Nebraska Football: Season Review

It’s been seven years.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers, a program that dominated the 90s and even had glimpses of success in the early 2000s and 2010s, has yet to reach six wins for the seventh consecutive season. Those seven years include the final year of Mike Riley’s tenure, five seasons of Scott Frost and now year one of the Matt Rhule era. The 2023 season was a rollercoaster, with five of their seven losses by one score. With many questions going into another long offseason, it’s worth a look back at the season and what went wrong.

Nebraska Football: Season Review

Hiring Matt Rhule

Looking back at this season, we need to go back to when Rhule was hired a year ago. The news broke the day after the Huskers entered Iowa City and beat the Iowa Hawkeyes 24-17. It swept all the sports headlines, and he even spoke in an interview on ESPN’s College Gameday that morning. The main question was, could Rhule bring Nebraska back to the promised land?

The central aspect of his new job was that the old Cornhuskers were far from what they once were. When Rhule was introduced, he addressed this head-on. He felt he was the right fit and believed he could get the program there. Despite the hiring, it started a very long off-season. He brought in his staff, including South Carolina Gamecocks offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield and Syracuse Orange defensive coordinator Tony White.

Last Off-Season

Rhule and his staff got started right away on the recruiting trail and in the portal, handing out offers and receiving commitments for the 2023 classes. For the 2023 class, Nebraska received a few key commitments from local Nebraska talent and some old Husker recruiting hot spots like Texas and Florida. In December of 2022, Rhule got a massive commitment from four-star wide receiver Malachi Coleman out of Lincoln East High School. Some other significant commitments include four-star edge Cameron Lenhardt and four-star edge Princewill Umanmielen. With his first recruiting class at Nebraska, he finished with No. 31 ranked class according to 247 Sports.

Rhule also made some waves in the transfer portal. He and his staff brought in 12 new transfers, including Georgia Tech junior quarterback transfer Jeff Sims, Georgia sophomore edge MJ Sherman, and Virginia senior wide receiver Billy Kemp IV. In addition to the players the staff brought in, they initially had a decent inherited roster.

After spring practice ended, the amount of players transferring out of the program increased. The position hardest hit was the quarterback position. Senior quarterback Casey Thompson (FAU), junior Logan Smothers (Jacksonville State), and freshman Richard Torres entered the transfer portal. Other players that transferred include sophomore linebacker Ernest Hausmann (Michigan), senior wide receiver Alante Brown (Michigan State), and freshman running back Ajay Allen (Miami (FL)).

With all of the transfers out of the program, there was still a significant amount of hype going into the upcoming season. There was a new starting quarterback who had a major amount of potential and plenty of weapons around him. The Huskers also had many players returning on defense that could be a top-50 defense. There was hope that Rhule had a chance to get Nebraska to a bowl game in his first season.

Weeks 1-5

Rhule and the Cornhuskers opened up the 2023 season on the road at the Minnesota Golden Gophers. To say that Nebraska and the Gophers had a slow start would be an understatement. Sims threw two interceptions in the first half as Minnesota had a 3-0 lead going into halftime. The Huskers came out of the break and got on the board with a 34-yard pass from Sims to sophomore wide receiver Alex Bullock to take a 7-3 lead. Nebraska then extended their lead with a 27-yard field goal by freshman Tristan Alvano to go up 10-3. Things then went south. The Gophers would storm back and win on a walk-off field goal 13-10, sending Nebraska home with another one-score loss.

Things wouldn’t get any easier as Rhule went on the road again, this time against then No. 22 Colorado Buffaloes coached by Deion Sanders. Turnovers plagued the Huskers’ offense as they committed four turnovers, allowing the explosive Buffaloes offense to take advantage of it. Colorado would win 36-14, sending the Huskers home 0-2. Sims had four interceptions through two weeks and had a few fumbles lost as well, and to make matters worse, he went down with a high ankle sprain.

It’s week three, and finally, Nebraska has a home game. Rhule’s first game at Memorial Stadium would come against the Northern Illinois Huskies. There would be a new quarterback as well. Sophomore Heinrich Haarberg got the nod to be the starting quarterback to replace the injured Sims. Haarberg wasn’t sensational, but he played well against the Huskies, and Nebraska got their first win 35-11. The Huskers got another win the following week against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 28-14, with the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines next to start conference play.

Well, let’s say that Nebraska had no shot at the upset out the gate. The first play of offense, Haarberg’s pass was tipped and intercepted. The Wolverines didn’t look back as they scored 45 unanswered points before senior running back Josh Fleeks took a rush 74 yards for a score to allow Nebraska not to be shut out for the first time since 1996.

A Historic October

After getting obliterated by the Wolverines, the Huskers had a short week before going on the road to face the Illinois Fighting Illini on Friday, Oct. 6. This game would set the tone for October for Nebraska as they would defeat the Illini 20-7 to improve to 3-3 on the season.

Coming out of the bye week, the Huskers hosted the Northwestern Wildcats. Nebraska needed their defense to play a significant role, and they did. Despite having two turnovers, the Huskers defeated the Wildcats 17-9, improving to 4-3 on the season. The Blackshirts played a significant role with eight sacks, shutting down the Northwestern offense.

The defense showed up once again, this time against the Purdue Boilermakers. The Boilermakers were held to less than 200 yards of total offense as Nebraska won 31-14. With the win, the Huskers entered November with a three-game streak, the longest since 2016. On top of it, Nebraska was only one win away from becoming bowl-eligible, with four winnable games left in November. The Huskers finished Oct. 3-0, which was the first time that happened since 2001. The Husker faithful were on cloud nine, but little did they know that all their hopes would be crushed in the next four weeks.

A Heartbreaking November

It felt like Nebraska had meaningful games in November for the first time in a while. The Huskers had their first chance at becoming bowl-eligible against the Michigan State Spartans, who were on a six-game losing streak. It was an ugly game for both sides, but the Huskers fell short to the Spartans 17-20. A significant reason why Nebraska fell behind early was due to turnovers. Something that had hurt the offense throughout the season was playing a big role in many of their losses. Against Michigan State, Haarberg turned the ball over three times (2 interceptions and 1 fumble). He was also sacked seven times.

They got another chance to get to six wins, this time against the Maryland Terrapins at home. The Terrapins were coming in on a four-game losing streak. Both teams had a rough game, with eight total turnovers committed by both teams. In total, Nebraska had five turnovers and played three different quarterbacks. After getting injured in the second quarter, Haarberg was replaced by Sims. Sims would have a few drives before committing three turnovers and got replaced. This time, it would be sophomore quarterback Chubba Purdy. Purdy led the Huskers down the field and got into scoring range. Things would take a sharp turn as he would throw an interception in the end zone, and the Terrapins took it to the 19-yard line. Maryland drove down the field and kicked a walk-off field goal, winning 13-10.

Nebraska now goes on the road to Camp Randall Stadium, where they last won in 1966. Purdy started the game for the Huskers and had a great start. Nebraska took a 14-0 lead after two 50+ yard touchdown plays. However, the Wisconsin Badgers came back and took the lead in the second half, 17-14. The Huskers then were able to tie things up to send it to overtime at 17. Unfortunately, Nebraska fell short in overtime, losing 24-17 to the Badgers. Now being 5-6, the Huskers’ last chance to become bowl eligible was to defeat the Big Ten West division champs, the No. 17 Iowa Hawkeyes.

Against the Hawkeyes, Nebraska had a chance to pull off the upset. It was a low-scoring game, and the game was tied at 10. The Huskers’ defense intercepted sophomore quarterback Deacon Hill and took over with 31 seconds left with a timeout. Things could have gone better for the Nebraska offense. With 23 seconds left, Rhule had to call their last timeout not to get a delay penalty. In the next play, Purdy threw an interception. The Hawkeyes would run the ball for 22 yards and kicked a 38-yard field goal for the win. The Huskers were officially not bowl-eligible for the seventh season in a row.

Final Stats

Turnovers were Nebraska’s Achilles heel in 2023, having a -17 turnover ratio. A significant part of that needed consistent quarterback play, with all three scholarship quarterbacks starting multiple games. Haarberg led the team in passing yards on 77/157 passes for 967 yards with 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Purdy was second in passing yards on 31/57 passes for 382 yards with 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Despite starting the first two games and playing in two others, Sims only accumulated a few stats. He finished on 28/47 passes for 282 yards with 1 touchdown and 6 interceptions.

Haarberg led the team in rushing yards as well. He finished with 120 carries for 447 yards and 5 touchdowns. Senior running back Anthony Grant finished with 104 carries for 413 yards and 3 touchdowns. Receiving was a mix of many receivers, but Kemp IV finished the most yards. He finished with 35 catches for 310 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore tight end Thomas Fidone II was second in receiving for the Huskers, with 25 catches for 260 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Defensively, Nebraska finished with the No. 14 total defense in the country. They averaged 303.5 yards allowed a game on defense. They also finished No. 17 in the country in scoring defense, with 18.25 points per game. Defensive Coordinator Tony White had a great first year, taking advantage of the talent on that side of the ball.

Junior defensive back Isaac Gifford led the Huskers with tackles on defense with 86 total tackles, with 44 solo tackles and 42 assisted. Senior defensive back Omar Brown finished second on tackles with 51 total on the season, with 35 solo tackles and 16 assisted. Sophomore Jimari Butler led Nebraska in sacks with 5.5 on the season. Senior Luke Reimer was right behind him with 5 sacks on the season. Junior defensive back Tommi Hill led the team in interceptions with four and nine pass deflections.

Final Thoughts

Despite the season’s disappointing end, it’s only year one under Rhule and the upward trajectory is looking up. Statistically, his first year in Lincoln is his best first year at any of his stops in college football. At Temple, Rhule finished year one 2-10; at Baylor, he finished 1-11. However, expectations at Nebraska are much higher than at Temple and Baylor. 

There are a few things to watch over the off-season, starting with what is done to improve the mistakes made during the season. How does clock management get worked on, and is that something where a coach or analyst is brought in for that? Another thing to watch is how Rhule and his staff close out the 2024 high school recruiting class. They’ve gotten a good start and still have plenty of time to work on that. Also, don’t forget about the transfer portal. Don’t be surprised that some players transfer out, but there is no doubt that it will be something that he and his staff attack this off-season. 

Main Image: © Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

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