One word to describe the Husker offense on Friday: ugly.
One word to describe the Husker defense on Friday: beautiful.
Nebraska struggled against Illinois, especially in the second half, with three turnovers, a missed field goal and a ton of free throws. Still, the defense lost its mind and shut down the Fighting Illini’s offense en route to a 20-7 victory.
The Blackshirts held Illinois to 21 yards rushing at 1.1 yards per carry, reclaiming their title as one of the best run defenses in the country. They also had two meaningful turnovers while re-establishing their pass rush and ended up with two sacks.
While the game wasn’t perfect, the Huskers, led by head coach Matt Rhule, salvaged their first win in the league.
“For the first time since I’ve been here, they’ve been running onto the court excited to play,” Ruhl said after the game. “This is the team I want to coach and I’m proud of them.”
Illinois looked easy on the game’s opening drive, methodically advancing the ball to the one-yard line. However, the Blackshirts kept stopping the ball at the goal line, keeping the game scoreless.
Nebraska showed its aggressiveness early, though it showed a newfound aggression early on. On the second play of the game, sophomore quarterback Heinrich Haarberg passed the ball from his own end zone to senior receiver Marcus Washington for a touchdown. A progress of 39 yards. The Huskers got a couple more first downs before going into trouble, capping off a 31-yard punt by leading kicker Tristan Alvano. The freshman scored his first field goal since Week 1 to give Nebraska a 3-0 lead.
Both teams would trade punts, and then Nebraska would go on a stunning drive with Harberger’s arm as the star. A 10-yard pass to sophomore receiver Alex Bullock opened the game, and the defensive mask gave the Huskers 15 yards of free space. After falling to fourth-and-six, Harberger showed off his sidearm, hitting Bullock again for the conversion. On third-and-10, sophomore receiver Ty Hahn got Harberger out, catching a pass for 21 yards. A touch to senior receiver Billy Kemp IV put the ball on the one-yard line, and senior running back Anthony Grant followed with a two-play play to give Nebraska a two-score advantage.
After struggling to force turnovers all year, the Huskers’ special teams had one fumble, of all places, when the kickoff bounced off the Illinois returner and junior linebacker Grant Tudge jumped on it. Harburg took advantage of the momentum, rushing 25 yards on the next play to give Nebraska its second touchdown in just 10 seconds and a 17-0 lead.
Everything was going the Huskers’ way, with junior linebacker John Bullock sacking sophomore quarterback Luke Altmyer on third down. The Blackshirts’ first sack since Week 3 forced the Fighting Illini to punt again.
Nebraska couldn’t keep the momentum going, going three and out, while Illinois desperately needed to get points on the board. After several first downs, Altmaier passed to young receiver Pat Bryant for a 46-yard touchdown, cutting the deficit to 10 yards.
Harberger was confident in his arm, but almost too confident, as three dangerous passes almost resulted in a pick instead of allowing the Huskers to punt. The Fighting Illini had 41 seconds to score before the first half, but ended up empty-handed as senior kicker Caleb Griffin missed a 55-yard field goal attempt. Nebraska went into the locker room with a 17-7 lead.
The second half began with the Huskers getting the ball and starting to establish their running game, with Grant running the ball for a few solid possessions. However, junior offensive tackle Bryce Benhart’s tackle on third-and-3 gave them five yards back, and sophomore tight end Nate Boerkircher ) passed the ball but had no chance and was forced to punt.
The Blackshirt defense added to the fun, with senior safety Fallon Sanford forcing an Illinois third down after an early takeaway on special teams. The ball fell right into the arms of junior cornerback Tommi Hill, who gave the offense great first-down position at the 21-yard line. Nebraska took advantage of the turnover and Alvano hit a 32-yard field goal to make the score 20-7.
The Husker defense remained aggressive, losing nine yards on the run to sophomore linebacker Mikai Gbayor. A quick three-and-out ended with sophomore defensive lineman Blaise Gunnerson deflecting a Fighting Illini punt to set up the drive at the 22-yard line. However, they were unable to extend their lead as the wind eventually caught up with Alvano, deflecting his 36-yard field goal attempt to the left.
Even as the offense continues to stagnate, Nebraska’s defense still looks strong, reminiscent of Week 1 of the season. Hill’s open-field tackle made it fourth-and-1, and a stout defensive front prevented Illinois from converting. The Blackshirts were on a whole new level compared to their previous game against Michigan.
“We didn’t play our best game in any way, shape or form last week,” junior linebacker Nick Henrich said after the game. “We knew we had to bounce back as a team and I thought we really came together.”
In true Husker fashion, the possession that looked certain to end in points took a full 180 as freshman running back Emmett Johnson fumbled the ball at the 12-yard line and Illinois recovered Got the ball. That ended a nightmare offense for Nebraska, which even though it was a long game, Grant was knocked down, the final two timeouts were burned, and junior center Ben Scott was hit hard. The necessary rough penalty deprived him of a chance to score.
The Blackshirts used multiple punts to force the Fighting Illini to punt again, denying any chance of a big play. Although the defense was a masterclass, Nebraska’s offense shot itself in the foot again when Harberger threw an interception to sophomore defensive back Xavier Scott.
The Blackshirt defense responded as Altmaier handed cornerback Quinton Newsome his first career interception. The senior recovered the ball 39 yards and once again started the offense in the positive zone.
Just when it looked like Nebraska was finally going to call off the game, the unthinkable, but actually conceivable, happened. On second-and-goal from the 15-yard line, Grant put the ball on the ground and Illinois fell on the ball. A nation-leading 14th fumble of the year opened the door for the Fighting Illini.
As the Husker defense grew tired, Illinois moved the ball down the field on its last chance to come back. The Fighting Illini made it all the way to the Nebraska 18, but junior defensive back Isaac Gifford capped off a great day with a fourth-and-1 pick. Broke up his third pass on second down to secure the Huskers’ first Big Ten win. Even when the offense is struggling, the defense is willing to do whatever it takes for the team.
“It might be a little frustrating, but it’s a beautiful period, watching young guys do things and learn how to win and play for each other,” Rule said after the game.
While it’s by no means perfect, Nebraska is more than happy to take this win into its bye week and regroup for the second half of the season.
“I’m glad to see these guys have some success in this job and they have to continue to have that humble mindset of, ‘Let’s get better this week,'” Rhule said after the game.