DUBLIN –– And back-and-forth it went. Nebraska started its season as strongly as one could hope with a score on the first drive of the season. Northwestern forced a turnover and battled back to go into the half ahead.
The Huskers started the second half how they had to––with a defensive stop. Casey Thompson made a brilliant, backyard football play that spurred a 14-0 run. Nebraska made a baffling not-even-in-backyard-football decision to onside kick after all this momentum and the Wildcats clawed back to take a 31-28 lead following a Thompson interception early in the fourth quarter.
The teams stalemated from there for the final score. The Wildcats outgained Nebraska 527 yards to 466. It was the most yards gained by a Northwestern offense since the first game of 2020.
It didn’t have to go this way, except for every Husker game seems to have to go this way. It was Nebraska’s 12th-straight loss by single digits dating back to 2020.
Here are some quick thoughts, observations and numbers to chew on, either on a long flight back home or just until Nebraska takes the field again.
- Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple said he hoped for a touchdown on the first drive, and he helped engineer one. The Huskers’ eight-play drive, featuring six passes, put Nebraska in front right out of the gates. That’s been a rare sight in Lincoln the past few season. The 2021 Husker offense ran a play with a lead on just 29% of plays last season. The Huskers couldn’t quite make it stick.
- Nebraska “survived” Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda’s fumble in the second quarter—the defense got a stop—but it was the first domino in a crucial sequence. The fumble, on a play where Garcia-Castaneda could’ve easily been ruled down, was inside the Wildcat 15. That’s points off the board, a missed chance to extend a 14-10 lead. When Northwestern took the ball with 3:10 left in the first half, it had a chance to control the “middle 8”—the four minutes before and after halftime. The Wildcats went down the field, converting a fourth-and-1 in their own territory on the way, to take a 17-14 lead. Entering the game, Nebraska was 3-20 under Scott Frost when trailing at the half. Now it’s 3-21.
- After individually brilliant plays from Thompson, Marques Buford Jr. and Anthony Grant spurred a 14-0 run and gave the Huskers a 28-17 lead midway through the third quarter, Nebraska made the stunning decision to attempt an onside kick. Northwestern recovered, hit for passes of 15 and 23 yards and punched it in from the 3 to make it 28-24. Nebraska’s intended kill shot gave the Wildcats life. Truly bizarre.
- It was a solid day for some Nebraska newcomers. Thompson was pretty crisp and in control, until the interception. Grant’s second-half touchdown run was a a great see-it-and-go play. Garcia-Castaneda topped 100 yards receiving, with a touchdown, and Trey Palmer looked like the go-to receiver the Huskers might need him to be. While not a newcomer like those others, Buford, a newly minted Blackshirt, forced a fumble to squash the Wildcats’ chance to answer Nebraska retaking the lead.
- The hand-off run game is likely to be one of main point of concern on offense for the week ahead, with good reason. Nebraska struggled to get much going that way and didn’t appear to have much push up front. Thompson also had to be pretty aware in the pocket on passes, and did well with that, but as far as debuts for the offensive line go, this one likely provided more questions than answers.
- Another key concern: Nebraska should have some strong edge rushers, but it didn’t look that way on Saturday. Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski rarely felt pressure and the Huskers’ secondary could only do so much when asked to cover for long stretches. The Wildcats have had some of the worst passing offenses in the country over the past three or four seasons, but it looked plenty competent when the Blackshirts couldn’t force the issue by occasionally cracking an experienced o-line.
We’ll have plenty more from the game coming up on Hail Varsity.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.