With kickoff to Northwestern’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland under 25 days away, it’s time to begin examining the Wildcats’ opponents during their 2022 season via the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll be breaking down the teams that NU will face each week, discussing their 2021 campaigns, season outlooks and more.
As expected, we’ll kick off with the team the ‘Cats will oppose on the international stage: the infamous Nebraska Cornhuskers, whose 2021 was a mesmerizing case study.
Returning Production: 57 percent overall (Offense 57 percent, Defense 57 percent)
2021 Record: 3-9 (1-8 B1G)
Coach: Scott Frost
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2021 SP+ Overall: 37th
2021 SP+ Offense: 33rd
2021 SP+ Defense: 28th
When analyzing the Huskers’ 2021 season, the statistics reflect a team that was generally very solid and decently balanced. So, what caused a cataclysmic record?
The answer is squarely the inability to win close games.
Eight of Big Red’s contests were decided by eight points or fewer, yet Nebraska went winless in those matchups.
The season started with a zany Week Zero game in Champaign, Ill. against Illinois, which featured a safety and fumble return for touchdown. UNL posted 392 yards but mustered only 22 points, falling 30-22.
The Cornhuskers returned home to Lincoln and dominated FBS school Fordham and MAC opponent Buffalo, reaching 2-1. A road trip at rival No. 3 Oklahoma may have best embodied Nebraska’s season: Frost & Co. kept pace with Lincoln Riley’s squad but lost a narrow 23-16 affair in Norman.
After a three-point loss to Michigan State in East Lansing the next week, the Huskers handed Northwestern one of its worst defeats in program history. Nebraska amassed a prolific 657 total yards, including 427 rushing, en route to a 56-7 win.
Hope prevailed for Frost’s squad with a 3-3 record, but the week after the win over the ‘Cats proved the start of a highly improbable streak. Despite playing up to opponents like Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa, Nebraska lost a ridiculous nine straight to Big Ten opponents to close the year on a bizarrely sour note.
The Cornhuskers’ offense ranked positively in terms of scoring (27.9 points per game) and yardage (447.6 yards per game), but it wasn’t enough to translate to wins.
For the second straight season, quarterback Adrian Martinez proved to be Frost’s main offensive catalyst, pacing the team in passing and rushing yards. Martinez wasn’t exactly prolific, however: while the QB was efficient (9.4 yards per attempt), he threw for just 14 touchdowns against 10 interceptions with a 4.7 big-time throw percentage, per Pro Football Focus.
Martinez’s major offensive weapons were running back Rahmir Johnson (692 scrimmage yards, six touchdowns) and receiver Samori Toure, whose 898 receiving yards ranked fifth in the conference.
The Huskers will experience considerable offensive shakeup in 2022, though. With Martinez transferring to Kansas State, Frost added quarterbacks Casey Thompson and Chubba Purdy. Given that Toure and Austin Allen — UNL’s top two receivers in 2021 — headed to the NFL, Frost and his staff brought in receivers Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda (New Mexico State), Trey Palmer (LSU) and Marcus Washington (Texas), plus got a commitment from incoming freshman and former LSU signee Decoldest Crawford.
Nebraska’s offensive line will look different as well. Center Cam Jurgens was taken in the second round of the Draft, so the Cornhuskers will have to fill his void, plus the holes left by guards Matt Sichterman and Nouredin Nouili.
Arguably the biggest offensive shift isn’t in personnel. Frost hired longtime offensive guru Mark Whipple to serve as his offensive coordinator. Whipple, the offensive coordinator of the ACC Champion Pitt Panthers last year, takes the reigns from Matt Lubick, who had served as OC from 2020-21.
Akin to its offense, Nebraska’s defense played fairly well in 2021. The Huskers never surrendered more than 35 points in four quarters, averaging 22.7 allowed per game — a figure that was tied for 36th nationally.
DC Erik Chinander’s unit was particularly stout against the pass, permitting under 220 passing yards per contest and amassing 10 interceptions. UNL’s run defense was slightly less stout, yielding 147.4 ground yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry. Likewise, the Huskers did not rush the passer effectively, netting only 20 sacks last year.
Chinander’s team will have to adjust to the losses of cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, linebacker JoJo Domann and safety Deontai Williams, but the Huskers retain leading sack artist Garrett Nelson as well as cornerstones Luke Reimer, Quinton Newsome, Caleb Tannor and Nick Henrich. Keep an eye on transfers Ochaun Mathis (edge, TCU), Devin Drew (defensive line, Texas Tech), Omar Brown (defensive back, Northern Iowa) and Tommi Hill (defensive back, Arizona State).
Three Players to Know
QB Casey Thompson
Thompson appears the frontrunner to win the Huskers’ quarterback competition entering Aviva Stadium on August 27. The junior transferred from Texas, where he split time with Hudson Card at quarterback — and where he was supplanted by Ohio State transfer Quinn Ewers.
Playing 12 games last year, Thompson completed 63.2% of his passes for 2,113 yards, 24 touchdowns, nine interceptions, an efficiency of 154.7 and a PFF grade of 78.3. Thompson will compete with fellow transfer Purdy but should have an edge given the latter has played in just four games. Regardless of who starts under center, GBR will have a scheme transition, especially without the mobility of Martinez.
WR Omar Manning
Nebraska was a run-heavy offense last season, attempting 40.8 carries per game — compared to just 28.5 passing attempts. In Pittsburgh last year, however, Whipple heavily relied on the aerial attack of Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison.
In light of the departures of Toure and Allen, Manning becomes the Cornhuskers’ leading returner in receptions and receiving yards. Look for Thompson to target the redshirt senior often, especially if Whipple wants to maintain concepts.
LB Garrett Nelson
Besides Taylor-Britt, Nelson was Nebraska’s best defender last season. The junior edge rusher led the Huskers in sacks (five), pressures (32) and tackles for loss (11.5) and was one of the team’s three representatives at the Big Ten Football Media Days in Indianapolis.
Given Taylor-Britt’s NFL beginnings, Nelson will have to emerge as the leader on the Cornhuskers’ defense as the disruptor that he is.