New season, same Nebraska: Huskers blow lead, lose 31-28 to Northwestern

New season, same Nebraska.

Nebraska’s miserable 3-9 record in 2021 included an impressively bad 0-8 mark in one-score games. To start off the 2022 campaign, the Huskers added another one-score loss to Scott Frost’s resume.

In a brutal 31-28 loss to Northwestern on Saturday in Ireland, Nebraska blew two double-digit leads. The Huskers jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the first half and then again went ahead by 11 in the third quarter.

But Frost’s team never scored again as Northwestern stormed back for a big upset victory.

The turning point was an inexplicably called onside kick by Nebraska.

On the heels of a Northwestern fumble, Nebraska went up 28-17 at the 9:09 mark of the third quarter. On the ensuing kickoff, the Huskers curiously tried to surprise the Wildcats with an onside kick. It didn’t work, giving Northwestern the ball inside Nebraska territory.

Just five plays later, Northwestern was in the end zone and within four points, 28-24, with 7:53 left in the third. The Wildcats, led by a dominant run game and an opportunistic defense, controlled things from then on out.

Though the offense had a missed opportunity in the red zone on their next drive, the Northwestern defense intercepted Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson early in the fourth quarter to set up the go-ahead touchdown.

That score came via a four-yard run from Evan Hull, who was part of a dynamic pairing with Cam Porter in the Northwestern backfield. Hull and Porter combined for 213 yards on 41 carries, helping the Northwestern offense pile up 527 yards of offense.

The Nebraska offense, meanwhile, came to a sputtering halt. The Huskers, with Thompson looking sharp, came out firing in the first half but racked up a total of 85 yards on just 3.7 yards per play after the failed onside kick.

It was just the latest in a string of heartbreaking losses for the Huskers, who are now an unbelievable 5-21 in one-score games during Frost’s tenure.

Frost entered the season on tenuous ground, and after a loss like this his hot seat has managed to get even hotter.

Northwestern running back Evan Hull (26) runs from Nebraska defender Isaac Gifford, left, during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Northwestern running back Evan Hull (26) runs from Nebraska defender Isaac Gifford, left, during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Nebraska started hot, but could not sustain lead

After four turnover-filled years with Adrian Martinez as the starting quarterback, Thompson was brought in from Texas to give the Nebraska offense a jolt. Mark Whipple, the new offensive coordinator, was hired by Frost to switch things up as well.

That combination looked good for the Huskers early. On the team’s opening drive, Thompson hit Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda for a pretty 32-yard touchdown. Thompson later scored on a goal-line run to put the Huskers up 14-3.

Northwestern, though, was able to keep pace. The Wildcats averaged just 13 points per game in Big Ten play in 2021 but looked much-improved. The offensive line was particularly impressive and quarterback Ryan Hilinski played his best game in a Northwestern uniform.

Thanks to two touchdown passes by Hilinski, Northwestern rallied to bring a 17-14 lead into the halftime locker room. Hilinski completed 27-of-38 passes for 313 yards and those two touchdowns.

While Hilinski played well, the Northwestern running game led the way for much of the second half. Hull went for 119 yards on 22 carries while Porter pitched in 94 yards on 19 attempts. Both scored a touchdown, including Hull's game-winner early in the fourth.

The Northwestern defense, meanwhile, brought Nebraska's penchant for turnovers back on display. In the first half, Nebraska's Garcia-Castaneda was stripped deep in Northwestern territory. In the second half, Thompson was intercepted twice.

His first INT came early in the fourth quarter and led to the Hull touchdown. His second sealed the victory for the Wildcats. After Northwestern was able to drain a significant chunk of the clock, Nebraska took over deep in its own territory with 2:12 to play. Four plays into that drive, Thompson's pass deflected off his receiver's hands and into the arms of Xander Mueller for the game-sealing turnover.

What does this mean for Nebraska?

This was the same old story for Nebraska. Frost's tenure has been plagued by losses like this. He's now 15-30 as the head coach at his alma mater with 21 of those losses coming by a single possession.

Despite the consistent losing, school leadership decided to bring Frost back for the 2022 season under a restructured contract that includes a significantly reduced buyout (that buyout drops in October).

It's just one game, but what evidence is there to suggest that these close losses will flip into wins at some point? The upcoming schedule is manageable, but traveling back across the Atlantic Ocean to play next Saturday will be a challenge, even if the opponent is North Dakota, an FCS program.

And after a performance like this, it's going to be a long flight back to Lincoln.