Huskers beat Northern Illinois 35-11 in home opener for first win under Matt Rhule

Nebraska’s defense stood tall again as the offense began to find its rhythm
Published: Sep. 16, 2023 at 1:43 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 16, 2023 at 10:37 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (WOWT) - Behind a stifling defense and three total touchdowns from Kearney native QB Heinrich Haarberg, Nebraska dominated in its first win of the season Saturday; a 35-11 victory over Northern Illinois.

The win also marks the first for the Huskers under new head coach Matt Rhule.

Haarberg, a sophomore, made the first start of his career Saturday in place of QB Jeff Sims, who injured his ankle in Nebraska’s 36-7 loss to Colorado a week ago.

The Kearney Catholic alum completed 14 of 24 passes for 158 yards and two scores, to go along with 98 rushing yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.

While the offense certainly looked better than it had in the first two games of the season, Nebraska’s defense was once again the deciding factor.

The Blackshirts held Northern Illinois to 123 total yards on the night, 75 of which came on the final drive of the game with the Huskers leading 35-3.


After forcing Northern Illinois to punt, Nebraska’s offense got rolling right away behind the accurate arm of Haarberg, who kickstarted the drive with a 26-yard completion to Marcus Washington.

Haarberg used his legs on the next few plays to pick up solid yardage in the option game and get the Huskers inside the red zone.

Haarberg capped off the impressive drive with a dump pass to Billy Kemp, who scampered 10 yards into the endzone for the touchdown.

Nebraska took a 7-0 lead with 9:39 left in the opening frame. The scoring drive marked the only first-half touchdown Nebraska has scored this season.

Another Northern Illinois punt pinned the Husker offense inside their own 20-yard-line.

Two plays later, Haarberg was strip-sacked by NIU’s George Gumbs and the Huskies recovered at the Nebraska 12.

Nebraska’s defense stood tall again, though, holding the Huskies to just a field goal, making it 7-3 with 3:08 to go in the first quarter.

The opening quarter ended with Nebraska’s Jimari Butler sacking Northern Illinois QB Rocky Lombardi, forcing the Huskies to punt once again.


Both teams traded punts to start the second frame, but the Huskers won the field position battle while holding onto the lead.

Nebraska P Brian Buschini hit a perfect punt to pin Northern Illinois inside its own 1-yard-line midway through the second quarter.

After another Nebraska stop, an errant by NIU’s Tom Foley set up Nebraska at the Husky 36-yard-line to begin the next drive.

On 1st-and-10 from the NIU 16, Haarberg hit TE Thomas Fidone II for a touchdown.

Fidone, who scored Nebraska’s only touchdown of the game against Colorado, put the Huskers up 14-3 over Northern Illinois with 3:15 left in the first half.

The teams again traded punts to close out the second quarter, so Nebraska took its 14-3 lead into the halftime break.

The Huskers held NIU to just 58 total yards of offense in the opening half.

Memorial Stadium has reason to be excited about Haarberg, who completed 8-of-12 passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns for Nebraska in his first two quarters as a starter.

Haarberg also led the team in rushing in the first half, with 39 yards on 11 carries.


The second half began with four punts, two from each team. The first sustained drive started when the Huskers got the ball at their own 24-yard-line with 8:10 on the clock.

Nebraska marched 76 yards on 14 plays, capping off the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run from Gabe Ervin, Jr. to make it 21-3 Huskers with 1:00 left in the third.


After forcing another NIU punt, the Husker offense put together a methodical 9-play, 65-yard drive.

The series ended with a 20-yard touchdown run by Haarberg on a read-option keeper, giving Nebraska a 28-3 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

On the ensuing Northern Illinois possession, Lombardi threw an errant pass down the left sideline, which was intercepted by Nebraska’s Javin Wright, setting up the Huskers at the NIU 35.

It took just five plays for Nebraska to find the endzone again, this time with RB Anthony Grant taking the ball into the endzone from 11 yards out, putting the Huskers ahead 35-3 late in the game.

On the last drive of the game, Northern Illinois called all its timeouts to score its first touchdown of the night with 4 seconds remaining in the game. After the touchdown, the Huskies converted a two-point conversion, making the final score 35-11 Nebraska.


After a rough start to the season on the road, Memorial Stadium is a welcome sight for the Huskers.

Nebraska (0-2) will host Northern Illinois (1-1) in its 2023 home opener Saturday, looking to nab its first win coming off a pair of losses at Minnesota and Colorado to start the season.

Saturday’s contest marks the first home game for Matt Rhule as Nebraska’s head coach.

“Obviously, as a team, the guys are disappointed [in the 0-2 start], but I think that they understand that we have a chance to be a good team and it starts this week for us coming back home,” Rhule said in a press conference Monday. “We’re excited to play at home, excited to play in front of the home fans and I’m excited to watch them do that.”

The Huskers dropped a 13-10 heartbreaker to Minnesota in the season opener, followed by a 36-14 loss to Colorado in Boulder last week.

For Northern Illinois, Saturday’s game is a chance to get another win under its belt before entering Mid-American Conference play in two weeks.

After a 27-24 upset victory over Boston College in Week 1, the Huskies lost a 14-11 battle against rival Southern Illinois last week.


6 News Sports Director Clayton Collier says three factors will be key against the Huskies:

1. Limiting turnovers. We’ll start with the obvious one. Whoever starts at quarterback tonight, the Huskers need to emphasize ball security. It does not matter who the opponent is, Nebraska cannot turn the ball over four times per game and expect to win. Working in the Huskers’ favor: NIU has only forced one turnover in their first two games.

2. Keep up with Northern Illinois’ defensive line. Matt Rhule praised the Huskies defensive front this week, saying their movements will be a challenge for Nebraska’s O-Line. Look for NIU to crowd the box and force the Huskers to pass unless their line can create space for Gabe Ervin Jr.

3. Finish drives. Nebraska’s offense hasn’t had trouble getting to the red zone. Finishing drives has been another story. In their final four drives of the second quarter at Colorado, the Huskers had a missed field goal, an interception, and lost a fumble and a punt, leading to a 13-0 Buffaloes lead at the half. Capitalizing on those chances against an experienced NIU squad will be essential if the Huskers want to come away with the first win of the Matt Rhule era.