Nebraska still clung to a lead early in the fourth quarter against Northwestern when its defense returned to the field. Those reliable 11 marched back onto the field following Nebraska’s first interception, having just held the Wildcats to a missed field goal the drive before.
Two straight incompletions to start the drive. Hope was present although Nebraska struggled to get any sort of pressure or discomfort on quarterback Ryan Hilinski throughout Saturday’s game. Then came a 10-yard pass to back Evan Hull. The Blackshirt shoulders slumped. And the chests heaved. Northwestern’s offensive line bullied Nebraska’s front seven for the rest of the drive as Hull broke off runs of 12, 16 and the final 4 yards to seize the lead.
Running lanes consistently opened and Hilinski remained comfortable in the pocket throughout Northwestern’s 31-28 win over Nebraska at Aviva Stadium. In total, Hilinski threw for 314 yards and the Wildcats ran for a collective 214 (119 from Hull, 94 from Cam Porter). They tallied drives of 82, 75, 71, 53, 44 and 42 yards.
“Thirty-one points is way too many,” junior team captain Garrett Nelson said. “Broken coverage, not winning at the line of scrimmage, mistakes, missed tackling is all an accumulation of what we need to do and get better at as a defense.”
Head coach Scott Frost, during the post-game press conference, reiterated the importance of every drive in Big Ten play. Despite Nebraska twice leading by double digits, blown coverages, missed tackles and regretful calls left the door open for Northwestern.
“I didn’t think we tackled great in open space, I think when it was in the box it was fine,” Frost said.
If Frost needed another defensive silver lining, an encroachment call was the only penalty Nebraska committed.
A tired Blackshirt collective coincided with a struggling offense. The Huskers managed just 85 yards of total offense across five drives in the final 6 minutes. Thirty-eight yards of those came on a drive that ended in transfer quarterback Casey Thompson’s first of two interceptions.
“I feel like I was seeing things pretty well the whole game,” Thompson said. “I had a few missed throws but the name of the game is to play the next play. Travis (Vokolek) made a lot of big catches and plays for us early on and his presence, his leadership, his height over the middle definitely helps a lot.”
Vokolek was the recipient of big first-half catches over the middle in the first half, especially on third down. He went to the sidelines with an ankle injury with five catches for 63 yards. He planted and spun toward the sidelines during a play he wasn’t targeted on and went down. He remained in pads and told media afterwards it was “a little ankle thing” and reassured everyone he’d be fine.
Thompson said he tried to remain poised for all four quarters. It was easier in the first half when he went 17 of 24 for 231 yards with two total touchdowns. He finished 25 of 42 for 355 yards with two all-purpose touchdowns and two interceptions. (He was 8 of 18 with two interceptions in the second half.) He was also pressured multiple times, including two sacks.
Frost said Thompson did a lot of good things and is one of many talented players the Huskers brought in during the offseason. He underlined the importance to learn from mistakes made.
The Huskers were forced to the air by a brute Northwestern defense. Nebraska finished with 110 net rushing yards (101 from Anthony Grant) on a collective 31 attempts. Each ball carrier earned every yard gained. Outside of Grant’s 46-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, the Huskers mustered no run longer than 8 yards out of a traditional handoff.
“We certainly didn’t dominate,” Frost said. “I give their staff a lot of credit too, there was some scheme things that they hit us on on offense — I think we’re going to have to learn as an offensive staff that you’ve got to be a little creative in this league.
“We have some things we have to work on. I thought we did some good things but it’s got to be more of a complete game.”
This was the first game Frost wasn’t calling plays, having handed over duties to offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. The head coach admitted it was a tough challenge. He said lack of efficiency in the run game hurt the offense most.
After the game, Frost fielded questions about his own job security. He was asked directly if he’d consider stepping down at any point.
“No, absolutely not,” he said. “I love Nebraska, I’m going to fight with the guys as long as I can fight.”
Nebraska is now 5-21 in one-possession games under Frost, including a losing streak that now stretches nine games. His contract was restructured in the offseason. There’s growing anxiety about the Nebraska football program from fans. He also took responsibility for the onside kick call that prompted Northwestern’s 14-point comeback.
So how does the team focus when its head coach is answering questions about his job status?
“Culture,” Frost said. “Leadership, which is the best we’ve had. These guys need to do it for each other and they will.”
And how did one of the team’s captains feel afterwards? Nelson, a homegrown Husker who stirred his teammates with a pregame speech on the field, stressed correcting mistakes for the next game. No matter how similar Saturday’s outcome was to so many last season, Nelson said it was just one week with 13 more to follow.
“Our leaders did a really good job of keeping everybody together and understanding what type of team we’ve built,” Nelson said. “One loss doesn’t define us. It’s pretty salty in the wound right now but we can’t cripple as a team.”
The Huskers (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) return to Lincoln for a short week of preparations ahead of the home opener against North Dakota. It will be the Fighting Hawks’ season opener on the heels of a 5-6 season. Five of those six losses were within one possession.