Heinrich Haarberg threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in his first start as Nebraska beat Northern Illinois 35-11 Saturday night for coach Matt Rhule’s first win with the Cornhuskers.
The Huskers (1-2) bounced back from losses at Minnesota and Colorado to win their home opener for the 36th time in 38 years. NIU (1-2) lost its second straight since beating Boston College on the road two weeks ago.
NIU managed just 149 yards, half the total coming on its last possession when they scored their only touchdown.
Haarberg took over for the injured and turnover-prone Jeff Sims and looked comfortable throughout against the Huskies of the Mid-American Conference.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound sophomore completed 14 of 24 passes for 158 yards and showed fearlessness as a runner, initiating contact rather than sliding feet-first and leading the Huskers with 21 carries for 98 yards.
Haarberg made his first appearance as a quarterback last week when he played 15 snaps in relief of Sims, who injured his left ankle in the fourth quarter of the 36-14 loss at Colorado. Haarberg also had played two snaps at receiver in the opener against Minnesota.
Sims had committed six of the Huskers’ nation-high eight turnovers over the first two games. Rhule said he planned to stick with Sims as his starter if Sims was able to play. Sims had limited practice during the week and went through pregame warmups.
Haarberg ended up getting his most playing time since 2020, when he was playing high school ball at 160-student Kearney Catholic, about two hours west of Lincoln.
The Huskers’ opening possession looked like old-school Nebraska football, with Haarberg showing flair for the triple-option while marching 55 yards in six plays. Haarberg ran four times for 19 yards and connected with Marcus Washington for 26 yards and with Billy Kemp IV for a 10-yard touchdown.
The offense went into a shell until late in the first half, when Haarberg threw 16 yards to Thomas Fidone II for a touchdown.
Haarberg led the Huskers on their best drive of the season in the third quarter, taking them 76 yards in 14 plays and chewing more than 7 minutes off the clock. Alex Bullock picked up 33 yards on a catch-and-run before Gabe Ervin Jr. banged into the end zone from the 3 to make it 21-3.
Haarberg dashed 20 yards for a touchdown on the next series against a tiring NIU defense.
NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi struggled again in his second appearance at Memorial Stadium. He was the Michigan State starter when the Huskers beat the Spartans 9-6 in the snow and cold in 2018.
Lombardi was 11 of 28 for 73 yards, with an interception, and he was sacked three times.
Northern Illinois: The Huskies, like the Huskers, have been offensively challenged and stay in games because of their plucky defense. The defense wore down in the second half, allowing Nebraska to pull away. Since the Huskies upset Boston College on the road, they have two touchdowns and two field goals in 25 offensive series.
Nebraska: Tony White’s 3-3-5 defense has been a revelation, and it’s tasked with carrying the team while Marcus Satterfield’s offense struggles to find consistency. The Huskers have one more week to polish things up before second-ranked Michigan comes calling.
Northern Illinois: hosts Tulsa next Saturday.
Nebraska: hosts Louisiana Tech next Saturday.