Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Schedule Talk: Here Are Nebraska’s Three Most Intriguing Games of 2022

May 17, 2022

As we move forward and inch toward the summer months, Nebraska enters the stage of the offseason where recruiting takes top priority.

From now until late June, the Huskers will host official visitors and camps while the current players get ready for summer conditioning. Big Red has been making noise in the transfer portal and currently sit at 12th in the 247Sports’ transfer portal rankings. Nebraska recently snagged the commitment from former Alabama safety Kaine Williams. Williams wasn’t the only former Crimson Tide player on a visit last weekend—Stephon Wynn Jr., a defensive tackle, was in Lincoln, too, though he hasn’t announced where he’ll be playing college football this fall.

While recruiting takes center stage, it’s always a good time to think about the upcoming season. In terms of the Huskers’ schedule, which games catch your eye? Today, we’re tackling this question: What three games are the most intriguing?

This is obviously a subjective exercise, but here are this writer’s picks.

First things first, here’s what Nebraska’s 2022 schedule looks like:

August 27: vs. Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland

September 3: vs. North Dakota

September 10: vs. Georgia Southern

September 17: vs. Oklahoma

September 24: Bye week

October 1: vs. Indiana

October 7: at Rutgers

October 15: at Purdue

October 22: Bye week

October 29: vs. Illinois

November 5: vs. Minnesota

November 12: at Michigan

November 19: vs. Wisconsin

November 25: at Iowa

Northwestern

After an offseason full of change in Nebraska’s program, it’d be hard to leave Northwestern off this list.

Season-openers against a conference foe will always be intriguing, but this season’s is extra fascinating considering some of the storylines attached to it. Scott Frost is entering his fifth year at the helm, but it’s with a restructured contract that drops his original $5 million salary to $4 and his $15 million buyout slashed in half to $7.5 on Oct. 1, the same day as the Indiana contest.

According to the contract, if Frost “achieves metrics mutually agreed to” his salary goes back to $5 million and he would get a one-year extension through the 2027 season. While the “metrics mutually agreed to” were kept between Frost and Nebraska Athletic Director Trev Alberts, Frost touched on the situation last November.

“Yeah, those are just making sure we get on the right track and get winning,” Frost said. “And I don’t want to say much more than that. But it’s obvious what we need to get done here and I don’t think that it takes too smart of a guy to figure that out.”

What’s clear is this: Frost and Nebraska need a strong start in 2022. While a loss to Northwestern shouldn’t be considered a death blow to the season all together—two non-conference games against North Dakota and Georgia Southern await, as does a Lincoln Riley-and-Caleb-Williams-less Oklahoma before Big Ten play picks back up—there would surely be a here-we-go-again vibe around the program.

Now, a little on Northwestern. The Wildcats don’t seem to have much that scares you.

Let’s start with quarterback—there’s not a clear answer there. Ryan Hilinski returns, but he was less than stellar last year as he began the season as the third stringer after transferring in from South Carolina. Hilinski completed 53.98% of his passes and threw more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3).

So, maybe someone else will push for or even overtake Hilinski, someone like Brendan Sullivan, who’s a better athlete than Hilinski. Sullivan, a 6-foot-3, 212-pound sophomore, was a three-star recruit in the Wildcats’ 2021 class and would give Northwestern’s offense a run threat at the quarterback position.

On top of the questions at quarterback, Northwestern’s defense loses playmakers in safety Brandon Joseph and middle linebacker Chris Bergin. Joseph, who transferred to Notre Dame, was the Big Ten Newcomer of the Year in 2020 and led the team in interceptions (3) while recording 80 tackles, third-best on the team. Bergin was a tackle machine with 141 stops, which was second in the Big Ten and third nationally. In fact, the Wildcats lost three of their top five tacklers.

So, if Northwestern doesn’t have a good situation at quarterback and a defense that’s going to be missing its best playmakers, maybe it will try to lean on the running game and control clock in 2022. Depending on how the offensive line does, that style might be doable because the top three running backs return in Evan Hull (1,059 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns), Andrew Clair (362, 1) and Anthony Tyus III (214, 1).

On paper, Nebraska will have the better team in Ireland. It needs to win that football game and fly home 1-0.

Illinois

The Fighting Illini? Yes, the game against Bret Bielema’s Fighting Illini intrigues me big-time, which I’m guessing isn’t a sentence a ton of people have uttered lately as Illinois isn’t exactly the sexiest opponent out there.

While they aren’t exciting, the Illini have proven to be a headache for Nebraska lately. They’ve won the last two games against Big Red, both of which can be considered embarrassing losses for the Huskers.

In the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, then-head coach Lovie Smith and his team came to Lincoln and left with a 41-23 win while rushing for 285 yards and four touchdowns. Twenty-two days later, Smith was fired after losing his last three games to Iowa, Northwestern and Penn State by a combined score of 119-52.

Still beat Nebraska, though.

The Huskers had an opportunity to return the favor in Champaign on a big stage to begin the 2021 season. It was a week-zero contest and one of the first college football games on TV that season. But instead of a Husker victory, Bielema won his first game as the head man at Illinois, pushing his personal record against Nebraska to 3-1.

The loss brought out a couple quotes from Frost that seemed to take on lives of their own during the week, including, “It looked like the same movie today” and “It was just an interesting game, because about half of our game plan was kind of out the window when they came up and lined up the way they did.”

If Nebraska is going to show improvement in year five and be a real contender for a Big Ten West crown, it needs to show it by consistently beating the perceived lesser teams in the division, right? Teams like Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue. Start winning those games each year and the Huskers will earn a seat at the table with Wisconsin and Iowa.

Illinois will have a new look on offense this season. Bielema fired offensive coordinator Tony Petersen (he’s now at FCS-member Illinois State, which plays its games at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Illinois, about a 57-minute drive from Illinois’ Memorial Stadium) and hired Barry Lunney Jr. away from Texas-San Antonio, where his spread offense in 2021 averaged 36.9 points per game, second in the Conference USA and tied for No. 11 nationally.

Lunney and Bielema are buddies. Lunney coached tight ends at Arkansas under Bielema for five years from 2013-17. Bielema must have liked what he saw from his old friend last season, even when Lunney’s Roadrunners beat Illinois on its own field, 37-30, the week after the Illini took care of business against Nebraska.

With Lunney calling the shots now, you’ll likely see a more dynamic Illinois offense in 2022. At Texas-San Antonio last season, Lunney’s balanced attack averaged 254 passing yards and 183 rushing. Lunney had the quarterback to operate his offense in Frank Harris, a veteran who earned second-team all-conference honors (and would have been first-team if Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe didn’t break the NCAA record for passing yards and touchdown passes in a season) but will he at Illinois?

Tommy DeVito could be the answer to that question. The 6-2, 210-pound transfer spent four seasons at Syracuse, where he passed for 3,866 yards and 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. DeVito is a good athlete and can be an effective runner—he rushed for 235 yards and three scores in the past three seasons.

While Illinois’ offensive line will largely be new, the Illini have a strong 1-2 punch at running back in Chase Brown (1,023 rushing yards, 5 touchdowns) and the 240-pound Josh McCray (564, 2).

Can the Huskers stop the trend of losing to the Illini? That intrigues me.

Minnesota

There might not be a college football coach in the Big Ten—or the nation—who irks Nebraska’s fanbase more than Minnesota’s PJ Fleck. The man cares too much about his appearance for some and speaks too passionately for others. Really, some fans of the game view Fleck as someone performing more than anything.

That annoyance spills over into social media on game days, but it has trickled into the press conferences, too. Most recently, the one following last year’s game between the Huskers and Golden Gophers.

“That was truly culture versus skill. That’s what I saw today,” Fleck said after his team beat Nebraska 30-23 in Minneapolis last October.

“I don’t make a habit of listening to those press conferences,” Frost said days later when asked about Fleck’s comments. “Our culture has come 100 miles, I love where our culture is right now. I think they have some skilled players, too, so I’m surprised to hear that.”

Whether Nebraska fans like him or not, Fleck has shown he can coach in the Big Ten. In five seasons at Minnesota, he’s 35-23 with three bowl wins. Frost is 15-29 in four seasons and hasn’t been to a bowl with the Huskers. Fleck has won the last three matchups, one of which was a 24-17 stunner inside Memorial Stadium in 2020 when his team was without 33 players—and multiple starters—because of injuries and COVID protocols.

Illinois and Minnesota kick off the toughest stretch in Nebraska’s 2022 season. The Illini and Gophers are just the appetizers before road games at Michigan and Iowa with a home contest against Wisconsin in between.

That’s why the games with Illinois and Minnesota are so intriguing. Win them and Nebraska heads into the final three games with momentum. Lose them, and it’s the opposite.

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