The Nebraska nightmare almost followed the Huskers home.
North Dakota’s offense, which already ate yards by the bushel, marched 69 yards on a drive that ended in a field goal to cut Nebraska’s lead to 7. Then, two plays after picking off Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson, the Fighting Hawks were in the end zone. The air vacuumed out of Memorial Stadium. Nebraska was tied in the third quarter with FCS North Dakota on Saturday, having blown a two-possession lead just like they did twice against Northwestern.
When help was needed, Anthony Grant came to the rescue. The 5-foot-11 junior from Georgia muscled through the line, cutback to his left at the next level and hit the corner for a 46-yard touchdown run to retake the lead in the final 3 minutes of the third quarter. He finished with 189 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
“I really just stayed patient, followed my blocks,” he said afterward. “Initially had busted it outside and ran all the way to the touchdown.”
Grant’s big run ignited the Huskers. Ajay Allen found the end zone, Chancellor Brewington put it on ice with a pass from Casey Thompson and the Nebraska defense went on lockdown. North Dakota’s offense ran 53 plays up until Grant’s 46-yard score. They ran just 17 after. It did little to ease unrest in the stands but the Huskers pulled away for a 38-17 win on Saturday, snapping a seven-game losing streak.
After the game, head coach Scott Frost and team captain Garrett Nelson both spoke with watering eyes. Both Nebraska natives, they took last week’s loss especially difficult. Frost told his team they have a lot to improve upon. They played an improved enough fourth quarter to put the game away.
“Proud of the win, it certainly didn’t look like how the team planned for it to look like,” Frost said. “I told the team we’ve got a bunch of winners in the locker room and we found a way to win.”
The foundation for that win was built upon hot starts. For the third and fourth halves in a row, respectively, Nebraska (1-1, 0-1 Big Ten) scored on its first possession. In their opening drive, Thompson went high, low, low, high, low through the air for completions of 21, 8, 7, 24 and 8 yards, respectively. Grant then found a gap in the defense and hit the corner to score from 19 yards out. Out of halftime, the Huskers drove 75 yards in less than 2 minutes to retake the lead on a 19-yard pass from Thompson down the middle to an uncovered Nate Boerkircher.
But the mistakes, the inconsistencies followed.
That opening drive consisted of eight plays for 87 yards in 2 minutes, 2 seconds. The following four drives of the first half combined for 17 plays, 85 yards. Sixty-one of those yards came on a 12-play drive that ended in a missed field goal.
North Dakota, meanwhile, ran 40 plays for 173 yards. Those were spread across 20 minutes and 38 seconds of game time.
“They literally doubled our possession almost the whole game and had more plays than us,” Thompson said. “Honestly, for us to be in a tie game we were just trying to stay positive at halftime.”
There wasn’t a lot of positivity around Lincoln at halftime. With a loyalist crowd on its feet and fully behind the Nebraska defense, North Dakota’s offense lined up in the shotgun on fourth down at the Nebraska 5. The Fighting Hawks already moved the ball 75 yards at that point. Frost called all three timeouts.
North Dakota quarterback Tommy Schuster took the snap and looked to his right. He found receiver Adam Zavalney in the flat. Nebraska cornerback Tommi Hill swarmed to Zavalney and stopped him 3 yards short of the goal line. The crowd hollered and Hill ran in celebration 15 yards down field. Except, it wasn’t 4th and goal. It was 4th and 2. Zavalney didn’t need the end zone he just needed to be where he was.
Two plays later Schuster connected with Zavalney in the end zone to tie Nebraska with 13 seconds left in the first half. Nearly all of the 86,590 gathered went mute. Then the Huskers opted to kneel going into halftime. That brought the boos.
“We were giving up things when we didn’t execute our job well enough,” sophomore nickel Isaac Gifford said. “We knew we just had to keep doing our thing.”
Yet, the Huskers found resolve to win. A 46-yard field goal from Timmy Bleekrode extended the lead to 17-7 midway through the third quarter. And after a 10-point North Dakota swing erased that lead, the Huskers answered.
Along with Grant’s second touchdown came a momentous leaping catch from receiver Trey Palmer that kept a drive alive inside their own 10. On 3rd and 14 at their own 7, Thompson fired deep for Palmer. The LSU transfer plucked it out of the sky and wrestled it away from the defender for a 31-yard gain. Eight plays later, Nebraska took a two-touchdown lead.
“I was very happy and glad that Trey went up and got that ball,” Thompson said. “We both say that we owe each other from that last game, because he had a couple drops, I missed him a couple times.”
The Huskers looked for ways to correct misses. New ones then popped up in their stead. The team was also without two team captains. Tight end Travis Vokolek and lineback Nick Henrich were both out of pads following last week’s game. Then there was the recovery from flying back from Ireland.
Nebraska overcame all that to escape losing to an FCS team for the first time in program history. It was a 21-point win unlike most that came before it. But it counts all the same.