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3 takeaways from huge Nebraska football win over Illinois



Nebraska football
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Rhule said we would learn a lot about Nebraska football on Friday night and the Huskers delivered with a huge win.

It has to feel good to be Matt Rhule right about now. The Nebraska football head coach faced a pressure cooker all week after a 45-7 loss to Michigan, but his team responded and evened its record with a 20-7 road win.

It was the first Big Ten win for Matt Rhule as Nebraska football head coach. It also sends the Huskers into the bye week with a bunch of momentum. The difference between 2-4 and 3-3 is hard to overstate.

Nebraska is now 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten West with Northwestern coming to town after a bye week. There are still plenty of question marks. But the heart of the Nebraska football team isn’t one of them after a gutsy win.

Here are three takeaways.

The Blackshirts ruled the day

If there was one disappointing thing about last week, it was the performance of the Blackshirts. We all knew Nebraska football was better on defense than it played against Michigan and the Huskers proved that on Friday night.

The opening drive didn’t look great until the goalline stand. The run defense was spectacular and Illinois managed just 21 yards rushing on 19 attempts. Reggie Love returned to the lineup and got nine yards on seven attempts as Illinois’ lead back.

Three times Nebraska forced Illinois to turn the ball over on downs on the Nebraska side of the field or near midfield. It’s probably what ended up winning the game for the Huskers, who also forced two turnovers and had three sacks in the win.

Rhule has said this is a defensive team and it looked like it on Friday night.

Heinrich Haarberg is the starter going forward

It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means. There were a couple of costly turnovers and in all, the offense gave the ball away three times. There were also missed opportunities in the red zone — all of which allowed Illinois to hang around in a game that should have been over early in the fourth quarter.

But you have to love the way Haarberg battles. He ran the ball 18 times for 85 yards on Friday night. Nebraska managed 17 first downs and 3.4 yards per attempt. The option plays were effective, but Anthony Grant struggled before leaving the game due to injury after 58 yards on 20 attempts.

Haarberg definitely missed some throws, especially on the plus side of the field. So there is a lot of room for improvement, but he fits what this team wants to be. There aren’t many quarterbacks willing to run the ball 20 times per game, yet that’s the best offense the Huskers have right now and Haarbeg has earned the right to be called the starting quarterback.

A huge win for Matt Rhule

It’s year one, but you got the sense that Rhule needed to win this game. The narrative would have been so much different had Nebraska fallen to 2-4. Instead, the Huskers responded to the challenge of their coach. It wasn’t pretty, but they don’t count pretty on the scoreboard.

Illinois was tougher than Nebraska in each of the past two seasons. It was better prepared and won two in a row over Nebraska because of it. That wasn’t the case on Friday night though.

Nebraska football out-gained Illinois 158-21 on the ground and no matter what level of football, that’s a pretty solid recipe for success.

The Huskers essentially did the same thing to Minnesota in terms of rushing yardage — they just didn’t seal the deal. They did on Friday night and you have to be happy for Matt Rhule, as well as the entire state of Nebraska.

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Chris has worked in sports journalism since 2005 writing for multiple newspapers and websites such as the Bleacher Report and Fansided before starting Husker Big Red, A fan site for hardcore followers of the #Huskers offering articles, podcasts, videos and more exclusive content on all things Nebraska