Photo Credit: Eric Francis

How October Unfolds in the Worst Version of Nebraska’s Season

June 19, 2022

Nebraska fans will live in one of two different worlds this season.

One world has the Huskers beating Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern on Aug. 27 in Dublin, Ireland. The other has Big Red dropping its season-opener. We’re attempting to look at how the rest of the season unfolds in those separate worlds, month by month.

Let’s say a Nebraska win over Northwestern would help produce a 4-0 record at the end of September with wins over the Wildcats, North Dakota, Georgia Southern and a rebuilding Oklahoma program. Meanwhile, in the other world, it’s not as pretty with a loss. A defeat would have Big Red at 2-2 after September—not great. Here’s what both those worlds would look like. 

Last week, we detailed what the month of October would look like if Nebraska were to start 4-0. The Huskers host Indiana and Illinois and travel to Rutgers and Purdue that month. If Nebraska would get past Northwestern, the Huskers would enter November with a 7-1 mark (those Boilermakers are pesky). Interested in how they got to 7-1? Read about it right here.

Today, we’re living in the world where the Huskers start the season 0-1 and then 2-2.  Let’s pick it up on Oct. 1, the day the Hoosiers travel to Lincoln.

The Huskers are coming off a close loss to Oklahoma and need to start winning games, but that doesn’t start against Indiana. The Huskers fall at home to the Hoosiers, who came into the game 2-2 but made fewer mistakes. Nebraska is the more talented team on paper, but head coach Tom Allen and his first-year offensive coordinator, Walt Bell, manage to get enough points on the scoreboard.

Nebraska’s run defense is proving to be pretty good—not 2021 good, but pretty good. The pass defense, however, struggled against the Hoosiers’ air attack, led by transfer quarterback Connor Bazelak. Bazelak threw 17 interceptions the past two seasons at Missouri, but there’s no denying his arm talent. The guy can spin it, and he tosses over 250 passing yards on a Nebraska defensive back rotation that, aside from corner Quinton Newsome and safety Myles Farmer, lacks experience.

Indiana lost its top three receivers from last year, but tight end AJ Barner returns. The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder who developed under Peyton Hendershot is now showing he can be a pass-catching tight end, too. Allen also hit the portal and found receivers to help fill those roles. One of them had a big day against the Huskers—Emery Simmons, who spent three seasons at North Carolina catching passes from Sam Howell.

Simmons becomes an irritant for Husker fans watching from home. He doesn’t quite match what Whop Philyor did against the Nebraska defense in 2019—14 catches for 178 yards, with a long of 24—but Simmons does his damage on third-and-shorts, executing rub routes to perfection, picking up 3 and 4 yards to move the chains on multiple occasions.

Nebraska’s offense continues to be ineffective. Mark Whipple’s passing game doesn’t resemble that of his offense at Pittsburgh in 2021—yet. That attack had the benefit of a veteran fifth-year quarterback who had been in the system. Nebraska doesn’t have that luxury in 2022, and it’s taking Casey Thompson and his receivers time to figure everything out.

Thompson throws a touchdown, but tosses an interception as well. At 2-3, Husker fans are wondering if a quarterback change would help.

The Huskers even their record at 3-3 the following Friday night in New Jersey. Thompson plays well, but strong defense and the offensive line’s performance was what won the game.

Under the lights in Piscataway, the Huskers’ ground game churns out 200 yards. Left guard Nouredin Nouili had highlight-reel run block on one Scarlet Knight that allowed Jaquez Yant to rumble for a 36-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Rutgers’ run defense has always struggled since joining the Big Ten—it has never finished better than 10th in the conference in yards per rush.

Defensively, the rotation at the interior of the defensive line—Ty Robinson, Stephon Wynn Jr., Devin Drew and Nash Hutmacher—continues to play well and create space for linebackers Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich. Ochaun Mathis and Garrett Nelson combine for 2.5 sacks, too.

After a slow start to the season, running back Anthony Grant has his breakout game as a Husker. Grant rushes for over 100 yards and delivers a few big blows to defenders. The performance reminds fans of when Dedrick Mills rushed for 191 yards against the Scarlet Knights in the 2020 season finale.

With the season not going as planned with the Huskers sitting at 3-3, things get worse with a loss to Purdue.

The shaky pass defense hurts the Huskers again. Turns out the leadership that the trio of now-departed 2021 starters—safeties Deontai Williams, Marquel Dismuke and corner Cam Taylor-Britt—meant more to the back end of the defense than many originally thought.

Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell continues to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, which is really something considering he started his career in West Lafayette as a walk-on. Iowa transfers Tyrone Tracy and Charlie Jones are the headliners of Purdue’s receiving corps during the season, but in this particular game, freshman Zion Steptoe gives the Blackshirts fits.

Aside from being on an all-name list somewhere, Steptoe is a former three-star recruit from Texas who wanted to go to a school that throws the rock. He found what he was looking for with the pass-heavy Jeff Brohm. Nebraska’s defense plays with five defensive backs against the Boilermakers, and in this game Steptoe was often matched up with corner Tommi Hill in the slot. Hill, Nebraska’s transfer from Arizona State, is too aggressive and gets caught trying to make the big play instead of the right one a few times, and it leads to yards-after-catch for Steptoe.

Nebraska’s pass rush is non-existent at Purdue. The Husker defenders are close to getting to O’Connell many times, but due to his quick release and decision-making, the Boilermaker offense is tough to slow down. Purdue nickel-and-dimes its way to a win.

The Huskers’ second bye week of the season isn’t pleasant. There’s a 14-day stretch full of fans arguing on social media. All want change, but they can’t agree on how to go about it. Some don’t think any change is possible with a 3-4 start—season’s over. Others say a bowl game is still a possibility and they’re holding faith that Frost will have a strong finish in November, which could cool the seat he sits on and send the Huskers bowling.

Before Big Red can tackle November, Bret Bielema wants a word.

This is the game where the Huskers make the catastrophic mistakes fans thought were behind them. It’s 2021 all over again. Trey Palmer fumbles on a punt return—he never does that. The offensive line has three false start penalties—they had been good about that up until this point. Thompson plays OK, but the combined four drops from his receivers didn’t help, and he was running for his life in the second half due to poor pass protection.

Illinois beats Nebraska for the third straight time. The Huskers fought hard well into the fourth quarter and didn’t quite, but the mistakes created too deep of a hole to climb out of.

Quarterback Tommy DeVito, a transfer from Syracuse, made plays on the run all day. He breaks the pocket and patiently waits until his receivers get separation from Nebraska’s defensive backs. Isaiah Williams, a former quarterback, catches six passes for 75 yards and stings Nebraska’s defense with a couple well-timed jet sweeps, one of which goes for a touchdown, like in last year’s game. Bielema remembers how well the sweeps work from his days at Wisconsin.

For whatever reason, the Illini continue to have the Huskers’ number. Things aren’t sitting well in Nebraska. Big Red is 3-5 heading into a full-of-terrors November slate, which includes a couple home games against Minnesota and Wisconsin and two away contests at Michigan and Iowa.

There’s still a possibility to make a bowl game. That needs to happen in Scott Frost’s fifth year, everyone can at least agree on that. But the Huskers didn’t get the wins they were supposed to get during their favorable first-half of the schedule. Now it gets much harder.

But Frost’s teams have played Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa tough before. That will need to happen again, except with wins.

Next week, we travel back to the world where the Huskers beat Northwestern and start the season 4-0. We’ll dive into what that November looks like for the Huskers.

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