PISCATAWAY, N.J. — It was hard to tell if the men in tricorn hats operating the Rutgers cannon were supposed to be Revolutionary War soldiers or just three chilly, stoic guys in a lonely, empty corner of the stadium.
But their red cannon didn’t get much work. The pockets of Nebraska fans inside High Point Solutions Stadium made plenty of noise, though. They let out their own booms at the end of the Huskers’ 31-14 win over Rutgers. Nebraska actually got to set up in a victory formation and take a knee. It was, well, not perfect, but something. And in this NU season, that something is smelling more like a rose and less like a skunk.
The defense, a punchline for most of this season, delivered several body shots of its own. The Huskers’ run game, often reticent this year, bulldozed just enough room for big backs Imani Cross and Devine Ozigbo. Special teams were on point. And one of NU’s best athletes, Cethan Carter, had a breakout game. The Huskers converted 5 of their 11 third downs. They were penalized twice.
Save for a stretch late in the first half and early in the second half, it was almost, well, just how you’d want it to look — right at the time Nebraska wanted to look this way. It took 11 games to get there, but NU now has two wins a row. One more and start spreading the news — you’d have a certain bowl bid.
“It feels good, and I know the players feel good,” coach Mike Riley said after hiking several flights of stairs to deliver his postgame address in a Rutgers meeting room.
“Each week is a one-game season,” said defensive end Greg McMullen, who had two of Nebraska’s six sacks. “Last week it was Michigan State, this week it’s Rutgers. We put all our energy into it, all our focus and we got what we wanted.”
A short time later, McMullen added: “We’re not trying to go 3-9. Hell no!”
In front of an announced 45,606 fans — the actual crowd was smaller, and Rutgers’ student section was sparsely filled — Nebraska (5-6 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten) started the game, if you will, with a “hell yes!” NU steamrolled the Scarlet Knights for much of the first half, jumping out to a 21-0 lead. The Huskers’ first touchdown came off a play they hadn’t run all season, despite practicing it often: an end around to tight end Cethan Carter, who ran untouched for a 32-yard score on NU's opening drive.
“We’ve been running it in practice for about five weeks,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “It was just a good play by Cethan, and we really blocked well.”
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong was perfect in the first quarter, completing all eight passes for 108 yards and one touchdown to Jordan Westerkamp, who caught a perfect 15-yard laser from his best friend. Armstrong extended NU's lead to 21-0 early in the second quarter with a 44-yard touchdown pass to Alonzo Moore, who bolted open in the end zone when Armstrong started to scramble to his right. Moore did so, he said, because he figured Armstrong would roll out to escape pressure.
“I know him so well, and he knows me so well,” Moore said.
Just before halftime, though, Armstrong slightly overthrew wideout Lane Hovey and was intercepted by Rutgers defensive back Anthony Cioffi, who returned the ball to the NU 6. The Scarlet Knights scored to cut the lead to 21-7 at halftime. Rutgers intercepted Armstrong for a third time in the third quarter when defensive tackle Kevin Wilkins slipped back to pluck Armstrong’s screen pass to Carter. Rutgers (3-7 and 1-6) converted that turnover into a touchdown, too, threatening to turn yet another Nebraska game into a nail-biter.
But this time, much like the Minnesota game, Nebraska got a big drive from its offense to answer. Aided by a Rutgers holding penalty, the Huskers marched 75 yards on eight plays. Running back Imani Cross had a 38-yard chunk on a draw play, and Carter scored the touchdown, grabbing a 11-yard pass from Armstrong in between two defenders.
“Major, major, major statement right there,” Riley said, as fired up as he gets, which isn’t much. “Big time. You know, that game had the appearance of maybe tightening it down, maybe tying it up and then seeing who was going to win it at the end — with them having the momentum. That drive was a really, really good statement by our team.”
Nebraska’s defense and special teams doubled down on that statement. NU snuffed out a Scarlet Knights fake punt — which led to a Drew Brown field goal — and kept Rutgers out of the end zone in the fourth quarter. The Scarlet Knights gained 110 yards in that final quarter, but took 22 plays to get there, and quarterback Chris Laviano was constantly harassed into mistakes by Nebraska’s front seven, which mixed in blitzes and a four-man pass rush with great efficiency.
Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said Nebraska used a three-man front — which Rutgers had previously struggled to handle — along with some dime package blitzes made possible by the Huskers’ improving health. Injuries have often hamstrung Nebraska this season from fully exploring the defensive playbook.
“We did it, we did it with success,” Banker said. “I can’t say it was without angst, because it was probably until our last walk-through in the hotel that it finally felt good that, ‘Hey, they got it.’”
Rutgers gained just 259 yards for the game and 3.86 per play. Those are the lowest numbers allowed by a Nebraska defense since the 2014 Florida Atlantic game. Against Power Five teams, you’d have to go back to the 2013 Michigan game. NU’s defense held dynamic Rutgers receiver Leonte Carroo to four catches for 62 yards, and sophomore cornerback Chris Jones intercepted a pass intended for Carroo.
“It was a good plan,” Riley said. “We were getting home. And we stayed pretty consistent with playing good defense all night.”
Nebraska now gets a bye week. It took what seemed like ages, but the Huskers will practice twice this week, then get some rest before a big tilt with Iowa on Black Friday.
NU needs to beat the Hawkeyes to guarantee itself a bowl game with six wins, although 5-7 still would give the Huskers a shot because there are 40 bowls and 80 bowl slots. But Nebraska made a goal, after an ugly loss to Purdue, to create a three-game season and go perfect in those games. Two down. One to go.
“We’re going to play with a little bit of attitude,” Armstrong said. “That’s what we’ve been doing.”
|Yards per carry||2.3||4.6|
Nebraska is 4-0 all-time against Rutgers.
|South Alabama||Sept. 12|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 19|
|Southern Miss||Sept. 26|
|Michigan State||Nov. 7|
Nebraska has played 18 games on Nov. 14. See them all »