Nebraska Football: Matt Rhule faces tough decision between Heinrich Haarberg and Jeff Sims

Quarterback Heinrich Haarberg #10 of the Nebraska football team warms up before the game against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)
Quarterback Heinrich Haarberg #10 of the Nebraska football team warms up before the game against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images) /

On Saturday against Northern Illinois, Heinrich Haarberg did what very few Nebraska football backup QBs have done in the last 8 years.

The Huskers were 2-9 in their last 11 games when their backup quarterback started.

In the Matt Rhule era, they’re 1-0.

But here’s the thing. Heinrich Haarberg, the third-year Kearney Catholic High School sophomore, didn’t play like a backup.

In fact, he played well enough that Matt Rhule now has a tough decision to make at quarterback.

Heinrich Haarberg…the hero?

Haarberg didn’t do anything particularly spectacular on Saturday in Nebraska’s 35-11 win over Northern Illinois. But heroes don’t always do amazing things.

Most of the time, in football, they simply execute the basic things.

Heinrich Haarberg did just that.

Sure, there was the strip sack in the first quarter. But let’s be honest: he was left out to dry. Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield probably shouldn’t have called a play-action pass inside the 10-yard line. And RT Bryce Benhart was very confused about who to block on that play (so he chose to block no one).

And yes, Haarberg got lucky on a risky pass intended for TE Thomas Fidone that should have been picked.

But that was it. Two bad plays. Amazing what happens when you make the throws you need to make and hold onto the ball, right?

With how Nebraska football has looked over the last eight years–even against Group of 5 schools like Northern Illinois–you could call Haarberg’s performance “heroic.”

Nebraska football’s body blow philosophy comes to fruition

After two games of poor quarterback play, Nebraska didn’t need a quarterback to steal the show. They needed a field general who played within the game plan and set the tone for the brand of football Matt Rhule wants.

Kind of like this:

My wife and I were in Memorial Stadium. I won’t lie to you: we were a bit anxious in the first half. The whole crowd was.

Nebraska football’s offense looked a little discombobulated. Receivers dropped passes. The offensive line didn’t create holes and when they did the backs couldn’t find them.

But credit to Satterfield and Rhule. They didn’t give up on the run. They practiced what they preached: body blow, body blow, body blow.

Haarberg personified that in one run.

All those short runs in the first half started to turn into 6, 8, 12-yard gains. Over and over and over again.

Then there was this absolute gem of a play on the last scoring drive.

Suddenly, Nebraska had run for 94 yards and scored 14 points in the 4th quarter.

A winning recipe.

I know what you’re thinking (because I see you on Twitter/X!): “But they played Northern Illinois!”

For a fanbase starving for wins and feel-good moments, you’d think a dominating Husker win would satisfy. Apparently not.

But consider what happened this weekend:

  • Alabama beat USF only 17-3 and has major issues at quarterback.
  • Florida State squeaked by Boston College (who lost to Northern Illinois and beat FCS Holy Cross by 3 points last week).
  • South Alabama took Oklahoma State to the woodshed, 33-7.
  • #15 Kansas State lost to Missouri, who narrowly beat Middle Tennessee State last week.

Nebraska did what it was supposed to do to a Group of 5 team. Take the win. Enjoy it.

How will Matt Rhule handle this QB controversy?

Heinrich Haarberg showed he’s a viable option at quarterback, particularly because of how well the Blackshirts have been performing. Play great defense and special teams and don’t turn the ball over. You’ll win more than you lose when you do that.

Sure, it’s the Iowa Plan. But I’m here for it.

So what to do? Does Rhule stick with Haarberg? Or does he give the keys back to turnover-prone Jeff Sims?

I don’t take Rhule for a coach who benches a guy because of an injury. When Sims is healthy, I believe he will start. Rhule said as much this past week. Yet, he also acknowledged that while Sims is the starter, the turnovers must stop.

Here’s what I know. Now that Rule knows what Haarberg can do in a game situation, Sims will be on an incredibly short leash.

Haarberg still needs to develop. He’s not ready to trot on the field and beat Michigan. But can Sims make good decisions and take care of the football? If he can’t, Rhule’s choice is easy. It’s HH all the way.

With a solid game against Northern Illinois, would Rhule start Haarberg this coming Saturday to give Sims’ ankle another week of rest? What about Michigan? What about for the rest of the year?

Let’s say Sims plays this week against LA Tech and has a good game (no turnovers!). What should he do?

So many questions.

But what if Rhule doesn’t have to choose?

What if there’s a way to get Haarberg and Sims on the field at the same time? Not every play, of course–as fun as that would be. But for 15-20 plays a game?

It wouldn’t be unprecedented for Nebraska.

The last time Nebraska had a true QB controversy was in 1999. Bobby Newcombe. Eric Crouch. You remember, don’t you?

When Newcombe and Crouch were on the field together, you felt like Nebraska could score from anywhere on the field.

Haarberg and Sims are no Crouch and Newcome. Far from it. But could this be a legitimate option for Nebraska? I think so.

If Sims controls the turnovers, he’s one of Nebraska’s most explosive offensive players. Rhule says Haarberg is one of the best athletes on the team. And Rhule says often he wants his best athletes on the field.

It’s too bad two of their best play the same position.

Or is it?

Maybe it’s time to do something few have done to take Nebraska football to a place it hasn’t been in a while.