Husker fans waited months for Saturday’s Red-White. The glorified open-door scrimmage became a fan-friendly festival of change and history. The modernized Herbie Husker greeted fans from the back of a motorcycle around Tom Osborne Field. Eric Crouch and Johnny Rogers spoke in the pregame Huskervision hype video. Rogers welcomed viewers to a new era of Husker football. At halftime the university welcomed back former head coach Frank Solich and announced part of the few facility will bare his name. The Frank Solich Locker Room. A small nod to the past inside an innovative future.
The first glimpse of Nebraska football under the Matt Rhule era went much of the same way. A traditional I formation with a mound of bodies moving in the shape of a fullback trap. The guard, Ethan Piper, pulled to clear out the end. Tight end Thomas Fidone moved to the linebacker. Janiran Bonner, the fullback, ran for 7 yards. Bonner took the ball from the official after the play and handed it to Rhule, who gifted it to Solich. The White team called timeout and the 66,045 in Memorial Stadium cheered the Husker legend.
White beat Red, 21-7, in the annual Spring Game. There were two offensive touchdowns, two field goals and a fumble recovery for a touchdown they could have ruled an incomplete pass. There were two interceptions, eight fumbles, seven penalties and 18 tackles for loss. Rhule and the few players who spoke to media afterwards discussed their progress from 4-8 to 0-0. Burdened by past results no longer, they built the foundation throughout 15 spring practices with intentions beyond.
“I think this summer is so crucial to our team,” Rhule said afterwards. “The ability to focus for three hours, we saw some moments with the ball on the ground and all that. That’s really the next step, when we have the ability to focus for three-and-a-half hours straight. But I really like the progress we made so far.”
The head coach couldn’t give his overall impressions of the scrimmage. He intently, sometimes furiously, watched both sides of the ball for over 2 hours on Saturday. He wanted to watch the tape before giving granular praises or assessments. Rhule thought the first-team offense ran the ball well at times but was disappointed by not scoring in the red zone. Tackling “didn’t look atrocious,” either.
Rhule thought quarterback Jeff Sims handled the offense well. He likes the Georgia Tech transfer’s demeanor and calmness. Sims finished 9-of-13 and Rhule felt his throws came on time. Sims also showed his ability to extend plays and fight through tackles on a designed run up the middle. He found his composure early on a 38-yard pass to Nate Boerkircher, the longest of the day, and utilized his athleticism where needed.
“He’s a passer who runs 4.4,” Rhule said. “He’s not a runner who throws. He’s a passer.”
Sims thought the offense needed to be cleaner. He called himself a perfectionist and noted plays he wanted back. Personally, he dropped a shotgun snap early and later bobbled a running back exchange. He threw for 139 yards and by far the best percentage (9 of 13). Richard Torres threw for 66 yards (9 of 18 with an interception), followed by Chubba Purdy with 55 yards (6 of 13 with an interception) and Heinrich Haarberg with minus-1 (2 of 9). Each walked away with improvements to be made.
“It’s all about going back and attacking the summer,” Sims said. “Working on what I need to work on and get better for the season.”
Boerkircher’s opening catch also set the receiving mark for the day. He led the scrimmage with 44 yards on three catches. Marcus Washington followed with 42 yards on three catches, Billy Kemp IV had 39 yards on two catches, Ty Hahn added 27 yards on two catches and Ajay Allen had 22 yards on two catches).
The two teams combined for 71 rushing attempts and 257 rushing yards. Beyond Sims’ gallup, Gabe Ervin Jr. scored the only other offensive touchdown. Haarberg, the Kearney Catholic graduate, moved the offense inside the 10 with a first-quarter run. Ervin took his handoff, gave Omar Brown a stiff arm and hit the end zone. The promising back simply said there was an opportunity to find the edge and score from 7 yards out.
“I felt great out there,” Ervin said. “I feel like the old me so I’m just trying to take a step forward, get better each and every day. Take this summer not for granted. Going to hard work it and get ready for the season.”
Rahmir Johnson actually led the day with 35 net rushing yards on six attempts. Then came Anthony Grant (34 yards on 14 carries), Ervin (20 yards on eight carries), Haarberg (19 yards on seven carries), Allen (18 yards on seven carries) and Purdy (17 yards on four carries).
Specialists also go into the summer with work to be done. Timmy Bleekrode knocked down a 49-yard kick on Saturday’s opening drive and Spencer Pankratz hit a 38-yard kick later in the first quarter. After that, Bleekrode missed from 46 and 43. Joshua Fleeks returned two kickoffs for 47 yards, Elliott Brown returned three for 38 yards, Zavier Betts took out one kickoff for 27 yards and Kemp ran back one for 16 yards. Kemp also took a 3-yard loss on the only punt return. Jacob Hohl hit a 39-yard punt and Brian Buschini punted once for 35 yards. Buschini also tried running and throwing on fake punts. Rhule chuckled about those plays afterwards, not because of Buschini.
“I desperately was trying to get the red offense more plays,” Rhule said. “I wanted to play the game so I said to Buschini, ‘Hey bro, if they all cover just pull the one out and run.’ He’s got a great arm but it didn’t work out. I was just trying to get a first down to keep them on the field to keep the reps even.”
Defense also played a part in that. Defensive coordinator Tony White’s aggressive scheme and play calling led to 18 tackles for loss, two sacks, six fumble recoveries and two interceptions. While the defense didn’t cause each fumble, Rhule liked how they swarmed to the ball and got hands on it. MJ Sherman finished with four tackles and 1.5 for loss. He smiled afterwards because that was the most fun he had playing spring football in a long time. He wanted reps, opportunity and reinforcing his abilities as a player. That’s what this spring provided him and he felt good about his showing thus far.
Sherman, along with Kai Wallin, Princewill Umanmielen, Nash Hutmacher, Stephon Wynn Jr. and Cameron Lenhardt found the quarterback in different ways. That pressure allowed the secondary to play with confidence. Returning starting cornerback Quinton Newsome felt the defense played with more confidence in White’s system since they dialed back installation.
“Flying around to the ball, every play we make sure we’re flying around to the ball every play,” Newsome said. “Limit the mistakes and make sure everybody has that mentality on the field, whether it’s going out there, doesn’t matter the score, we go out there on the field to dominate.”
Michael Booker III scored the Red team’s only touchdown, a 53-yard fumble recovery. The fumble occurred when Haarberg’s apparent throw while sustaining contact fell short and bounced. Booker picked it up and finished the play. Officials told Rhule they could review it and overturn it because it was incomplete. Rhule waved them off because he wanted to keep the game competitive. Call it like they would in the 70s and leave it with the call on the field, he told them.
The Red team tried scoring again but couldn’t. The White team tried mounting a 2-minute offense but couldn’t find the end zone. Gage Stenger, the Omaha native, intercepted the final play of the game to put a bow on Saturday afternoon for all. Now what? What’s next for the Nebraska football team?
“Develop to be a player-led team,” Sherman said afterwards. “Coach Rhule and this coaching staff did its job in the winter/spring to instill the foundation of our culture here. Now, it’s our job to accept that culture, embrace it, apply it within each other and distribute it within each other. Not only should we be hearing things from the coaches, we should be hearing things from ourselves, from the leaders of this team, from the captains of this team. We apply that. We’re ones that does the discipline, we’re the ones that holds everybody accountable, not just the coaches.
“Let them coach football. Let us coach us.”
Nebraska puts the past away and plays its first competitive game against a different team on August 31 in the season opener against Minnesota.