Fans filed into the beginning of the 2022 Nebraska football season on a clear April Saturday, watching what would be hopefully an optimistic view of what the upcoming season could look like.
Unlike most seasons, the Red-White Scrimmage had a different points scoring system since it pitted offense versus defense instead of the usual Red and White teams. The game also took advantage of a different scoring format entirely, with the White Team (defense) ultimately beating the Red Team (offense) 43-39.
The points system served as only a way to create a fair score, as the focus was primarily on new pieces for the team. Fans would finally catch their first glimpse into a new-look Nebraska offense, spearheaded by Texas transfer and junior quarterback Casey Thompson.
Thompson jogged out for the first time in his career onto Memorial Stadium, earning the starting nod on the scrimmage’s opening drive.
“Today was my first day ever going out on that field and doing anything. We had not practiced outside yet,” Thompson said postgame. “It was cool to see the stadium full of people and the turf underneath my feet and look around and feel like it was a real game..”
Thompson’s first play, an 11-yard strike to redshirt freshman tight end Nate Boerkircher near the Red Team’s sidelines, was the highlight of Thompson’s time on the field Saturday. Offensive line issues hampered anything else for the Red offense on the opening drive as junior outside linebacker Garrett Nelson notched his first of two sacks.
Transfers were a major part in the new-look Huskers, especially seen on the offense at quarterback, wide receiver and running back. Still, when Thompson and company left on the first series, Montana transfer and sophomore punter Brian Buschini had the loudest cheers for any player on the field, transfer or not.
Buschini booted a 63-yard punt and though the ball rolled into the endzone for a touchback, the cheers was the first audible noise made by the Nebraska faithful all game.
“Yeah the biggest applause all day I think was the bomb punt that Brian had and rightfully so,” head coach Scott Frost said postgame. “I would have been clapping too if that had not been inappropriate but kicking and punting certainly we hope are better this year and the guys we have and the new guys coming in need to figure it out and get that done.”
Buschini and sophomore punter Grant Detlefsen, both wearing No. 95, punted eight times on Saturday, with seven of those coming in the first half. The combined punt average was 40.3 yards but there were still shaky moments, including a 14-yard first quarter boot.
The Red offense’s struggles continued after Thompson’s scheduled second-series departure, with freshman quarterback Chubba Purdy and sophomore quarterback Logan Smothers each taking drives in the first half.
A consistent drive was particularly difficult for Nebraska as the first half had two-hand touch instead of tackle, nerfing parts of the ground game. Sophomore running back Rahmir Johnson, who only got reps in the first half, described the two-hand touch style as “trash.”
Only New Mexico Military Institute transfer junior running back Anthony Grant shined on the ground game, creating an impressive 60-yard first quarter touchdown run and the Red Team’s first points of the game.
“I was happy he got that touchdown run,” Johnson said postgame about Grant’s touchdown. “We needed that. We needed a spark.”
Grant wasn’t touched on his run but the offense wouldn’t net another touchdown in the first half. Like any spring game, Frost said postgame he didn’t want to show too much to the fans but still showcase some of the new scheme.
The showcase wasn’t as plentiful but Purdy and Smothers started to find a footing in the second quarter. Purdy’s rainbow throw to freshman tight end AJ Rollins on 3rd-and-14 eventually set up another three points for the offense.
Rollins was an unexpected starter at tight end, as four tight ends were out due to injury. Rollins and his tight end counterparts displayed the best parts of the first half Saturday offense that Frost described as “painfully simple.”
“I do not want to leave anybody out but those guys have been pressed into duty,” Frost said about the new-look tight end room. “It is weird being a coach every year there is one position that seems like you get hit by the injury bug and that was kind of our position this spring.”
Rollins had the most catches of any Husker, finishing with four catches for 39 yards while Boerkircher had two catches for 21 yards. The lack of production from the starting wide receiver corps held back the first half offense, with junior wide receiver and LSU transfer Trey Palmer and senior wide receiver Oliver Martin only recording catches for the group.
Nebraska only scored 10 points in the first half but Purdy had three drives into the White Team’s territory. Purdy could not overcome a ferocious pass rush led by Nelson, who put pressure on him nearly every drop back against sophomore offensive tackle Brant Banks.
“The standard has been set and it has been set from last year, of what defense we want to be, ” Nelson said postgame. “... I've thought about it all the time. I don't want there to be a fall off. I don't want there to be a drop off. I don’t want to have a worse defense.”
When the second half started, it was mostly the depth pieces playing against one another except for the starting offensive line getting more reps in the third quarter. The second half switch also saw the rules switch from two-hand touch to tackle football.
The switch was enough for the Red offense to finally make the scrimmage something worthwhile. Down 29-10, the Red offense had four second half touchdown drives to retake the lead. The comeback was fully launched in the fourth quarter, with freshman quarterback Jarrett Synek rushing in for a 16-yard touchdown.
Synek continued his fourth quarter heroics, taking a 38-35 lead for the offense with a 42-yard bomb to freshman wide receiver Ty Hahn. Since it was defense versus offense, the Red Team got the ball back with just over three minutes left and needed just to run out the clock to secure a win.
In something that resembled the head-scratching moments of the 2021 campaign, junior quarterback Matt Masker threw an unlikely interception to senior defensive back Darius Moore with just over a minute left. With each turnover worth six points, Moore’s interception gave back the lead to the White Team 41-39.
The White defense stopped Masker again, sealing a 43-39 victory. The final result, though, didn’t matter as the scrimmage’s intention wasn’t to be a thrilling game but just any form of football for a fanbase yearning for fall to already come.
“That's one of the most powerful things about this place is that they end up right in it,” Nelson said. “For me, personally, it makes me feel some things inside and I know it does for other people too.”