By Steve Beideck
Last season it took Nebraska 12 games to get to four victories.
The Huskers reached that milestone Saturday in just their seventh game with a 17-9 victory over Northwestern in a Big Ten West showdown between 3-3 teams.
Nebraska last was 4-3 in 2019, reaching that mark with a 13-10 win over Northwestern. The Huskers then lost five of their final six to finish 5-7. That was the start of a downward spiral in which Nebraska won only three games in 2020 and 2021 before posting just four in the tumultuous 2022 campaign.
To this point the 2023 campaign doesn’t have a gloom-and-doom feel like the four seasons under Scott Frost or the final year of the Mike Riley era in 2017.
While many fans are hoping the Huskers get to six victories and a bowl game for the first time since 2016, results around the Big Ten West provide at least a glimmer of hope for more success over the next five weeks.
Saturday’s was an important victory to keep building momentum from the 20-7 victory at Illinois on Oct. 6. Three of NU’s final five games are at home – Purdue, Maryland and Iowa – with Michigan State and Wisconsin the two road games.
Nebraska’s defense carried most of the load with the offense still scuffling, scoring just 54 points in its first four conference games. The Wildcats outgained the Huskers 257-248, but Nebraska ground out 163 yards rushing while surviving two early interceptions and three fumbles, all of which they recovered.
Freshman I-back Emmett Johnson led all rushers with 73 yards on 12 carries, followed by quarterback Heinrich Haarberg with 72 yards on 16 carries. Except for a couple of exceptional throws, Haarberg struggled in the passing games, completing just 8 of 17 passes for 85 yards.
Just over half of those yards – 44 – came on the biggest play of the game. After the Blackshirts stopped another Northwestern drive, Haarberg completed a 44-yard pass to freshman Malachi Coleman in the end zone that, with Tristan Alvano’s extra point, gave the Huskers a 17-6 lead.
The running game didn’t go as well for the Wildcats, who netted just 81 yards and averaged 2.1 yards per rushing play. The first quarter was anything but scintillating. In 14 snaps, the Wildcats netted zero yards.
Northwestern’s 10 rushing plays went for minus-3 yards. The one pass Brendan Sullivan completed went for three yards: thus, the zero. Nebraska wasn’t much better with two interceptions and a fumble and totaled just 48 total yards.
But the Wildcats were able to score three points on a 45-yard field goal by Jack Olsen with 7:18 remaining in the quarter. Those points were made possible because of Haarberg’s second interception of the quarter. His first one came on the first play of the game.
The first pick came from a pass that was high and went off the fingers of the intended receiver. The second was a poor throw that went directly into the waiting arms of Rod Heard II.
Nebraska’s defense bowed up to keep the total damage to just those three points. The Huskers forced Sullivan to fumble on Northwestern’s first snap, but the Wildcats recovered.
An incompletion and a 5-yard sack of Sullivan credited to Nash Hutmacher and Princewill Umanmielen turned forced a three-and-out.
Haarberg’s second pick put the Blackshirts in an even more precarious spot but, they responded with another big stop. With a first-and-10 at Nebraska’s 13, the Wildcats were called for holding on a 2-yard gain, followed by run for no gain and a 9-yard sack of Sullivan by Hutmacher before a 3-yard run by Cam Porter got the ball back to NU’s 27 for Olsen’s field goal.
The Huskers then put together their first drive that didn’t end in a turnover or a three-and-out. A 15-yard pass from Haarberg to Alex Bullock, and a 10-yard run by Johnson were the big plays in the nine-play, 35-yard drive that ended with a 47-yard field goal by Omaha Westside graduate Alvano to tie the game 3-3.
That kick, into a strong north wind, was the longest of Alvano’s young career.
Northwestern regained the lead midway through the second quarter at 6-3 with another field goal by Olsen before the Huskers took their first lead of the game.
Haarberg went to his left and squeezed into the end zone as he was tripped up to cap a 10-play, 77-yard march with just 23 seconds remaining before halftime.
Neither team scored in the third quarter, but Olsen missed his first kick this season when his 54-yard attempt with the north wind at his back fell short of the crossbar.
Northwestern’s rushing numbers in the final 15 minutes doomed any chance they had of making a comeback. The Wildcats had nine yards for minus-26 yards, an average of minus-2.9 yards per carry.
Next up for the Huskers is a 2:30 p.m. game on FS1 Oct. 28 against visiting Purdue, which had its bye week this week.