It happened. Again.
A new season with new faces and personnel, starting across the Atlantic Ocean in Dublin, Ireland, was supposed to be enough. Coaches and players talked about bringing confidence and aggression into a new season. They were going to play unencumbered. This year, they were determined, would be different.
Instead, it followed. The nightmare returned at dusk Saturday at Aviva Stadium.
Nebraska’s second-half double-digit lead vanished and a final opportunity to pull out a wild win ended with a third turnover. Instead, Northwestern muscled a 31-28 comeback victory in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic and picked off quarterback Casey Thompson to clinch it.
Head coach Scott Frost, who had his contract restructured and brought in a new swath of personnel in the offseason, fell to 5-21 in one-possession games at Nebraska. The includes the last nine one-possession games Nebraska has played. The Huskers have lost seven straight overall.
All that change and the song remained the same.
“I give Northwestern a lot of credit, again, they were more physical than us up front, I think, a lot of times today, probably more than we were,” Frost said. “And that was probably the difference.
“We’ve got to get this turned around.”
Optimism for a new leaf wasn’t unfounded. Nebraska’s new-look offense fired out the gates for a 75-yard, eight-play touchdown drive. Six of those were throws from Thompson. The junior transfer from Texas went 5-of-6 including a 32-yard sideline dime to Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda to put the Huskers up. Garcia-Castaneda finished with 120 yards and a touchdown in his Husker debut. Two drives later, Thompson broke the plane on a 1-yard run to cover 80 yards in 14 plays and 5 minutes, 14 seconds.
It was a dream start for the Huskers.
“I thought the offense was moving the ball great the first two quarters,” team captain Travis Vokolek said afterward.
Then came that funny feeling. A sore in the molar. A hole in the pit of the stomach.
Northwestern immediately answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive that took just 61 seconds. Two of those four plays went for 20 or more yards, including the 43-yard scoring strike from Ryan Hilinski to a wide open Raymond Niro III. The Huskers were poised to respond with a pass inside the 15 when Northwestern’s Greyson Metz stripped the ball away from Garcia-Castaneda at the end of the play. That kept Nebraska off the board again. Two drives later, Northwestern took its first lead by marching 82 yards. Nebraska’s secondary bit on the play action and left unoccupied pay dirt behind.
Nebraska’s attempt to equalize in the first half’s final 30 seconds fell short with Brendan Franke’s 53-yard field goal attempt.
Northwestern jogged into the locker rooms with momentum on the strength of its quarterback. Hilinski went 20-of-23 for 217 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. He stayed upright and well protected. The Huskers, meanwhile, went into halftime looking for answers.
Initially, they found them. A quick six-play defensive stop allowed Thompson to provide the game’s most magnificent play. He didn’t find a receiver while rolling to his left. He hit the sidelines. So he improvised. A few steps back, he squared and fired downfield into the waiting arms of Garcia-Castaneda. The play went for 58 yards and set up Anthony Grant’s 3-yard muscle jam into the end zone to regain the lead.
“Isaiah did a good job going up and making a play,” Thompson said.
Northwestern’s next drive ended abruptly in its only turnover when Marquis Buford Jr.’s jarring hit to Cam Porter forced the ball loose. Team captain Caleb Tannor, tracing the play from behind, dove on it. Two plays later, the Huskers were in the end zone when Grant exploded through the line for a 46-yard run. He finished the game with 101 yards on 19 carries.
Frost took responsibility for the call. Coaches talked about an onside kick all week if they were up two possessions. But the attempt to capitalize on momentum backfired as Northwestern recovered an onside kick down 11.
“At that point in the game, I thought all the momentum was on our side and I thought if we got it, it could end the game,” Frost said after the game, taking responsibility for calling the onside kick. “I felt like we had a really good chance at winning the game and thought we were the better team.
“If I did it over, I wouldn’t make the call.”
With only 44 yards needed, the Wildcats were in the end zone in 76 seconds. Northwestern then intercepted Thompson’s overthrow to set up another short field. The Wildcats took just 50 seconds to go 42 yards and seize the lead early in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska’s ensuing answer went nowhere. After Thompson’s electrifying heave to Garcia-Castaneda, he went 6 for 15 for 57 yards with two interceptions. The anxieties returned. Was this like last year? Another 60 minutes of game minutes to end in heartache no matter how many minutes of excitement? Thompson hit the field without the same confidence he possessed in the first half. A handful of misses, including one behind his receiver just 5 yards down the middle, forced Nebraska’s defense to do something it hadn’t done three quarters prior: consistently stop Northwestern.
“Thirty-one points is too many,” junior team captain Garrett Nelson said. “Broken coverage, not winning at the line of scrimmage, mistakes, missed tackling, it’s all an accumulation of what we need to do and get better at as a defense.”
The Wildcats finished with 214 rushing yards to go along with Hilinski’s 313 yards in the air.
“We didn’t play as well as I expected on defense,” Frost said after the game.
With 2:21 remaining, the defense stiffened enough at midfield to force a punt. The ball bounced at the 1 and spun back to the 4. That’s where the Huskers sought to cure their ills and put last season behind them.
It couldn’t happen. Not again. Not another game, not another year. Thompson’s late pass over the middle went through Wyatt Liewer’s hands and into the air. Not again. Northwestern’s Xander Mueller slid to the turf to corral it. That was it.
Northwestern went on a 14-0 run after that attempted onside kick. Nebraska’s offense, meanwhile, managed just 36 total yards after Frost’s call to clinch the game. Instead, the game got away. Opportunities to pull out an improbable win fell to the turf like Irish rain.