Huskers Striving for Fast Start to Season

Does Last Year’s Blowout Win Against Northwestern Give Nebraska an Edge?

By Steve Beideck • Photos by Reggie Ryder

Nebraska players were hopeful a year ago the thumping they put on Northwestern would be a momentum-builder for the final six games of the 2021 season.

The Wildcats were the defending Big Ten West champions and harbored hopes, at the least, of another bowl game appearance.

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Running back Jaquez Yant had his best game of the season against Northwestern in 2021 with 13 carries for 127 yards, which included a 64-yard run.

Instead of that 56-7 victory igniting a second-half resurgence following a 3-3 start, the Oct. 2 blowout was the last time Nebraska would win a game.

The 2022 battle of the Big Ten teams with Ns on their helmets – both of which finished 2021 with 3-9 records – has a different theme than recent meetings. Both schools are looking for fast starts to a crucial season.

Northwestern has demonstrated an ability in recent years to bounce back from subpar seasons. In 2019, the Wildcats had another of those 3-9 seasons, but went 7-2 in the pandemic-abbreviated 2020 season and reached the Big Ten title game.

Does the yo-yo come back up in 2022 for Pat Fitzgerald’s charges? More was expected of Northwestern last season, but an anemic offense and underachieving defense produced mostly disappointing results.

The Wildcats have rarely been offensive juggernauts. Even when they’re eking out victories and winning seasons, much of the credit rightly lends to consistently stellar defensive efforts.

Nebraska’s yo-yo keeps hitting the floor. A coaching change from Mike Riley to Scott Frost following the 2017 season has produced more heartache than reasons to celebrate.

The Huskers haven’t had a winning season since 2016. They haven’t won a postseason game since the 2015 Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, California. Their record at Memorial Stadium since 2017 is 13-18.

Frost-led teams haven’t come close to a winning season since his ballyhooed arrival from Central Florida. The Huskers are 15-29 in Frost’s four seasons, including an 11-13 record in home games.

Some of that can be forgiven by the fan base if fortunes begin to change early and continue through the 2022 season. A late-August game shouldn’t be a make-or-break affair for a coach, but it could be just that for Frost and Co. with a poor showing on the national stage in Dublin, Ireland.

Especially after Nebraska annihilated the Wildcats a year ago when quarterback Adrian Martinez had three rushing touchdowns in the first 10:46, and place-kicker Connor Culp had yet to catch the yips that would cost him his starting job.

Nebraska will be properly favored against the Wildcats, but no one can count on a blowout in the season opener, especially in this series.

Six of the 11 Nebraska-Northwestern games played since the two programs became conference mates in 2011 have been decided by three points or less. Both teams have won three and lost three.

Edge Garrett Nelson, left, and JoJo Domann celebrate a sack against Northwestern.
Edge Garrett Nelson, left, and JoJo Domann celebrate a sack against Northwestern.

Nebraska should be more familiar with Northwestern’s personnel. Not just because of the Wildcats number of returning starters, but because the Huskers had so much turnover in both their roster and coaching staff.

The Huskers hit the portal hard to remake an offense that now will be run by offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, even a few offensive linemen will be new to the Northwestern defense.

Northwestern’s defense will have a few new faces, but the way Fitzgerald builds from the linebacker spots both forward to the D-line and backward to the safeties will again spell trouble for opposing offenses. Bryce Gallagher, like Garrett Nelson for the Huskers, will be the pulse of the defense from his linebacker spot.

If Whipple wants his offense to throw the ball around Aviva Stadium – the soccer pitch that will host this game in Dublin – he’ll have to solve an experienced secondary trying to stop Nebraska’s new corps of receivers. Coco Azema, Cameron Mitchell and A.J. Hampton all are returning Wildcat starters.

The only drawback to having that group back is that Northwestern defenders picked off just six passes all of last season, and the star who had two of those – safety Brandon Joseph – transferred across the Illinois-Indiana state line to play for Notre Dame.

Even with several offensive players back for the Wildcats, the quarterback position is still up for grabs. Ryan Hilinski and Brendan Sullivan are vying for the starting spot.

The strength of the Northwestern offense likely will be the offensive line with four starters returning, led by left tackle Peter Skoronski. Andrew Clair and Evan Hull are expected to be the one-two punch in the backfield behind Hilinski or Sullivan.

Here’s the recent history that is on Northwestern’s side. Only once under Fitzgerald have the Wildcats had back-to-back losing seasons (2013 and 2014). He figures to have his team ready.

What’s the recent history that supports a Nebraska victory? The Huskers defeated the Wildcats both in 2013 and 2014, though one of those wins took a miracle heave from Ron Kellogg III to Jordan Westerkamp on the final play to secure the victory.

But the most telling item still favors the Huskers – that 56-7 victory last season.

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