Once again, a football game between Nebraska and Northwestern came down to the final play.
The Huskers had 442 offensive yards and outgained the Wildcats by 135 yards, but found themselves down 21-13 with seven seconds left to go. The turnovers, penalties, red zone struggles and quarterback changes could all wash away with one final play.
On a fourth-and-four at the Northwestern 14-yard line, redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey dropped back and bought time to find an open receiver. His pass to a diving sophomore receiver Wan’Dale Robinson in the endzone would be the chance Nebraska needed to put Nebraska a two-point conversion away from overtime.
The ball hit the ground. Robinson’s pleas for a flag had no effect and Nebraska lost another game in the Big Ten. Nebraska dropped to 0-2 and head coach Scott Frost now sits at 5-15 in Big Ten play since 2018.
“I told them it’s my fault. It’s on me,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said postgame. “Offensively, we gotta punch it in...To come away with 13 points is inexcusable and that’s my fault.”
Nebraska had six drives enter the redzone against Northwestern, yet the Huskers only scored points on three of those drives. Of those three, only one was a touchdown. The other two were field goals from senior kicker Connor Culp.
Mills’ three-yard touchdown gave Nebraska a 13-7 lead late in the second quarter and complemented the Blackshirts outstanding defensive performance in the first half. Redshirt freshman safety Myles Farmer came in to replace safety Deontai Williams for the first half and had two first-half interceptions of Wildcat graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey.
“[Farmer] answered the call,” senior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said. “He showed up big time, he gave up opportunities for our offense. He earned a lot of respect from people today.”
Farmer’s second interception got the Huskers down to the Northwestern three-yard line with 1:32 left in the first half to set up Mills’ touchdown. The Huskers had taken the momentum, scoring 13 unanswered points and shutting down the Wildcats.
Nebraska’s defense was playing with two new secondary starters in the first half and was without senior linebacker Will Honas. During Northwestern’s first drive, the Wildcats ran with ease and went after sophomore cornerback Quinton Newsome right away.
Newsome was the other new secondary starter and missed a tackle that led to a 41-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Drake Anderson. After the first drive, Nebraska only gave up 54 total yards the rest of the half.
“Nerves were through the roof and we really just settled down,” sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer said. “That’s the first thing I thought of after the first drive of the first and second half.”
Nebraska’s defense was hit with an opening second half drive by Northwestern that saw the Wildcats take a 14-13 lead. Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey had shrugged off two first half interceptions and converted two third downs to keep the drive alive.
Reimer made his first ever start at linebacker against the Wildcats. His contributions helped the Huskers keep the run-heavy Wildcats offense at bay, limiting Northwestern to 3.8 yards per carry.
On offense, the Huskers offensive line faced major reshuffling as junior center Cam Jurgens was out with an injury. Redshirt freshman Ethan Piper made his first career start on the offensive line, starting at left guard, while senior Matt Farniok moved to center.
Each starter on the offensive line was called for a penalty by the end of the game and the line made up five of the seven Husker penalties. However, the offensive line’s performance wasn’t irredeemably terrible. The shuffled offensive line still created rushing lanes for the quarterbacks.
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez continued to excel on the ground, rushing for over 100 yards and led two scoring drives in the first half with his legs. While he was successful running the ball, Nebraska’s offense stalled thanks to his arm.
Martinez went 12-for-27 with 125 yards and despite his running, he was benched following a questionable throw to junior tight end Austin Allen that was picked off in the endzone.
McCaffrey was brought on to try and save the game for the Huskers after Martinez’s interception. Already known to be a fantastic runner, McCaffrey also showed good ability through the air.
“He gave us a good spark,” Mills said. “When it came to tempo, he moved the ball faster and more productively. Getting the defense on their toes and making them tired is what Luke brought to the game.”
Nebraska was only down 14-13, but Martinez had shown he couldn’t push downfield through the air. Even after McCaffrey was ushered in, the offense’s self-inflicted wounds continued. A failed flea flicker led to a sack, and then a punt that gave Northwestern good field position. The Wildcats then scored a touchdown to go up by eight points.
Nebraska was down 21-13 but there was still 9:53 left in the game. The Huskers used that time to immediately drive down the field.
The offense clicked on the following drive and more importantly, there were no penalties. Nebraska moved from their own 26 to the Wildcats six-yard line without a negative play.
Despite a defensive pass interference on third and goal, the Wildcats were determined to not give up a single second half point, just as they avoided doing so in their first two games.
On second-and-goal, McCaffrey’s sixth drop back of the drive was tipped at the line of scrimmage and picked off by senior Wildcat linebacker Chris Bergin. There was still 6:05 left and if Nebraska’s defense could get a stop, there was one more chance for redemption.
“Once it’s our time to get out there, we’re going to have a party,” Bootle said. “We’re all going to fly to the ball, we’re going to do our best to get the ball back.”
That stop came near midfield as Northwestern stalled out. At last, Nebraska had a shot at overtime; a shot to eventually win the game. Things did not start well. An illegal block on the Northwestern punt pinned Nebraska at its own eight with 2:14 left to go in regulation.
92 yards was what stood between a possible victory or going home winless. The offense moved well but like several other drives, Nebraska could not punch it in.
“We got to figure out how to stop playing in games that happen like this,” Frost said. “The players need to experience something good.”