Sep 30, 2023; Lincoln, Nebraska, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Heinrich Haarberg (10) runs against the Michigan Wolverines during the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Nebraska, Illinois seek change from similar slow starts

Nebraska and host Illinois, each coming off blowout losses in Big Ten Conference play, face off on a short week on Friday night in Champaign, Ill.

Illinois (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) fell 44-19 at Purdue, while Nebraska (2-3, 0-2) was crushed 45-7 at home by No. 2 Michigan. Each is trying to avoid a 0-3 start in the conference for the first time since 2020 (for Illinois) and 2018 (for Nebraska), respectively.

“Nebraska is very similar to our situation,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “But I think this week is a lot about us.”

The Fighting Illini allowed a season-low 406 yards to Purdue but gave up 31 points on five red-zone possessions. For the season Illinois has yielded 23 scores on 26 trips inside its 20-yard line, compared to 23 on 31 all of 2022.

Nebraska came up scoreless in its two red-zone possessions against Michigan and has been inside the opposing 20 on only 12 occasions this season.

The Cornhuskers will continue to go with sophomore Heinrich Haarberg at quarterback, even with Jeff Sims getting closer to 100 percent following a high ankle sprain. Haarberg is Nebraska’s leading rusher (270 yards), but had minus-2 against Michigan, so there could be a splitting of snaps.

“I feel very confident with Heinrich being the starting quarterback,” Nebraska coach Matt Rhule said. “That being said, I also have a lot of confidence in Jeff. I’m getting them both ready. I have full confidence in Heinrich. I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”

Illinois may again be without leading rusher Reggie Love III (44 carries, 248 yards), who sat out the last game with an ankle injury.

The Illini have won the last three meetings, including a 26-9 victory at Nebraska last October, but the Cornhuskers hold a 13-6-1 lead in the series. Nebraska’s last win in Champaign came in 2019.

–Field Level Media

Sep 9, 2023; Boulder, Colorado, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Jeff Sims (7) fumbles a snap against the Colorado Buffaloes in the first quarter at Folsom Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Nebraska QB Jeff Sims (ankle) remains uncertain for NIU game

Nebraska coach Matt Rhule did not commit to quarterback Jeff Sims starting for the 0-2 Cornhuskers against Northern Illinois on Saturday due to a lingering left ankle injury.

“I’m not sure what Jeff’s status will be for the game,” Rhule told reporters Thursday. “He’s progressing. … I know he feels like he’s getting better, he’s moving around so we’ll how it goes.”

Earlier in the week, Rhule declared Sims was the program’s starting quarterback despite Sims throwing four interceptions and losing two fumbles in two losses to open the 2023 season.

Sims, a Georgia Tech transfer, has completed 20 of 34 passes for 220 yards and one touchdown in the two games. He has been solid on the ground, rushing for 158 yards, including a 57-yard score against Colorado.

Nebraska’s backup options if Sims can’t take the field are Heinrich Haarberg and Chubba Purdy. Rhule said that Purdy, the younger brother of NFL quarterback Brock Purdy, has been bothered by a groin injury and isn’t 100 percent.

–Field Level Media

Nov 25, 2022; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Casey Thompson throws a pass against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Casey Thompson, Nebraska defeat Iowa to damage Hawkeyes’ title chances

Casey Thompson completed three touchdown passes and Trey Palmer had nine catches for 165 yards as Nebraska held off Iowa 24-17 Saturday at Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa backup quarterback Alex Padilla tried to rally the Hawkeyes back from a 24-0 deficit in the second half after Spencer Petras suffered an arm injury before halftime.

In Iowa’s second-to-last possession, Padilla completed a 15-yard pass to Luke Lachey for a first down to the Iowa 33, but he threw four consecutive incompletions thereafter for a turnover on downs with 2:06 left.

After Iowa forced Nebraska to punt with 1:05 remaining, Padilla was intercepted by Chris Kolarevic on a fourth-and-8 play at Iowa’s 22.

Padilla was 16 of 33 for 141 yards with a touchdown and interception.

Thompson passed for 278 yards while completing 20 of 30 passes for Nebraska, which snapped a seven-game losing streak against Iowa.

The Hawkeyes (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten) were in position to win the Big Ten West Division with a victory after putting together a four-game winning streak entering the game.

They can still win the division if Purdue loses at Indiana and Illinois loses at Northwestern on Saturday.

Nebraska (4-8, 3-6) took control at the start not having to punt through its first four possessions.

A missed field goal by Timmy Bleekrode of 32 yards in Nebraska’s first drive was followed by an 87-yard touchdown pass from Thompson to Palmer to put the Cornhuskers ahead 7-0 with 8:45 left in the first quarter.

Bleekrode converted on a 21-yard field goal and Thompson connected on an 18-yard touchdown to Palmer in the next two possessions.

The Cornhuskers increased the lead to 24-0 with 12:15 left in the third quarter on Thompson’s 14-yard pass to Marcus Washington.

Iowa’s Kaleb Johnson then capped a seven-play, 75-yard drive with a 44-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 24-7. Johnson had 109 yards on 16 rushes.

Nebraska’s offense was forced to punt on its next two possessions.

Iowa scored on 14-yard touchdown pass from Padilla to Lachey with 6:49 remaining to cut the lead to 24-14.

A fumble by Nebraska’s Rahmir Johnson was then recovered by Iowa’s Logan Klemp at the Nebraska 27.

Drew Stevens made a 45-yard field goal with 5:41 left to cut the lead to 24-17.

–Field Level Media

Nov 12, 2022; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) runs the ball as Iowa Hawkeyes defensive lineman Lukas Van Ness (91) looks to make the tackle during the fourth quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin out to push streak to nine over Nebraska

A pair of interim coaches will battle for one of college football’s newest rivalry trophies when Wisconsin visits Nebraska in a Big Ten Conference game on Saturday in Lincoln.

Established in 2014, the Freedom Trophy is up for grabs, and Nebraska (3-7, 2-5) will attempt to win it for the first time while snapping an eight-game losing streak to Wisconsin (5-5, 3-4).

The Cornhuskers clinched a sixth consecutive losing season, the longest stretch since finishing below .500 from 1956-61, with 34-3 loss at No. 3 Michigan last week. The ‘Huskers gained 146 yards, their fewest since netting 132 in a 2018 loss at Michigan.

Nebraska has dropped four games in a row after starting 2-1 under interim coach Mickey Joseph, scoring only 25 points in the past three games.

“I think overall the kids are playing hard under the circumstances they’re playing under,” Joseph said. “They’re not quitting.”

Wisconsin lost 24-10 at Iowa in its most recent game, dropping to 3-2 under interim coach Jim Leonhard. The loss kept the Badgers from joining what is currently a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten’s West Division at 4-3.

“We’ve got to find a way to punch our way out of it,” Leonhard said after Wisconsin managed just 227 yards and turned the ball over three times. “You have to get comfortable in uncomfortable situations. We’ve got to learn from adversity with a loss.”

Sophomore running back Braelon Allen, who has six 100-yard rushing games this season, gave Wisconsin a 1,000-yard rusher for the sixth year in a row (not counting the COVID-shortened 2020 season). He’ll face a Nebraska defense that allows an average of 191 yards per game on the ground.

Nebraska enters another game with uncertainty surrounding the starting quarterback spot.

Chubba Purdy started his second straight game against Michigan but was pulled for Logan Smothers, while Casey Thompson — who started the first eight games — entered this week listed first on the depth chart.

–Field Level Media

Oct 29, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim (24) evades Rutgers Scarlet Knights defensive lineman Aaron Lewis (71) in the first quarter at Huntington Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota set to unleash rushing attack on Nebraska

The Big Ten Conference’s second-best rushing attack could be in for a big day on Saturday against the league’s worst run defense when Minnesota visits Nebraska in a West Division battle in Lincoln, Neb.

Minnesota (5-3, 2-3) is averaging 222.8 yards per game on the ground, going for 253 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-0 home win over Rutgers last week. The bulk of that production came from senior Mohamed Ibrahim, who carried 36 times for 159 yards and three scores.

Nebraska (3-5, 2-3) allows an average of 190.1 rushing yards per game, with four opponents gaining over 200 yards on the ground this season. The Cornhuskers allowed 188 rushing yards in a 26-9 home loss Saturday to then-No. 17 Illinois.

An arm injury to Nebraska starting quarterback Casey Thompson during the Illinois game has made planning for this week’s contest difficult, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said.

“We don’t know which one they’re going to actually play,” Fleck said of Thompson and backups Chubba Purdy and Logan Smothers, each of whom attempted at least one pass vs. Illinois.

Whoever plays at quarterback for Nebraska likely will target junior Trey Palmer often. The LSU transfer has 48 catches for 782 yards and five TDs but was limited to one reception for a single yard against Illinois.

“There were just some plays we couldn’t get it to him,” said Nebraska interim coach Mickey Joseph, who is 2-3 since taking over for Scott Frost in September.

Besides Ibrahim, Minnesota’s offense is guided by senior quarterback Tanner Morgan. He threw for 200-plus yards in three of the first five games before a head injury against Illinois caused him to miss a 45-17 loss at then-No. 16 Penn State. In his return last week, he was 14 of 21 for 122 yards vs. Rutgers.

Minnesota has won the past three meetings against Nebraska — the past two by one score. A victory Saturday would make the Golden Gophers bowl eligible for the fourth time in five seasons.

–Field Level Media

Oct 29, 2022; Lincoln, Nebraska, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini running back Chase Brown (2) runs the ball against Nebraska Cornhuskers defensive back Jaeden Gould (8) during the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Chase Brown, defense carry No. 17 Illinois past Nebraska, 26-9

Illinois star running back Chase Brown raced for 162 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns as the No. 17 Fighting Illini defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers 26-9 in their Big Ten matchup in Lincoln, Neb., on Saturday.

Illini quarterback Tommy DeVito completed 20 of 22 passes for 179 yards and two scores as Illinois extended its lead in the conference’s West Division at 4-1 (7-1 overall). Purdue, which is second at 3-2, was idle. Nebraska fell to 2-3 and 3-5.

The Illini defense, which entered the weekend leading the nation in scoring defense and total defense, picked off Nebraska quarterbacks three times. Sydney Brown snared two, including one that set up Illinois to take the lead for good.

Cornhuskers quarterback Casey Thompson, who was coming off a 354-yard passing performance in a loss at Purdue on Oct. 15, threw for 172 yards in the first quarter and a half before leaving with an injury to his throwing hand.

With Nebraska leading 9-6, Thompson was hit as he tried to throw downfield. Sydney Brown grabbed the fluttering pass and returned it 37 yards to the Cornhuskers’ 11. Chase Brown carried twice from there, scoring from 1 yard out with 6:03 left before halftime to lift the Illini to a 13-9 lead.

After Nebraska went three-and-out, Illinois put together an 11-play, 72-yard drive, capped by DeVito’s 12-yard pass play to Chase Brown, who coasted into the end zone.

Chase Brown finished with 32 carries for 149 yards and three catches for 13 yards.

Sophomore Logan Smothers finished the first half at quarterback for Nebraska, and redshirt freshman Chubba Purdy took over to start the second half. Purdy went 3 of 8 passing for 15 yards and one interception.

Illinois scored on the game’s first possession, moving 75 yards on five plays, capped by DeVito’s 46-yard touchdown connection to Isaiah Williams. Williams finished with nine catches for 93 yards. The extra point kick failed.

Nebraska got on the board late in the first quarter on Timmy Bleekrode’s 26-yard field goal, which followed a nine-play drive.

The Cornhuskers then took the lead on their next possession, using five plays to go 93 yards, the last 56 as Thompson threaded a pass to Travis Vokolek down the left sideline for a catch-and-run. The extra point attempt was blocked, and Nebraska led 9-6 with 9:38 to go before halftime.

Caleb Griffin added field goals of 36 and 41 yards in the second half for Illinois.

–Field Level Media

Oct 15, 2022; Champaign, Illinois, USA;  Illinois Fighting Illini running back Chase Brown (2) scores a touchdown during the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Red-hot No. 17 Illinois visits Nebraska in key Big Ten matchup

No. 17 Illinois will try to keep its unexpected spot atop the West Division standings when it visits Nebraska on Saturday for a Big Ten Conference game in Lincoln.

The Fighting Illini (6-1, 3-1) have won five straight, their longest streak since posting seven consecutive victories in 2010-11, which also was the last time they were ranked this high. They come off a bye holding a half-game lead in the West over Purdue, while Nebraska (3-4, 2-2) is one game behind the leader.

Illinois’ last game was a 26-14 home win Oct. 15 over Minnesota, in which it held its opponent to 180 yards. The Illini lead the country in scoring defense (8.9) and total defense (221.1) and rank second in rushing defense (77.9) and passing defense (143.3). Their 12 interceptions are tied for second-most in the country.

“They’ve got a really good scheme, they’re well coached and they stick to their guns,” Nebraska interim coach Mickey Joseph said. “They don’t do much, but what they do they do very well.”

Nebraska is 2-2 since Joseph was elevated to replace Scott Frost after three games, and during his tenure the Cornhuskers won their first road game in almost two years and picked up consecutive league wins for the first time since 2018.

“He’s definitely had a huge impact on kind of just what’s happened since that transition,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said of Joseph. “I noticed the difference on offense, defense and really, even on special teams, the way they’re playing the game.”

The ‘Huskers also are coming off a bye, having lost 43-37 at Purdue before the off week. Receiver Trey Palmer, a transfer from LSU, had seven catches for a school-record 237 yards with two touchdowns.

For the season, Palmer has 781 receiving yards, only 223 behind the single-season school record with at least five games to go. But he’ll likely be matched up against Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon, who on Monday was named one of 12 semifinalists for the Thorpe Award given to college football’s top defensive back.

“Pretty big accomplishment for a guy that I think preseason probably didn’t have a lot of preseason hype,” Bielema said of Witherspoon, a junior who is second in FBS with 11 passes defended.

Quarterback play will be a big factor in this matchup. While Illinois is tops in the conference in defending the pass, Nebraska is last, meaning Illini senior Tommy DeVito could be in for another big game.

The Syracuse transfer was 25 of 32 for 252 yards and a TD against Minnesota and for the season is completing 70.4 percent of his passes. Nebraska junior Casey Thompson is at 64.1 percent, and his eight interceptions are tied for second-most in the conference, but he threw for 354 yards at Purdue and has topped the 300-yard mark three times in 2022.

The game also will feature the nation’s leading rusher in Illinois junior Chase Brown, who has run for 1,059 yards.

Illinois has won the last two meetings against Nebraska, including a 30-22 home victory to open the 2021 season. The Cornhuskers are 6-3 in the series since joining the Big Ten.

–Field Level Media