LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s success in Matt Rhule’s first season is going to depend on his defense. That much was clear in a 17-9 win over Northwestern on Saturday.
The Cornhuskers matched their season high with eight sacks, had their most tackles for loss in four years and held a second straight opponent under 10 points for the first time since 2010.
The offense, meanwhile, continued to sputter against Big Ten opponents and is averaging just 13.5 points in four conference games.
“I want our defense to understand we’re a defensive football team,” Rhule said. “That doesn’t mean the offense takes a backseat to it. It means I expect our defense is going to go win games when it has a chance to go win games.”
The Huskers (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) have won four of their last five games and matched their 2022 win total.
When Northwestern pulled within eight points in the fourth quarter, the Huskers’ defense turned up its game another notch. Four of its sacks of Brendan Sullivan came on the Wildcats’ last two possessions.
“We go out there with the mindset on defense that we’re going to win every football game no matter what’s going on with the offense, good or bad,” said defensive lineman Nash Hutmacher, who had 2 1/2 sacks. “We’re going to go out there and play the same brand no matter if we’re up 30 or down 30. We knew going in we would take advantge of them pass-rushing, and we really did today.”
Heinrich Haarberg scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 3-yard run just before halftime and put the Huskers up 17-6 with a 44-yard pass to Malachi Coleman early in the fourth quarter.
Jack Olsen kicked three field goals for the Wildcats (3-4, 1-3), who were held without a touchdown for the third time in 10 games.
The Huskers’ 13 tackles for loss were their most since they had the same number against Illinois in 2019. They limited Northwestern to 81 rushing yards on 39 carries, including minus-5 on 18 runs in the second half. The Huskers have held six of their seven opponents under 100 rushing yards.
Haarberg, who was intercepted on two of his first four passes, was 8 of 17 for 85 yards. He ran 16 times for 72 yards.
Northwestern has lost 14 straight true road games.
“In the locker room, in there right now, it’s crushed,” Wildcats interim coach David Braun said. “This team, this program came into Lincoln today expecting to win a football game. They walked in here and we challenged them to play for four quarters. There’s no doubt in my mind that our young men did just that. They played their tails off for four quarters.”
Northwestern: The Wildcats’ offensive line is one of the worst in the country. The eight sacks allowed matched the most by Northwestern since 2000, and the Wildcats have surrendered 30 through seven games.
Nebraska: The Huskers managed to win with an inconsistent offense that generated only 248 yards. But there are more wins out there this season if the defense keeps playing like it has the last two games.
ONE PLAY, TWO INJURIES
Nebraska lost two starters on the same play early in the second quarter. Season receiving leader Billy Kemp injured his left leg and offensive lineman Ethan Piper injured his right leg. Both left the field with assistance. Defensive back Tommi Hill didn’t play the second half after injuring his ankle.
STADIUM MILESTONE CELEBRATION
The Huskers celebrated the 100th anniversary of Memorial Stadium. Three Nebraska National Guard soldiers honored the state’s fallen soldiers with a three-volley salute before the national anthem, Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne gave a video message and stories about the stadium history were shown during breaks in the action.
Nebraska played its first game in the stadium on Oct. 13, 1923. Saturday marked the 592nd game at the stadium and 393rd consecutive sellout since 1962.
Northwestern: hosts Maryland next Saturday.
Nebraska: hosts Purdue next Saturday.