Former Husker Noah Vedral faked the handoff to Samuel Brown and ran toward the sidelines. The Rutgers quarterback pulled back, causing two defenders to miss around the 10 yard line. He ran the rest of the way with no one in front of him.
Vedral scored, notching his first of an injury-limited season. But the Wahoo native got across the goal line with Nebraska defensive tackle Stephon Wynn Jr. wrapped around his waist. The 6-foot-3, 305 pound lineman ran Vedral down at the end of the 21-yard scoring run.
Rutgers didn’t touch the end zone for the remaining 57 minutes, 22 seconds.
Nebraska’s resurgent defense not only posted a second consecutive second-half shutout in Friday’s 14-13 win over Rutgers, it refused to yield points after the opening score. Rutgers started at the Nebraska 9 after a blocked punt and ended with 2 yards and just 3 points. Vedral threw a 46-yard pass on a different drive but still couldn’t crack the red zone. Jude McAtamney returned for another field goal.
McAtamney came back out for a 58-yard kick before halftime that sailed wide right.
“It’s hard, that first drive, getting your eyes right and settling into it,” team captain Garrett Nelson said. “Up front we just needed to go back to the fundamentals.”
Rutgers tallied 263 first-half yards. The Scarlet Knights averaged 6.2 yards per play in the first quarter and 6.6 in the second. After halftime, they combined for 85 yards. That’s with a 3.5 average per play in the third quarter and 2.9 yards in the fourth.
Nebraska’s defense held Rutgers quarterbacks to 4 of 12 in the second half with three interceptions. One came from Myles Farmer, who stepped up to make a play. Then, Casey Thompson immediately tossed a touchdown pass to Trey Palmer to give the Huskers the lead.
“They needed a first down so I knew they were going to go for the sticks,” Farmer said. “I just played it how I was taught to play it.”
The Huskers routinely leaned on their defense throughout Friday’s game while the offense struggled to find its rhythm. Thompson said after the game he knew going into halftime they’d have a chance. He saw Rutgers tiring. And the defense gave him that opportunity.
“All those guys on the defense have done a really good job of just coming back to the field as a unit,” Nelson said, “knowing what we needed to do, knowing the job we needed to do.”
Nebraska couldn’t solve the stiff Rutgers run defense. Standout Anthony Grant was held to season lows in yards (47), longest run (7) and average per carry (2.5). So instead of returning to the ground, the Huskers insisted on staying in the air. Thompson took a beating in the first half but still completed over 50% of his passes. Both of his interceptions came under heavy pressure. While Rutgers tallied just one sack, Thompson was rushed and knocked down far more.
The transfer junior returned in the second half with an incredible turnaround. He went 14 of 19 in the second half for 170 yards and two touchdowns.
“We knew we were getting the ball out of halftime and we knew we were going to go down and score,” Thompson said. “Mickey did a good job of regrouping us and talking to us.
“The defense was on a good roll and they were playing great so they felt good. And then on offense we knew we could get going so that’s what we did.”
The first of Thompson’s two touchdown throws came down the middle to a wide open Travis Vokolek. The second was the spectacular heave of faith into the end zone that Trey Palmer dove for. Palmer’s latest touchdown catch gave the Huskers a lead.
So the game came down to Nebraska’s defense. Could it continue to deliver when the game was on the line? There was never any doubt. The Scarlet Knights fought for one first down and didn’t get any further. A week after earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors in his first career start, Malcolm Hartzog grabbed the interception that gave Nebraska ball to kneel the final seconds away.
“Our defense played unbelievable today, credit to them,” tight end Travis Vokolek said. “We found ways to make plays and ultimately come out on top.”