PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Casey Thompson was the last one out of the tunnel at halftime. Nebraska’s medical team checked the quarterback’s shoulder after yet another 300-pound body reduced it to the ground. He taped his shoulder all over again, put his pads on and walked out. But he had to wait for Rutgers to walk through the tunnel, walking with the strut of a two-possession lead.
Interim head coach Mickey Joseph told the Huskers Friday’s game was going to be a street fight. Not the kind with rounds or bells. One that ended when the other team couldn’t raise to its feet before the final whistle.
“It’s just let’s keep swinging, let’s keep swinging, no looking at the scoreboard,” Joseph said afterwards. “At the end we’ll come out on top.”
A battered Thompson returned and threw 14-of-19 for 170 yards and two touchdowns in the second half alone, the final another long heave that Trey Palmer materialized under midway through the fourth quarter. Freshman Malcolm Hartzog for the second week in a row made a game-defining play with an interception to ice it. Nebraska, through a frustration-filled first half, escaped Piscataway and Rutgers’ SHI Stadium with a 14-13 win.
Friday night’s win sealed the team’s first consecutive conference winning streak since 2018 and, at least momentarily, put the Huskers atop the Big Ten West.
“We’re going to be sore with a physical game on the road,” Thompson said. “We’re doing a good job of finishing in the second half so I feel good right now.”
The bruised quarterback wasn’t the only one fighting through. Punter Brian Buschini limped back onto the field one last time with 1:08 left to kick from his own 20. On his second punt of the night, Rutgers’ Max Melton took the ball off his foot. Buschini then, effectively, kicked Melton’s oncoming helmet. The transfer from Montana writhed in pain and returned to the sidelines only to inevitably return.
Rutgers took over at the Nebraska 9 after that. The Huskers’ defense locked down and forced a field goal. That came after Rutgers opened the game with its own 75-yard scoring drive. Former Husker and Wahoo native Noah Vedral landed the first blow with his 21-yard opening touchdown run.
Nebraska’s offense struggled to gain any footing when the Scarlet Knights added another field goal. A scrappy drive that could have put the Scarlet Knights up three possessions ended just before the red zone and Jude McAtamney came on to notch another. McAtamney also attempted a 58-yard boom just before half but his kick flew wide of the uprights.
Team captain Garrett Nelson led the defense with 11 tackles, including a timely sack on 2nd down when Rutgers threatened to score just ahead of halftime. That forced Rutgers to settle for the 58-yard try. Luke Reimer stiffened the defense’s second level with five tackles and two PBUs. Together, the defense beat a constant hum. By doing so it bought enough time for the Nebraska offense to find its footing.
“It’s so fun playing football with them,” Nelson said. “They do a phenomenal. With all the changes that have been going through, we stuck together and made a pretty good defense so far.”
Nebraska’s offense managed only 164 yards in the first half, 35 rushing. During that time Buschini punted five times and Thompson threw two interceptions, both under heavy pressure from the Rutgers defense.
With a freshly wrapped shoulder and back on the field, Thompson knew the fight wasn’t over. Perhaps, Rutgers and its “Black Friday” night with light shows aplenty and thumping dance music throughout punched itself out.
“Right before the second half I knew Rutgers would get tired on defense,” Thompson said. “I knew that they were pushing hard up front in the defensive line position, I knew that our receivers were going to beat them on the back end and we had to go over the top. So we showed them in the second half.”
Nebraska marched 70 yards on nine plays to score on its first drive of the second half. A couple throws to Anthony Grant in the flat laid the ground work for a 7-yard touchdown pass to Travis Vokolek. The offense’s lone team captain scored his first touchdown as a Husker in his old team’s end zone.
Unable to build momentum the Huskers’ offense went 3-and-out and then fell short of the first on a 4th down call at the Rutgers 27. The following drive went nowhere notable either. It seemed like the offense just couldn’t muster enough without Grant’s consistent legs running through linemen.
Then it happened. Myles Farmer stepped in front of Shameen Jones to pick off Evan Simon’s pass and give the Huskers their first takeaway of the night. The offense didn’t wait to take advantage.
Thompson stepped back and aimed for the end zone. The ball sailed between the ‘T’ and the back boundary in the end zone. Somewhere,Trey Palmer dove through time and space to pluck the ball out of the air for the touchdown.
“That was big time,” Thompson said.
Now with the lead, Nebraska’s defense refused to budge. Vedral returned to the field with hopes of rallying the Scarlet Knights. He made it as far as a new set of downs before Yutan native Colton Feist wrestled his fellow Nebraskan to the turf. Rutgers opted to punt on 4th and 10. The Huskers’ offense milked every timeout and seconds by the bushel before facing a 4th and 10 of its own.
Out came Buschini. Each time the Nebraska offense couldn’t manage enough to move the chains or finish in the end zone he gritted his teeth and planted his feet. But this one was different. With 68 seconds remaining he hobbled out one more time, held his hands forward and pinned Rutgers to its own 20.
The Huskers sealed it with a final lockdown drive. Ochaun Mathis got his hand up to tip a pass that originally gained a defensive pass interference call. The tip, upon review, overturned that penalty. Rutgers quarterback Evan Simon heaved a pass on 3rd and 10 that freshman Malcolm Hartzog leaped under and put the game away.
“We asked them to fight at halftime and in the fourth quarter we asked them to finish,” Joseph said. “We asked them to finish and they did.”
Thompson’s sore knee hit the turf and the clock hit 0. Endure and win the fourth quarter, Joseph told the Huskers. Finish the drive, finish the game. A team that’s endured so much through the first two months of the season toughened through 30 rough minutes to find a win on the other side.