For the second straight season, Nebraska dropped a season-opening game against a Big Ten opponent in excruciating fashion, blowing not one, but two double-digit leads in a 31-28 loss to Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland. Routinely on the wrong end of close games, the Cornhuskers now fall to 5-21 in one-score affairs under fifth-year coach Scott Frost.
Nebraska showed real promise early in the third quarter, but everything changed once Frost called a bizarre onside kick after going up 28-17. Northwestern quickly sniffed out the kick and converted with a 44-yard drive capped off by a 3-yard Cam Porter touchdown to cut the lead to four.
Then, Texas transfer quarterback Casey Thompson threw his first interception in a Cornhuskers uniform. Northwestern responded with a six-play, 42-yard scoring drive culminating in a four-yard run from running back Evan Hull to give the Wildcats the lead for good. Northwestern ran the ball 12 straight times to kill the clock in the fourth quarter, using a four-minute drive to take the clock to just outside the two-minute mark. Thompson then threw another back-breaking interception off the fingers of a receiver on the next possession to end the game.
Much was asked of Thompson in his first start; the transfer threw 41 times for 355 yards with two total touchdowns. However, one pass was placed slightly high and another was tipped by a receiver for two frustrating interceptions. Running back Anthony Grant posted 101 yards rushing and two touchdowns, but the Cornhuskers averaged just 2.2 yards per carry outside of a 46-yard touchdown run.
Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski played one of the best games of his lengthy carer, however, completing 27 of 38 passes for two touchdowns with no interceptions. Hull and Porter also combined for 213 yards rushing and two scores.
What did we learn from Saturday's Week 0 game in Dublin? Here are three takeaways from the Big Ten opener to the 2022 season.
The new era looks like the old era
After a disappointing 3-9 campaign last season, Frost brought in a new quarterback (Thompson), new offensive coordinator (Mark Whipple) and a number of new players and assistants. In so many ways, this was billed as a new program that earned a fresh start under an embattled head coach.
The second Northwestern applied any pressure, however, the Huskers reverted right back to the mistakes of old.
"I think we're gonna learn as an offensive staff that you have to be a little creative in this league," said Frost. "It's tough for me, there's no one way of doing things. I think we can cooperate a little bit more."
Despite the heralded workouts from new offensive line coach Donovan Raiola, Nebraska was a complete non-factor in the trenches. When things started getting uncomfortable, Thompson's receivers regressed quickly. Not helping matters was the fact that tight end Travis Vokolek left with an injury. The final drive of the game ended with a receiver drop followed by a pass bouncing off a receiver's fingers for an interception. Naturally, turnovers ended up being a deciding factor.
Frost has had unbelievably bad luck in close games over his tenure. At a certain point, there's simply no excuse left.
It's an even-numbered year
The Wildcats have famously put together their best campaigns in even-numbered years over the past few seasons, including a Big Ten West title in 2020 and No. 21 finish in the AP Top 25 in 2018. After a miserable 3-9 effort last season, Northwestern looked more impressive in almost every facet than anyone could have expected.
The offensive line was the most impressive unit on the field by far, clearing the way for a group that posted 528 total yards on 6.4 yards per play. More impressively, the Cornhuskers had zero sacks and only one credited quarterback pressure.
Granted, it's hard to know exactly how much to read into things with an inconsistent Nebraska squad on the other sideline, but Northwestern won the game on its own terms. While there's still plenty to prove before the middle of the Big Ten schedule, the Wildcats have some legitimately elite talent groups with upside against even the best in the Big Ten West.
Bowl eligibility just became harder
Nebraska has not been to a bowl game since 2016, and Frost needs to reach that feat in 2022, at least, in order to keep his job. Unfortunately, losing a season-opener in which the Cornhuskers were favored for the second year in a row makes the pathway even harder.
Nebraska returns home for a matchup against a tricky FCS squad in North Dakota and will play Clay Helton's Georgia Southern squad the following week. Then, it's a battle with No. 9 Oklahoma in Lincoln in a game that could make or break Frost's career.
There are winnable games on the horizon -- but are any as winnable as against Northwestern? Without any bye weeks before Sept. 24, there's not much chance to settle down. And don't count on Frost leaving on his own if the results don't come in 2022.
"No," said Frost when asked if he would resign following the loss, "I love the guys."