaction to a kid who seems to be gaining confidence every time he steps back out on the field. Which I still firmly believe, IF, Coach Rhule makes the switch.
I’m not the Coach, but your 1-0 with one QB, 0-2 with the other. Sims can’t shoulder all of the blame for being 0-2, the offense just derailed kind of the same way he struggled. But, what does it say to Heinrich who just won you a game if you put him back on the bench? You risk splintering a fan base, possibly a locker room of players who now knows what winning with Heinrich is like. Maybe I’m making this more than it will inevitably be. But I think you see what the Nebraska kid can do until he proves otherwise.
I also think Heinrich is a team guy. He spoke of Sims being someone he leaned on during practice this week, and even in the game on Saturday. He bleeds Husker Red. If he has to go back to Gadget QB/TE/WR, he would do it, because he loves Nebraska, he loves this program. To be one of only 4 Nebraskan to start at QB since Eric Crouch, that’s pretty awesome. Noah Vedral, Ryker Fyfe, & Ron Kellogg III were the other three.
This will certainly be an interesting week and a divide fan base. A QB controversy could be brewing in Lincoln, NE. But for now, for this evening the Huskers gave us a win to get us through our week.
The Cornhuskers are 1-0 under Matt Rhule at Memorial Stadium. 100 years of Memorial Stadium that he is now a part of. And probably for one of the 85,875 that were in attendance today, some fan out there who experienced their first Husker Game ever today, they were a part of history too.
Bring on Louisiana Tech.