LINCOLN, Neb. — Three-quarters of the way through the regular season and scrapping for bowl eligibility, Nebraska can’t afford to dwell on a painful loss.
The time to move on from a 20-17 defeat at Michigan State arrived Sunday.
On Monday, Matt Rhule addressed the Huskers’ shaky quarterback play, officiating in the Big Ten and the controversy at Michigan — with an eye on how his reflections might impact Nebraska during the rest of this month.
“I think we’ve learned how to win,” Rhule said. “But winning in November is completely different.”
The Huskers (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) host Maryland at 11 a.m. CT on Saturday. The Terrapins (5-4, 2-4) have lost four consecutive games — against beasts of the Big Ten East, Penn State and Ohio State and two crossover foes from the West, Illinois and Northwestern, which lost to Nebraska.
Maryland, led by quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, ranks third in the conference in yardage per game, second in passing yardage and fourth in scoring offense. If Nebraska can’t reach the six-win threshold this week, pressure will swell as divisional rivals Wisconsin and Iowa await.
“I told our freshmen,” Rhule said, “at the University of Nebraska, moving forward, every game in November had better be a big game. It better matter.”
As for the talk of bowl eligibility, Rhule said he’s not looking to remove weight from the Huskers’ shoulders. But he won’t task his players this week to aim for anything other than playing well enough to win.
Here are the most pertinent topics tackled Monday by Rhule, accompanied by some analysis:
Rhule won’t turn his back on quarterback Heinrich Haarberg. After the first-year starting quarterback committed three turnovers in East Lansing and struggled with accuracy in a 12-for-28 passing performance, Rhule made clear that he’s staying loyal to the 6-foot-5 sophomore.
“Here’s what I love about Heinrich,” Rhule said. “Not everyone would want to be the quarterback in this situation right now. There’s a lot of pressure. There’s a lot riding on your shoulders.”
Little margin for error exists with Nebraska offensively.
“He wants to do it,” Rhule said. “He wants to be out there. As I’ve told him, when I coach Heinrich, I’m not coaching for right now. I’m coaching him for next year and the year after.”
Rhule said he wants to push Haarberg through the battles of this season, “because I think he’s a winner.”
“I think he’s tough, and I think he’s learning on the job,” Rhule said. “He’s battling for his teammates. As I said, I have the ultimate respect for him and the way he goes about his business.”
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Armchair analysis: Rhule’s faith in Jeff Sims and Chubba Purdy, the QBs behind Haarberg, is not strong. Rhule has looked to Sims in three games, not counting his one snap against Louisiana Tech. But if either of the backups had inspired confidence that he could efficiently run the scheme to which Nebraska is committed for the rest of 2023, he would have received a shot when Nebraska needed a spark at Michigan State.
The Huskers could withstand a QB experiment. Haarberg could come back from his struggles, too. Rhule recognizes that Haarberg helped keep this season afloat. So what’s going on? Nebraska is sticking with its best option, no matter how unseemly the results appear.
Rhule didn’t hold back in speaking his mind about the officiating. He stopped short of criticizing the officials who called the game Saturday at Spartan Stadium. But barely.
“I’m not out there doing what they do. If we don’t have officials, we can’t have sports,” Rhule said. “I don’t want to complain about those things.”
But a facemask against Haarberg and a defensive pass interference against Malachi Coleman did not get flagged, Rhule said. He’s more upset about the replay process. Officials reviewed a 25-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter from Sam Leavitt to Montorie Foster. Replay showed that the ball hit the ground and moved in Foster’s hands, yet the call was upheld.
It harkened to a review in Week 1 during the Huskers’ loss at Minnesota, Rhule said, when officials reviewed a rushing attempt near the goal line by Nebraska running back Gabe Ervin. The ball was ruled short of the line on the field. Despite a view that looked to show the tip of the ball cross the line as Ervin’s elbow hit the turf, replay left the ruling unchanged.
Nebraska did not score on the possession and lost 13-10.
“The type of team we are, we can’t have seven points spotted,” he said. “So we’re sitting at 5-4. We own 5-4. We have had one game where the team scouted us. We had two games where replay was wrong. That’s tough to swallow.”
Equally disappointing, Rhule said, officials did not call for a review on the Huskers’ final drive Saturday when Haarberg was ruled to have fumbled on a first-and-10 play at the Nebraska 46 with 15 seconds left. Nebraska recovered, but it lost 18 yards on the play and was left to fire a Hail Mary as the clock expired.
A case can be made that the play in question should have been ruled an incompletion.
“Even in replay, there’s a human error factor,” Rhule said. “Our players did deserve one more play. But that is what it is. We have to play better to not put ourselves in those positions.”
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Armchair analysis: Rhule’s frustration showed in his comments. Nebraska was not penalized Saturday, a notable achievement that last happened in 2005. But officials still damaged the Huskers’ opportunity to win. The coach likely has had conversations with the Big Ten about its replay operation.
The Big Ten needs to clean up its act before an egregious error costs one of its teams with something larger than bowl eligibility on the line.
Rhule jumped into the fray on the Michigan signal-stealing saga. You saw his quote: “We have had one game where the team scouted us.”
What did he mean?
“Every game,” Rhule said, “I want the 60 minutes to be fair, not to be titled one way or the other. I want to do things right, so our players learn the difference between right and wrong, even in competitive equity.”
Rhule noted the comments last week by Purdue coach Ryan Walters, who criticized Michigan for its alleged scouting tactics. Walters stood by his comments after the Boilermakers lost 41-13 on Saturday night in Ann Arbor.
Nebraska players heard Walters and looked to Rhule, he said.
“My No. 1 job is to advocate for these guys and push them to be great,” Rhule said. “I want to say that (signal-stealing) is kind of crappy. (But) it’s good for our guys to learn that no one cares, no one feels sorry for us.”
Michigan beat Nebraska 45-7 in Lincoln on Sept. 30. Rhule said he’s not blaming the loss on anything that the Wolverines may have known about Nebraska.
“I think it’s a shame when people say, ‘Well, it wouldn’t have mattered,’” Rhule said. “It is what it is. Other people have talked about it. It happened. Whether it affected (the outcome) or not, none of that matters to me.
“I just feel bad for our players. They look at me like, ‘Hey Coach, what are you going to do about this?’ So I do feel like I need to say something on their behalf. We carry this record. But I just want everything to be fair.”
Armchair analysis: Credit Rhule for defending his players. Michigan could have named its score against the Huskers. If there was cheating, it matters. Most importantly, Rhule needs the Nebraska players, as they enter a meaningful November stretch with more than bowl eligibility at stake, to know that he supports them on all fronts.
Meanwhile, the temperature continues to rise around the third-ranked Wolverines and their coach, Jim Harbaugh. Rhule’s suggestion that Michigan was not fighting fairly will stoke the flames.
(Top photo: Adam Ruff / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)