Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Play of the Game: Nebraska’s Failed Onside Kick

August 27, 2022

After losing a double-digit lead to trail at halftime, Nebraska came out firing in the second half against Northwestern. 

The Huskers forced a punt on the first Wildcat drive of the half. They went on to score a touchdown, forced a fumble on Northwestern’s next play and get in the endzone again. 

Up 28-17 with a near-perfect start to the third quarter, the Huskers decided to dial up a heat check. That came in the form of a surprise onside kick, which was easily scooped up by the Wildcats.

Momentum completely shifted from there. Northwestern scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive and did so again in the fourth quarter, all while shutting down Nebraska’s offense for a 31-28 win.

While there was an array of mistakes down the stretch, the onside kick marked the biggest shift of the game, making it this week’s Play of the Game. 

Head coach Scott Frost made the call, saying postgame that he thought the team could seal the game if the play was successful. In hindsight, he recognized the negative impact it had.

“If I had it over, I wouldn’t make the call,” he said.

Frost’s assessment of the team being able to put the game away with an extra offensive possession did have basis. The Husker offense had a lot going their way coming out of halftime.

On the first offensive drive, Casey Thompson made a play which would’ve been the standout of the contest if the Huskers held on. On a third down, he rolled out left under pressure, looked to run, turned backwards once he reached the sideline, then turned back around to make a 58-yard pass to Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda. The time between the snap and throw lasted at least 10 seconds.

Nebraska scored on the drive following a defensive pass interference call on another third down. Anthony Grant ran that one in, then went for a 46-yard score on the next drive after the Wildcats fumbled. 

That was the last of Nebraska’s offensive success, while the defense couldn’t do enough to hang on either. After Northwestern recovered the onside, Ryan Hilinski completed passes of 16 and 22 yards to set up a touchdown from running back Cam Porter. 

It took a while for the go-ahead score to come, as the Wildcats went three-and-out on the next drive and missed a field goal to start the final quarter. That wasn’t enough for the Huskers to steal back momentum, as Thompson threw his first interception six plays after the field goal attempt.

Finally, the Wildcats broke through to take another lead. Running back Evan Hull made a catch to convert on third down, then had runs of 12, 16 and four yards, the last one putting his team in the endzone. Hull ended the day with 119 rushing yards, a touchdown on the ground and 54 receiving yards.

There was plenty of opportunity for Nebraska to strike back with over 11 minutes still remaining, but it wasn’t capitalized on. The Huskers got to the 50 on their next drive before Thompson was sacked on third down. They also went three-and-out on the drive after that.

The last chance came with the Huskers starting at their own 4-yard line with just over two minutes to go and no timeouts. Thompson completed two straight passes for a total of 17 yards, but then threw the game-sealing interception off the hands of Wyatt Liewer. 

While part of his struggles can be attributed to drops like Liewer’s, Thompson couldn’t keep up his momentum. After the onside kick, he went 6-of-14 for 57 yards and threw two interceptions. 

Postgame, cornerback Cameron Mitchell, who caught Thompson’s first interception, was asked if he was surprised by the onside attempt.

“You never know with Nebraska,” he said.

That line from Mitchell has been common knowledge in Frost’s tenure. The Huskers’ special teams actually executed just about as well as they could when they were called on, but the bizarre decision from Frost will stand out. 

In the end, the head coach opted for the statistically low chance of recovering an onside kick over letting his defense — which had just stopped the Wildcats on two straight drives — work with a longer field. 

Given that and everything that happened next, it’s a decision worthy of being the Play of the Game. 

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