A beaming near-full moon rose over Memorial Stadium’s east end around the time Georgia Southern reached its own 39 yard line on what would be its game-winning drive. If the billions of watts illuminating Tom Osborne Field burned out, Mother Nature would have illuminated the final 3 minutes of Saturday’s game.
Georgia Southern’s Kyle Vantrease, who lost in this very spot as Buffalo’s starting quarterback a calendar year ago, capped a 75-yard touchdown drive of his engineering with an 8-yard run up the middle. It was the final 8 of 642 yards and final 7 of 45 points the Nebraska defense allowed.
The moon cast spotlight on Husker quarterback Casey Thompson to orchestrate the improbable in 35 seconds. Nebraska’s offense moved 43 yards in 34 seconds. Kicker Timmy Bleekrode’s 52-yard last gasp had the distance but went wide left. That sealed it. Nebraska (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) lost to Georgia Southern (2-0, 0-0 Sun Belt), 45-42.
Students chanted “fire Frost.” Fans booed their way out of the stadium while the waning gibbous looked over Lincoln. The sun set on the western horizon about 3 hours earlier, as the Eagles seized a 28-21 second-quarter lead on its third of six touchdown drives. And at some point between then and the final, it might also have set on the head coach’s tenure.
“I’m blessed to be the coach here, I love this state and this program,” head coach Scott Frost said afterwards. “I’m fighting with everything I have, so is the rest of the coaching staff.”
Fans stayed for the duration of Saturday’s game. They stayed in the student section, throughout season ticket holder areas, even in the East Stadium expansion that was installed less than a decade ago to bring capacity up to 90,000. They urged a defensive stop and rose to their feet hoping for a miracle. And when that miracle went left of the uprights, nearly every set of eyes peered down to the former National Championship-winning Husker quarterback sunken on the sidelines.
“I appreciate the people that are with us,” Frost said as he walked away from the podium during post-game comments. “Thank you.”
It was a bewildering result in a strange game. After scoring on the first drive of each half in both games so far, the Huskers’ first drive went backward. A three-and-out accrued negative-1 yard. Human field flipper Brian Buschini’s 65-yard punt forced Georgia Southern to start at its own 25 despite the stop.
That wasn’t a problem. The Eagles marched down the field in 13 plays to find the end zone. Those two drives took the first six minutes, 58 seconds of the first half. The remaining 23 minutes were a track meet.
Marcus Washington was open over the middle for a 33-yard catch on 3rd and 3, sparking a drive that ended with Casey Thompson running in from eight yards out. Georgia Southern answered in less than 2 minutes on a five-play drive — three of which went for 19 yards or more. Running back Jalen White gashed the Huskers for 26 yards to score.
“I knew as long as we could continue to get the ball back we could go score or get a field goal, we’d be OK,” Thompson said after the game. “I kind of knew early on in the first or second quarter (it would be high-scoring).”
Thompson engineered a response, checking through the Georgia Southern defense. He scanned down defenders and read receivers open. Then he found Brody Belt wide open in the end zone for a 21-yard score.
Then Marques Buford Jr. supplied the Nebraska defense with the first of his two. On a Vantrease throw to no receiver in particular, Buford leapt and ripped the ball from the air. The Huskers drove 76 yards on the back of that play, on legs of Anthony Grant and big catches from Oliver Martin. Grant ended the drive with his only score of the game.
Georgia Southern was in the end zone four plays later. Running back Gerald Green broke through for a 67-yard run down to the 3 and then finished the drive. When Nebraska’s offense failed to score, missing an opportunity to retake the lead, the Eagles sprinted out ahead once again. Green went largely untouched through a gap in the defense for the 47-yard touchdown.
Nebraska’s offense kept stride. Thompson’s arm and Grant’s legs moved the offense down the field in less than 2 minutes. Alante Brown, Trey Palmer and Washington all hauled in catches before Thompson ran for his second score.
Then the NCAA rulebook scored as many stops as Nebraska in the opening half. Georgia Southern slashed through the defense down to the Nebraska 2 when, out of timeouts, Vantrease spiked to stop the clock with 2 seconds left. That was an illegal snap. That brought a 10-second runoff. So Georgia Southern’s field goal unit was left on the field while Nebraska ran into halftime once again desperate for answers.
Head coach Scott Frost told the FOX Sports 1 crew going into the break he was disappointed in the defense. “They need to answer the bell in the second half,” he said.
The answers didn’t come. Instead, Georgia Southern scored in eight plays to retake the lead.
“We have to watch the tape and understand why we missed today and where we are at,” edge rusher Garrett Nelson said. “Our coaches do a good job at getting us right. So we just need to be honest with ourselves and be the hardest critiques.”
Nebraska’s offense misstepped, opening the door for disaster. But at 8:17 in the third quarter, the defense stood its ground. Nebraska ended the Eagles’ perfect 7-for-7 run on third down conversions and forced a punt. In response, the offense scored on a 5-minute drive that went 84 yards in 13 plays to tie the game for the fifth time.
Georgia Southern ate up more yards, getting to the 2, before Nebraska’s defense toughened and kept the end zone empty. Georgia Southern settled for a field goal. When Nebraska’s offense went backwards on its next drive, the Husker defense was once again pushed into the spotlight. And from stage left, shielding his receiver, came Buford once again. The sophomore grabbed his second interception of the game, and career, to give the Huskers a lifeline.
“Once I got on that field, throwing the 98-yard drive, I forgot we started at the 2-yard line,” Thompson said. “It’s just something that you have to ignore the mental block of it’s a huge task and it’s a huge barrier to climb, just go out and play ball one play at a time and execute. I think we did that.”
Thompson and the Husker offense slingshotted off the momentum of Buford’s interception. They drove those 98 yards on 15 plays in just under 6 minutes. It was the championship kind of drive that controlled the game, took the lead and put Georgia Southern’s up-tempo offense into its 2-minute drill. But just as they had throughout the game, the Eagles chipped away at 75 yards and eventually Vantrease took it himself 8 yards for the score.
That was it. The Huskers were simply out of time.
In the quieter post-game moments, multi-generational families played catch on Tom Osborne Field. Phones captured young Husker fans catching passes on the hallowed ground. Memories among an inevitable future. The moon continued its orbit and the sun would follow. What’s next for the Huskers?