As we wrote last month, there are two worlds that Nebraska football fans will live in this upcoming season. One where the Huskers beat Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 27, and another where they don’t.
A Big Red win over Pat Fitzgerald’s team would guide the Huskers down what’s called Path A. That path has Nebraska 4-0 at the end of September with wins over North Dakota, Georgia Southern and a new-look, but rebuilding, Oklahoma program.
Drop the season-opener to Fitz, however, and Nebraska is forced to go down Path B. That means ending September 2-2 with the only wins being the non-conference contests against North Dakota and Georgia Southern.
Today, we’ll continue going down Path A to see what the month of October looks like if Nebraska were to start the 2022 campaign 4-0.
The Huskers, fresh off their first bye week, roll into the Indiana game on Oct. 1 undefeated. Receiver Trey Palmer, who offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has clearly chosen as his most dangerous skill player, was named the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Week after an 8-catch, 110-yard receiving game against a porous Sooner defense. Palmer has stepped into the role that former Pittsburgh receiver and current USC Trojan, Jordan Addison, had playing under Whipple in 2021.
The last time the Huskers and Hoosiers played, in 2019, the Hoosiers won 38-31 at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska fans were irked because they thought Indiana’s players were faking injuries. After the game, then-Indiana Athletic Director, Fred Glass, told the Indianapolis Star that the win was “particularly gratifying, particularly knowing Nebraska’s staff had no respect for our program.”
But that was then and this is now.
The Hoosiers are looking to rebound from a dreadful 2-10 campaign in 2021, but it’s not going well. Indiana comes to Lincoln with a 2-2 record after losing its season-opener to Illinois at home and a road game at Cincinnati. Turns out Luke Fickell can still coach and the Bearcats are still tough after several players from its College Football Playoff team left.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander is building his game plan around limiting two transfer players who weren’t on Indiana’s roster a season ago: quarterback Connor Bazelak and running back Shaun Shivers. Bazelak threw 23 touchdowns and 17 interceptions the past two seasons at Missouri while Shivers—a 5-foot-7, 189-pounder—rushed for 1,020 yards and eight touchdowns in four seasons at Auburn.
Despite losing key players from 2021, Chinander’s Blackshirts continue to impress and force two turnovers. Corner Quinton Newsome has the first interception of his career while outside linebackers Garrett Nelson and Ochaun Mathis continue to be fun to watch on third-and-longs. Chinander’s blitz packages put Nelson, Mathis, Caleb Tannor, Ty Robinson and Texas Tech transfer Devin Drew on the field together. Three safeties are usually out there as well in Myles Farmer, Marques Buford Jr. and first-year Husker DeShon Singleton, a junior-college product from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.
Singleton didn’t see much playing time in the first four games, but Chinander doesn’t want to keep the big and rangy athlete on the sideline. During the bye week, Chinander and his staff installed a new third-down package that included Singleton, and it pays off in the second quarter when he nearly gets to Bazelak. Singleton didn’t get a sack, but he affected Bazelak’s follow-through and didn’t allow the quarterback to step into the throw, causing the ball to float and nearly be picked off.
Like Singleton, another player emerged against Indiana—running back Gabe Ervin Jr. Early in the season, the coaching staff wanted to play it safe with Ervin, who suffered a season-ending knee injury at Oklahoma last year. He only received backup carries in the four wins while the primary rotation was Rahmir Johnson, Jaquez Yant and New Mexico Military Institute transfer Anthony Grant.
At 6 feet and 215 pounds, Ervin looked good against the Hoosiers. The Georgia native has a nice blend of size and speed, and the knee didn’t look to bother him at all. After a 4-yard touchdown run in the third, Ervin slams his right fist against his chest multiple times and screams, “I’m back!” in front of a cheering student section.
Fans who want to beat the traffic start trickling out of Memorial Stadium midway through the fourth quarter, some wondering how—or if—a four-man running back rotation is going to work.
Nebraska improves to 5-0 with a two-score win over the Hoosiers, and head coach Tom Allen is his typical intense, yet classy, self in the postgame interview. He praises the work Scott Frost has done, saying the fifth-year coach has shown great leadership under hard circumstances. Allen ends his time at the podium by gently leaning into the microphone and thanking media before letting out an “L-E-O”—he loves the manta Love Each Other—and walks to the locker room, already thinking about next week’s game against Michigan.
After not winning three consecutive games during his first four seasons at Nebraska, Frost is all of the sudden riding a five-game winning streak and is one victory away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time leading the Huskers. There’s a certain vibe around Lincoln, a good one.
The positive notions continue to grow after a win on the road at Rutgers, a Friday night game. They did it. The Huskers qualified for a bowl for the first time since 2016. The Railyard in downtown Lincoln is packed that night. How far can these guys go, one fan wonders aloud. Another, wearing a red T-shirt that reads, “Frost ’18; Make Nebraska Great Again” says he’s glad the fifth-year coach proved his haters wrong and the administration stuck with him.
That night in Piscataway, Chinander’s defense made life hard on former Husker quarterback and native Nebraskan, Noah Vedral. Nelson is credited with 1.5 sacks on the ineffective Vedral, and the Scarlet Knights went to former four-star recruit Gavin Wimsatt in the second half. Wimsatt didn’t fare well either.
Rutgers never got the ball consistently to big-play receiver Taj Harris, a Syracuse transfer. Harris caught 151 passes for over 2,000 yards in four seasons with the Orange, but Newsome’s 6-foot-1 frame and length matched up well with the 6-2 Harris and gave him problems. Newsome, who’s having a great year as the Huskers’ top corner, holds Harris to under 50 yards receiving and kept him from being a factor.
Rutgers’ run game didn’t produce much, either. Luke Reimer racked up 13 tackles while Nick Henrich had nine. After the game, Frost praised interior linemen Robinson, Drew, Alabama transfer Stephon Wynn Jr. and Nash Hutmacher. They kept the offensive linemen from climbing to the second level to block the Huskers’ two excellent inside linebackers.
Back home in Lincoln, things are starting to feel different. The Huskers are 6-0 and have Purdue in West Lafayette up next. Yet, the fan base is torn, especially on social media. One group of fans can’t enjoy the wins because they know the teams Nebraska beat weren’t that impressive. Of course Oklahoma can be considered a good win, but everyone knows it’s not the Lincoln Riley-era Sooners. Another group gets mad when portions of the fan base simply can’t stop and smell the Husker-win roses. You can only play who’s on your schedule, right?
But as the popular proverb says, all good things must come to an end. And it comes at the hands of Purdue Pete.
Purdue didn’t have the greatest offseason. It lost star receiver David Bell and monster defensive end George Karlaftis to the NFL. Starting safety Marvin Grant, one of the best players on its better-than-you-would-think defense in 2021, transferred to Kansas. Yet, the Boilermakers return sixth-year quarterback Aidan O’Connell and come into the Nebraska game 4-2 with wins over Indiana State, Syracuse, Florida Atlantic and Maryland.
It’s a dreary, damp and overcast day in West Lafayette, fitting for a disappointing loss.
The former walk-on O’Connell throws for over 300 yards and Purdue hands Nebraska its first defeat of the season. Two transfer receivers from Iowa—Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Charlie Jones—help overcome the loss of Milton Wright, a receiver who was supposed to take over for Bell but wound up not being able to play in 2022 because he was academically ineligible.
Nebraska’s offense never finds rhythm inside Ross-Ade Stadium. Quarterback Casey Thompson completed only 54% of his passes and threw a pick. He’s been OK at the helm of the offense. Not great, but OK.
Midway through the third quarter fans back home are yelling at Mark Whipple through their TVs, wondering why he fell in love with the pass so much. One fan in Brainard, Nebraska, Busch Light in hand, tells his wife there was hardly an effort to establish the run in the first half. “That’s why they’re down right now. It’s not physical football. Run the damn ball,” he says.
Jones, last year’s Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year, averages about 20 yards on his first two punt returns of the first half. Bill Busch, the first-year special teams coordinator, holds up his hands during the returns and yells, “What are we doing?” After Jones’ second return that puts the Boilermaker offense in Husker territory—he eludes sure-tacklers Phalen Sanford and Ernest Hausmann on the play—Busch instructs punter Brian Buschini to start angling his kicks toward to sideline. If they go out of bounds, they go out of bounds, the coach says. Jones doesn’t get another opportunity to return a punt all day.
The second and final bye week greets the Huskers when they fly back to Lincoln. Last year, the Huskers lost to Minnesota before a bye and then dropped one to Purdue. This season, Nebraska gets another shot at Illinois after a week off.
Bret Bielema and his Fighting Illini come to town with a surprising 4-3 record, largely because of a new-look offense. Behind first-year offensive coordinator Barry Looney Jr. and Syracuse transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito, there’s more life to Illinois’ attack than there was last year.
The Illini have a sneaky-good tandem in the backfield of Chase Brown and Josh McCray, a real bruiser at 6-1, 240 pounds. They lost starters on the offensive line from 2021, but a couple junior-college products—Zy Crisler, who spent last year at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and is a mountain at 6-6 and 360 pounds, and Isaiah Adams, from Garden City (Kan.) Community College—have impressed.
Illinois has won the last two matchups against Nebraska, but the Huskers finally get over the Illini hump and beat them, though it was closer than many in the stands would’ve liked. For whatever reason, Illinois just plays Nebraska tough.
Thompson has a much better game than he did against Purdue. Omar Manning caught a quick 5-yard out route against single coverage and broke a tackle for a 14-yard touchdown reception. Manning is a nice compliment to Palmer, who enjoyed a strong start to the season but has seen his production tail off ever so slightly as the season has gone on.
The win over Illinois was probably the best Nebraska’s offensive line has looked. Many in the fan base were on the fence about the hire of offensive line coach Donovan Raiola, but for the most part the first-year coach has done a good job with his unit. There haven’t been many egregious errors up front. The penalties have been cut down. Sacks, too. The offensive line improving to just average has been an important part of Nebraska’s 7-1 start.
We’ve reached the end of Path A’s October stretch. The Huskers are shocking the college football world at 7-1, with the only loss coming at Purdue. Up next is the month of November, a tougher stretch that includes two home games against Minnesota and Wisconsin and a couple road contests at Michigan and Iowa.
Next Sunday we’ll take stroll down Path B’s October, which is quite different than Path A’s version.