Well, that was everything college football fans asked for and more.
There’s nothing better than an offensive shootout to open the season, and luckily for Northwestern fans, the ‘Cats did what many thought they couldn’t do. In classic bend-don’t-break fashion, Pat Fitzgerald emerged victorious in his 200th appearance as head coach of the ‘Cats, handing Scott Frost and Nebraska a 31-28 loss in the 2022 season’s opening contest.
After a slow start, Northwestern caught fire while Nebraska looked totally flat. Although NU trailed 28-17 at one point, the team never looked back, utilizing turnovers from the Huskers and sensational offensive line play to eke out a victory. Ryan Hilinski impressed as the starting QB, finishing with 313 yards on 27 completions — he was well supported by Evan Hull and Cam Porter, who combined for just over 200 rushing yards.
Northwestern’s secondary faced an aerial onslaught almost immediately. Thompson completed five passes in a 75-yard drive, and the finale had A.J. Hampton spun around in the end zone by UNL’s Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda for a 32-yard catch and score.
Hilinski took the field with a chance to counter. His first handoff to Hull barely moved the chains but catches from Malik Washington and Illinois transfer Donny Navarro III positioned the ‘Cats into Nebraska territory. A false start by junior lineman Josh Priebe sent NU back where it came from, but UCLA transfer Luke Akers pinned the Huskers inside the five on his first punt in purple.
Akers set up a staunch defensive stand from the ‘Cats, who, thanks to Adetomiwa Adebawore, forced UNL to punt.
Then, for the first time in over a year, Porter made his return, earning four yards before a gutsy Hilinski pass into coverage was complete to a leaping Navarro III. A run from Andrew Clair and a Washington catch brought the ‘Cats into field goal range, but that’s as far as the drive would go. Thanks to the new leg of North Dakota State transfer Adam Stage, Northwestern managed three points on the board.
The first wrapped up in the middle of a Nebraska drive, but not after Cam Mitchell made himself known with a big pass breakup that would have put the Huskers in the red zone. Nevertheless, Thompson completed four passes after-the-fact — including a play that sent Hampton Jr. limping to the sidelines — to march the Huskers inside the Northwestern 10.
Adebawore’s line held strong, stopping two consecutive UNL scoring attempts, but a penalty awarded to Northwestern for 12 men on the field handed Thompson a chance to rush for six. With 12 minutes remaining in the half, the Huskers found themselves up 10 with a 13-3 lead.
The ‘Cats were not discouraged, however. Hilinski opened the next drive with a pinpoint pass to TE Thomas Gordon for a 21-yard gain, and Hull followed with a first down pickup on an 11-yard run. That set up the offense for its first touchdown of the season, and who better to be on the receiving end than newly dubbed No. 1 Ray Niro III. He secured a beautiful 43-yard pass from Hilinski to send NU into double-digits.
With Nebraska now up four, the Huskers made it to Northwestern’s 35-yard line before LB Greyson Metz recovered a Garcia-Castaneda fumble. The ‘Cats took possession inside their own red zone with just under 10 minutes remaining, but Hilinski was unable to lead the offense out of its own half. Another sparkling Akers punt pinned Nebraska on its own six-yard line, giving the NU defense great field position for a stop.
And stop it did. Hard work from linebackers Bryce Gallagher, Metz and Xander Mueller coupled with Adetomiwa’s presence kept the Huskers in their own half with a pivotal third down stop on the 31. The ‘Cats regained possession just inside their own 20 with under three minutes remaining in the half.
With a chance to take the lead, Hilinski and the offense did not disappoint. A little help on the ground from Hull and eight (!) completed passes — one to running back Anthony Tyus, who powered ahead for 34 yards — ended with Navarro III pulling in his fourth reception in the back of the end zone for the lead. A missed 56-yard field goal by the Huskers on the ensuing drive marched the ‘Cats into the locker room up an encouraging 17-14.
That momentum did not appear to translate into the second half. Even with an offside called on the Husker defense, Hilinski failed to lead the ‘Cats out of their own half, and Nebraska regained possession. Northwestern’s defense almost had Thompson stopped on third down in its own half, but the Texas transfer turned what should have been an easy stop into a 58-yard pass caught by a wide-open Garcia-Castaneda.
Northwestern nearly forced a third-and-out after Ryan Johnson snuck behind the line for a sack, but a questionable pass interference call on Rod Heard on a seemingly uncatchable pass gave the Huskers life — and also the ball in the red zone. Anthony Grant powered through NU’s line and scored, handing UNL the lead with just under 10 to go in the third.
With a chance to respond and stay in it, Porter took the first handoff on the ensuing drive and took off — that is, until he fumbled at his own 46 to put the Huskers in prime position. And, just like that, Thompson handed it off the Grant again and a few missed Northwestern tackles sent him off to the races, putting UNL up 17-28 in the blink of an eye.
It wasn’t long until the ‘Cats were back in it after a failed onside kick placed the offense on Nebraska’s 44. Hilinski continued to complete passes, first to Gordon and then to Washington to set up first and goal. It was then Porter in wildcat formation who powered across the line for his first score in over a year, pulling Northwestern within three.
The next three drives alternated three-and-outs, with Coco Azema coming up with a big hit in the latter stop to give the ‘Cats another shot as the clock wound down in the third. Yards contributed by Porter and a pass down the middle to Washington pushed the ‘Cats into Nebraska territory before a call marking Peter Skoronski offside in the red zone brought the drive to its downfall. Adam Stage was eventually sent on where he recorded his first missed field goal from 36 yards out.
Still down three, the Wildcat defense was left with no choice but to pull out a stop and give the offense another chance. Enter Mitchell’s clutch interception and return, affording Northwestern possession at the Nebraska 42.
It was all Hull from there. The running back caught a 12-yard pass and then ran the rest of the way for the score, with Skoronski and the offensive line bullying Nebraska’s front along the way. Hull’s TD put Northwestern up 31-28 with just over 11 minutes to go.
The Wildcat defense responded accordingly on the next drive. Despite a facemask call affording UNL 15 extra yards, Northwestern’s secondary came up big, namely in the form of a big Azema tackle-for-loss on third down. Hilinski and the offense couldn’t repay the favor and went third-and-out on the next drive, but the defense continued to pick up slack when it needed to most. Adebawore put up huge pressure on Thompson which gave the ‘Cats the upper hand once again, and a punt put the ball right back in the hands of Hilinski inside the UNL 10 with under seven minutes remaining.
Porter and Hull might have just said “hold my Guinness” if they had one at hand for the next drive because they simply ran all over Nebraska’s line once again — with lots of credit due to the holes NU’s O-line was able to produce. Despite the two of them combining for just about 50 yards into Nebraska territory, the offense couldn’t get into field goal range.
Nonetheless, it was Akers to the rescue. The sophomore pinned the Huskers inside their own 10-yard line once again with under two minutes remaining on the clock for the Wildcat defense to pull out a key stop.
Junior LB Xander Mueller who finished the job on a game-sealing interception, allowing Hilinski to kneel out the final seconds and send Northwestern back to the states with its first win of the season.
The ‘Cats will sit out next weekend on a bye before opening their home slate on Sept. 10 versus Duke at Ryan Field.