By Steve Beideck
Find a new starting quarterback, bring two dozen new players into the program, make sweeping changes to the offensive coaching staff.
All those things happened in the offseason, but none of the moves made a difference in the second half Saturday as Nebraska squandered a pair of 11-point leads before dropping a 31-28 decision to Northwestern in the 2022 football season opener for both teams.
The result wasn’t all on an offense that gained just 84 yards in 23 plays the final 6:41 – drives that ended with four punts and two interceptions. Or that tight end Travis Vokolek left the game in the second half with an injury.
It also wasn’t just on the defense, which did a nice job stopping ball carriers around the line of scrimmage. It was in the back seven where receivers and runners got free after catching one of the 27 passes Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski completed.
After scoring 28 points in the first 35-plus minutes of the game played at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, the Nebraska offense crumbled, and the defense continued to miss tackles as the Wildcats shredded the Blackshirts for 528 total yards.
That total includes 313 yards from a program not known as a pass-oriented offense.
Nebraska racked up 465 yards of offense, including 355 through the air by QB Casey Thompson. That total obliterated the school record of 238 set by Tanner Lee against Arkansas State in 2017 for the most passing yards by a Nebraska quarterback in their Huskers debut.
There also was Anthony Grant, who rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. He accounted for all but nine of Nebraska’s total rushing yards.
Sadly, those won’t be the numbers most people reflect on as preparations begin Monday for Nebraska’s Sept. 3 home opener against North Dakota and the other 10 games on the regular season schedule.
Instead it will be numbers like these that will stick in the craw of Nebraska fans, players, coaches and administrators as they evaluate how a game like this could seemingly slip away after so much early game success:
• Northwestern possessed the ball for 34:14 and ran 12 more plays than the Huskers (85-73)
• Wildcats quarterback Ryan Hilinski was 20-of-23 passing at halftime (87%) and finished the game 27-of-38 (71.1%) for 313 yards while toying with the Nebraska secondary
• This was Nebraska’s seventh consecutive loss by nine points or less, and 10th loss in 11 games, dating back to the 2021 season.
• Worst of all, Nebraska committed three turnovers, compared to one for Northwestern.
Nebraska seemed to be poised for a victory after taking a 28-17 lead less than six minutes into the third quarter. Instead of kicking the ball deep, the Huskers attempted an onside kick after locking down the game’s momentum with that TD run by Grant following Northwestern’s lone turnover.
The Wildcats took advantage of Nebraska’s head-scratching decision and went 44 yards in five plays to get those seven points back, never again surrendering the momentum.
“Any time something doesn’t work, you want it back,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. “We’ve been talking to the kids about being aggressive and attacking this thing for weeks. We got a look that was good for it, and I made the call, so it’s on me.
“At that point in the game, I thought all the momentum was on our side. I felt at that point we had a really good chance of winning the game. You can’t really foresee them scoring 14 points and us sputtering after we played well to start the second half on offense.”
Northwestern rallied in the battle of teams that went 3-9 and 1-8 in Big Ten play in 2021. The setback was Nebraska’s 10th loss – all by nine points or less – in the past 11 games. The lone win in that stretch? A 56-7 victory over Northwestern on Oct. 2, 2021.
Nebraska (0-1)…7 7 14 0 – 28
Northwestern (1-0)…3 14 14 7 – 31
At Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Ireland
Neb-Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda 32 pass from Casey Thompson (Timmy Bleekrode kick)
No-Adam Stage 35 FG
Neb-Thompson 1 run (Bleekrode kick)
No-Raymond Niro 43 pass from Ryan Hilinski (Stage kick)
No-Donny Navarro 6 pass from Hilinski (Stage kick)
Neb-Anthony Grant 3 run (Bleekrode kick)
Neb-Grant 46 run (Bleekrode kick)
No-Cam Porter 3 run (Stage kick)
No-Evan Hull 4 run (Stage kick)