LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Heinrich Haarberg threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in his first start, and Nebraska beat Northern Illinois 35-11 Saturday night for coach Matt Rhule's first win with the Cornhuskers.
The Huskers (1-2) bounced back from losses at Minnesota and Colorado to win their home opener for the 36th time in 38 years. NIU (1-2) lost its second straight since beating Boston College on the road two weeks ago.
“I know for a lot of the fans and people who care deeply about this program, this game probably was about having some hope things are moving in the right direction,” Rhule said. “For me, this was about belief. I believe what we're doing is working and we're doing it the right way. The players showed a lot of belief, and showed a lot of belief in each other."
Haarberg might be Rhule's biggest believer. Haarberg didn't figure in former coach Scott Frost's plans and wasn't even on the travel roster late last season. He never saw the field his first two years, and his patience was tested again in the offseason when Rhule went into the transfer portal to get Jeff Sims from Georgia Tech.
Sims committed six turnovers over the first two games and left last week's loss at Colorado with a left ankle injury. Rhule didn't hesitate to turn to Haarberg when it became apparent Sims wouldn't be able to play.
“That is a testament to coach Rhule, the culture he's built," Haarberg said. “If you put in work here, you will play. They're going to see talent. They're going to train you to the highest of your ability and they're going to put you on the field if you deserve a shot. Yesterday, today leading up to it, I took a little bit to soak in how far I've come."
Haarberg looked comfortable throughout against the Huskies of the Mid-American Conference in the most playing time since 2020, when he was the quarterback at 160-student Kearney Catholic High, about two hours west of Lincoln.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound sophomore completed 14 of 24 passes for 158 yards and showed fearlessness as a runner, initiating contact rather than sliding feet-first and leading the Huskers with 21 carries for 98 yards.
The Huskers' opening possession looked like old-school Nebraska football, with Haarberg showing flair for the triple-option while marching 55 yards in six plays. Haarberg ran four times and connected with Marcus Washington for 26 yards and with Billy Kemp IV for a 10-yard touchdown.
“Being out there for the first time in a night game, all the emotions and everything I've worked up to this, being able to have that first drive end like that, I don't think I could have ended it better,” Haarberg said.
The offense went into a shell until late in the first half, when Haarberg threw 16 yards to Thomas Fidone II for a touchdown.
Haarberg led the Huskers on their best drive of the season in the third quarter, taking them 76 yards in 14 plays and chewing more than 7 minutes off the clock before Gabe Ervin Jr. banged into the end zone from the 3 to make it 21-3.
Haarberg dashed 20 yards for a touchdown on the next series against a tiring NIU defense.
NIU managed just 149 yards, half the total coming on its last possession and the fewest since the Huskers held Kansas to 87 in 2010.
“I thought our defense hung in there and played their butt off the whole game," NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. “We didn't do enough offensively to stay on the field long enough.”
Northern Illinois: The Huskies can stay in games because of their plucky defense, but it needs help. Since they upset Boston College on the road, they have two touchdowns and two field goals in 25 offensive series.
Nebraska: Tony White's 3-3-5 defense has been a revelation, and it's tasked with carrying the team while Marcus Satterfield's offense struggles to find consistency. The Huskers have one more week to polish things up before second-ranked Michigan comes calling.
ROCKY NIGHT FOR ROCKY
NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi struggled again in his second appearance at Memorial Stadium. He was the Michigan State starter when the Huskers beat the Spartans 9-6 in the snow and cold in 2018.
Lombardi was 11 of 28 for 73 yards, with an interception, and he was sacked three times.
Northern Illinois: hosts Tulsa next Saturday.
Nebraska: hosts Louisiana Tech next Saturday.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll