DUBLIN –– Where would you have rather been when Nebraska, after seizing second-half momentum with 14 unanswered points to take a 28-17 lead, decided to onside kick it? Standing next to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald or sitting with Husker Athletic Director Trev Alberts?
It’s a tough call.
Fitzgerald and Alberts were two of the best linebackers of the early-1990s. They’re tough, plain-spoken, mindful guys who understand football at a high level and understand that a lot of winning happens at much more elemental level. Football can be complicated. It doesn’t have to be.
At Thursday’s pep rally at Merrion Square, Alberts expressed his worry about Northwestern being overlooked and his admiration for Fitzgerald, “a tremendous coach” who would have his team ready.
Alberts also said this: “They won’t make mistakes.”
Nebraska made one so big that, despite Fitzgerald and Alberts occupying the same beautiful country about the size of Indiana, their emotional responses to that kick had to have been on opposite ends of the earth. Both had to know exactly what it could mean, and that was what it meant as Nebraska didn’t score again in the 31-28 loss.
“At that point in the game, I thought all the momentum was on our side,” Scott Frost said. “I thought if we got it, we could end the game.”
That, “all the momentum,” is probably the primary argument against such a high-risk gambit. There were 9 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
“I felt like maybe we were the better team,” Frost said. “You really can’t foresee them scoring 14 straight and us sputtering after we played well to start the second half.”
Northwestern had scored 14 straight in the second quarter.
But, Frost liked the look Northwestern gave on the play. Fitzgerald was fine with it, too.
“I’m glad they kicked it where they did because I actually did a similar kick during practice a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “We’d talked about it. You’ve got a captain at the point of attack.”
That captain was running back Andrew Clair. He carried one time for 6 yards on a day when the Wildcats chewed up immaculate Irish turf for 216 yards, but Fitzgerald said Clair’s a captain for a reason. That reason.
“He was poised and disciplined and that was a huge momentum swing,” Fitzgerald said.
The talk all offseason was about how this game, as much as any first game can be, was a must-win for Nebraska. Everyone who follows Husker football knows why. The stakes are abundantly clear, and maybe the only response to such pressure is to be a little humble. Play the odds instead of doubling down.
Instead, Nebraska did what it did.
It was like playing this must-win game on the Varsity difficulty level and deciding to bump it up to Heisman just to really earn it.
It was like winning the lottery, navigating a difficult middle stretch of the game, and then betting it all on Northwestern being dumb. Northwestern, fairly famously, is not dumb, on campus or on the football field.
It was like getting out of jail only to rob the cabdriver who took you home.
It was like the last four years, the worst thing you can say about an opener following the four years Nebraska just had.
It was perhaps the only black mark on an otherwise gloriously green trip for thousands of Nebraska fans who keep the faith yet have it dashed on an almost weekly basis of late. The Huskers have won five of their last 16 games dating back to Nov. 21, 2020. All 11 losses have been by single digits.
Despite that, the hope of a new season is always tough to resist. Plus, there was plenty of good craic, an Irish saying for “fun,” all week long. Spirits were high.
How the Huskers’ lost this one may have plunged them to depths I wouldn’t have even thought possible after one game. The “how” here is truly mind-boggling. There’s plenty of season left, but this is going to be a mountain to climb. How much can one team really take?
When spirits were still high and thousands of fans in red flooded Merrion Square on Thursday, Frost shared an Irish saying he’d happened across.
“You can never plow a field by going over it in your mind.” Frost said he thought it spoke to Nebraskans a little bit, and it probably did.
But in Ireland, Frost, and maybe Nebraska fans by extension, learned a new lesson: You also can’t plow a field by overthinking it.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.