Like it or not, Nebraska football entered Saturday night’s game against Northwestern at a crossroads.
Here, head coach Scott Frost’s team stood at a much-maligned 2-3 through five games, with an 0-2 record in Big Ten play to boot. When they came, Nebraska’s losses occurred in increasingly excruciating fashion: missed kicks, offensive line penalties, turnovers, questionable coaching decisions — the whole kit and caboodle.
While it’s impossible to classify any game as a must-win with half of a season remaining, after the two losses Nebraska suffered in consecutive weeks, the Huskers needed a victory in the worst possible way.
Doing so against Northwestern, the defending Big Ten West Champions and a team that’s historically played the Huskers close since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, would be the cherry on top.
Saturday night’s game was close for six minutes, maybe less.
The Huskers utterly dismantled Northwestern 56-7 in one of the most complete and dominant victories of Frost’s tenure. Even better, all of the mistakes that plagued Nebraska in its losses were nonexistent.
“We’re a lot better team than we have been,” Frost said postgame. “We have a lot of work to do still.”
Nebraska’s oft-penalized offensive line? They were a completely different unit against Northwestern. The Huskers completely flipped their offensive line’s makeup against the Wildcats to great success, and as a result it led to Nebraska’s offense putting a ruthless performance together against head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats.
Freshman offensive lineman Teddy Prochazka started at left tackle, while fellow freshman offensive lineman Turner Corcoran flipped to right tackle. Sophomore offensive lineman Nourendin Nouili, a Colorado State transfer, started at left guard.
“Man, did we run it better,” Frost said postgame.
That might be the understatement of the season.
Nebraska’s new offensive line combination equaled 664 total yards of offense, 434 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns and, of course, 56 points. Northwestern, a team typically known for its stout defense, hadn’t given up that many yards in the entirety of Fitzgerald’s 16-year tenure as the Wildcats’ head man.
One of the most encouraging signs, though, was that the offensive line wasn’t penalized until the third quarter, when the Huskers had a 49-7 lead and the game was well out of reach.
“We’ve definitely had our fair share of [false starts],” Nouili said postgame. “We’re not going to have any problems there any more.”
Nebraska’s special teams? A non-factor, which is a good thing after frequent errors within the unit in past contests.
Senior kicker Connor Culp converted all eight of his extra points, Nebraska fielded all its punts cleanly and sophomore punter William Przystup boomed an 84-yard punt in the third quarter, the second longest boot in program history and a much-needed morale boost following last week’s performance.
The Huskers’ backbreaking turnovers? Consistent coaching blunders? Defensive lapses? Nope, nope and nope. Frost said postgame that Saturday night’s game was the most confident he’d been before a game at Nebraska, and it’s hard to argue otherwise.
Once again, just like in every game since the Illinois game, the Husker defense completely eliminated what its opposition does best. Northwestern sophomore running back Evan Hull entered Saturday’s contest as the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week following a 200-plus yard performance against Ohio, looking to continue his hot streak.
Thanks to Nebraska building such a large lead so early, Hull and the rest of Northwestern’s run game was a non-factor. The Wildcats gained just 37 rushing yards total, and Hull was held to seven carries for 31 yards.
Senior linebacker JoJo Domann and junior defensive lineman Deontre Thomas combined to make the play of the game in the second quarter on a goalline rushing attempt between Hull and sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski. Domann blew up the run in the backfield immediately, he and Thomas combined to force a fumble, then Nebraska recovered.
What could’ve been a 28-14 game immediately swung further in the Huskers’ favor, and the play seemed to completely deflate the Northwestern offense. The Wildcats wouldn’t enter the red zone for the remainder of the game.
“I love the way our defense is playing right now,” Domann said postgame. “We got nasty dudes up front, linebackers that can run sideline to sideline, [defensive backs] that didn’t have the best performance but are the backbone of our defense… Love how we’re executing as a unit right now.”
Frost stressed the importance of not overreacting to Nebraska’s performance postgame, but after the difficult losses the Huskers have endured it’s hard not to feel an increased sense of optimism following what can be viewed as a huge step forward.
Martinez pushed the ball downfield and looked accurate doing so, true freshman running back Jaquez Yant broke out for 127 rushing yards and the Huskers got both freshman quarterback Logan Smothers and sophomore quarterback Matt Masker in the game.
Nebraska not only won in dominant fashion, but did so while completely eliminating the mistakes that had burned it so far this season.
It’s not a cause for full-on celebration, but to quote Frost, Saturday night was “a good first step.”
And maybe, just maybe, a step in the right direction is just what Nebraska needs going forward.