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If you have to clean up a cesspool of epic proportions, it’s likely you’re going to get covered with, er …. slop.

In a game fit for busted noses and bloody knuckles in the Main Street muck of an Old West cowtown, on a night when Nebraska had little going for it outside of a defense that showed the tenacity of its interim head coach, the Cornhuskers finally figured out how to win one of those Big Ten rock fights.

Mickey Joseph stumbled while making his entrance for Act 3 of his head coaching audition, but he ignored the lingering stench of an atrocious first half of offense and found a way to get his team to stand and deliver in the closing scene, to win the kind of game that Nebraska has unceasingly found a way to lose over the past several seasons.

Any objections to winning ugly? The plain-speaking Joseph, who has a real knack for cutting through bullshit, had no reservations about it.

“This is a great win,” he said after the Huskers outfought Rutgers on a Friday night in Piscataway. “We knew we were going to have to play four quarters. We knew coming into here that this team was going to play tough. The second half, we was really confident that we could come back and win the game.”

The ordeal was well worth it if Joseph can successfully continue the process of removing self-doubt from the Huskers, who are halfway to the six wins needed to qualify for a bowl game, and for a few brief hours at least, were alone atop the Big Ten West standings.

Those of us with the fortitude to think all the way back to Champaign, Illinois, in the fifth game of the Riley era, know that winning a sloppy 14-13 game sure beats losing a sloppy 14-13 game. If Nebraska fans have learned anything in the past decade, it’s this: Never make light of a one-score victory.

Nebraska now has two consecutive wins over BCS opponents, put together its first two-game winning streak in Big Ten games since 2018 and finally ended its cursed ordeal of 10 consecutive one-score losses, dating back to Dec. 18, 2020, on the same field (which was the Huskers’ last road victory), all while staying undefeated all-time against Rutgers and extending the Knights’ home-field conference losing streak to 21.

Was it a statement victory? Not in the least, unless you’re scuffling and stumbling to overcome the effects of a toxic, festering chemistry that has bubbled around the Husker football program for years.

The antidote came in the form of a stout defensive effort by the Blackshirts, who early on, looked a lot like Erik Chinander’s “bend-but-don’t-break” version as NU fell behind 13-0 at halftime, but then discovered a new reservoir of mental and physical toughness to shut down the Scarlet Knights, holding them to just 85 total yards and no points in the second half.

This was despite playing much of the game without Luke Reimer, their leading tackler, and Quinton Newsome, their most experienced defensive back. A gritty performance by defensive captain Garrett Nelson — who made a game-high 11 tackles, plus 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss — and three interceptions were the highlights, at least for a fan base learning to acquire a taste for low-tech slugfests.

The three picks were critical. After the Huskers scored on the opening drive of the second half to cut the lead to 13-7, Brandon Moore turned momentum solidly in Nebraska’s favor when he snatched a sideline bullet out of the night sky with 3:46 left in the third quarter. Two series later, Myles Farmer picked off a badly thrown ball and returned it 17 yards to the Rutgers 27-yard line with nine minutes left, setting up the go-ahead touchdown pass from Casey Thompson to Trey Palmer on the next play. Then, with less than a minute remaining, a heavy Husker pass rush forced Rutgers quarterback Evan Simon into his third interception, a badly overthrown ball tracked down by Malcolm Hartzog, slamming the door on Rutgers’ final chance at victory.

If the Huskers failed to earn style points, they found something more important: mental toughness in the clutch. In the third quarter, Joseph asked his players to fight. In the fourth, he asked them to finish. They delivered on both.

The win came despite a shaky performance by the Husker offense. For most of the game, the NU offensive line looked soft, slow and confused. Rutgers flooded the line of scrimmage with seven players at times, and the Huskers appeared utterly unable to handle the mental aspect of the game up front. Consequently, Thompson took a terrific pounding. Then again, there were times when a four-man Rutgers rush got home, when one defensive lineman had little trouble making it past Husker double teams to punish Thompson, who briefly had to be removed from the game late in the first half.

With Anthony Grant and the Husker running game effectively stymied — as a team, NU rushed for a miserable 72 yards on 29 carries — offensive coordinator Mark Whipple had to scrounge to find ways to score. He was unsuccessful throughout the first half, when Nebraska managed only 134 total yards, one of six third-down conversions and was stung by two interceptions thrown by the constantly harassed Thompson.

The 13-point halftime deficit would have been worse had it not been for a hustle play by redshirt freshman Blaise Gunnerson, who scrambled to avert disaster when Rutgers blocked a punt by Brian Buschini in the first quarter.  Gunnerson saved a touchdown by making a tackle inside the Husker 10-yard line, giving the Blackshirts the opportunity to hold the Knights to a field goal. Four-point swings like that make a big difference in a rock fight.

There were two head-scratching decisions by Whipple on short-yardage situations that made life tougher than necessary for the Big Red. One was a third-and-1 from his own 31 early in the second quarter, when Thompson, lined up under center, could have easily sneaked for a first down against the Rutgers defensive line, which was obviously confused and not properly set. Instead, Thompson had problems executing a poorly timed jet sweep to Palmer that lost yardage. The other was in the final minute of the third quarter, when Whipple, evidently having lost faith in his o-line, had the Huskers line up in an empty set and throw the ball on fourth-and-1 from the Rutgers 27, ending a promising drive.

Joseph stresses physicality, which I heartily applaud, but the Huskers aren’t there yet, at least on offense. His postgame imagery of a street fighter who kept swinging and never gave up is an appropriate one, but he really needs to find a couple of those street fighters to play in his offensive line, or Thompson may not last the season.

At least there were a bunch on the other side of the ball, where a second consecutive second-half shutout by the Blackshirts was the difference. Despite some missed tackles that made for awkward moments, young defensive backs took steps toward maturity. TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis showed up and made big plays. Colton Feist made a big play in the backfield and Eteva Mauga-Clements showed some steadiness.

There’s plenty more to clean up, that much is certain, but Joseph has an extra day to prepare for another road game at Purdue and a shot at something his predecessor never accomplished — three wins in a row. That would be a breath of fresh air, indeed.

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