Frosty Reception Awaits Nebraska Head Coach On Return To Lincoln

By Simon Carroll

College Football may not be as well known this side of the pond as the NFL is. But it is growing. And in Dublin on Saturday, two Big Ten teams arrived in Dublin to kick off the 2022 football season in style.

Reporting from the AVIVA Stadium, Simon Carroll witnessed all the action as Northwestern defeated Nebraska 31-28. A welcome win for WIldcats Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald after a tough year in 2021, but it’s his opposite number feeling the heat as both teams head back home:

A Costly Mistake

Credit: ESPN

And things were going so well.

Following an uncharacteristic fumble from Northwestern running back Cam Porter, Nebraska punched the ball into the endzone – Anthony Grant finding some space and finding the corner of the endzone to put The ‘Huskers up 28-17. It was only a handful of minutes earlier that Grant had given his team the lead, justified after Nebraska had dominated the first half but found themselves a field goal behind. The ‘Huskers had the momentum, and behind the arm of debutant QB Casey Thompson were moving the ball freely up and down the field.

Enter Scott Frost.

The under-fire head coach had a lot of people scratching their heads when, directly after Grant had given Nebraska some breathing room, he called an onside kick. Presumably Frost was looking to capitalise on the new-found momentum and grab the game by the scruff of the neck. After all, Northwestern was outplayed in the first half but hung around, and took their chances against a Husker defense that struggled to contain any play between the hash marks. Recovering the kick and adding more points might have given Frost’s team an unassailable lead against a methodical, tough, but unexplosive Wildcat offense.

What Frost failed to consider were the implications of a failed onside kick. And when Northwestern recovered the football and had excellent field goal position, Porter atoned for his earlier mishap – bowling in from short yardage to reduce the deficit to four.

It may have been just midway through the third quarter, but that passage of play changed the entire complexion of the game. Instead of galvanising his own team, Frost had emboldened his opponent. And despite being underdogs, Northwestern have talent. They have an excellent head coach. And they knew they were back in this game.

Wildcats Capitalise

We now all know the outcome. The Huskers didn’t score another point after that dubious decision to call an onside kick. In contrast, The Wildcats’ one-two punch at running back both got on the scoreboard, first the aforementioned Porter, before Evan Hull scored the touchdown that ultimately won the game for Northwestern. Once ahead, NU leant on their ball carriers to salt away the clock, stringing together lengthy drives that repeatedly challenged the Nebraska front seven with inside runs. They couldn’t get a stop; their defensive line manhandled by a Northwestern o-line that dominated the entire contest.

How much Frost’s decision making affected his own players is debatable. There is the argument to be made that Nebraska struggled more with the loss of tight end Travis Vokolek to injury, Thompson’s primary target across the middle. When The Huskers did have the ball, they couldn’t move the chains like they did in the first three quarters, a combination of tough field position, missing key personnel and a defense with their tails up.

What was evident was the effect the onside kick had on Northwestern. They didn’t force it, but controlled the line of scrimmage and made big plays on defense – corner Coco Azema in particular demonstrating his playmaking skills. Nebraska turned the ball over three times in this contest. And in the only sack of the game, Azema was sent on a blitz and caught the usually-elusive Thompson unawares from the blindside. That big play on third down put the ball back in the hands of the Northwestern offense, hell bent on running the ball – and the clock – into submission.

Casey Thompson Shows Promise

Credit: Brendan Moran/Getty Images

The frustrating thing for Scott Frost and Nebraska was that this game was there to be won. An injection of talent via the transfer portal this offseason saw hopes high in Lincoln of a turnaround. This was the fifth year under Frost, and the previous four had not gone as Huskers fans would have hoped. Bringing over Casey Thompson to replace Adrian Martinez at QB was seen as the final roll of the dice for this head coach, once famed at UCF for an unstoppable offense.

Thompson had, for the most part, an impressive debut. Despite an offensive line that struggled to contain Northwestern, the former Texas QB showed remarkable poise in the pocket. He routinely hit receivers in stride moving the chains with big plays. On the two occasions he was moved off his spot, Thompson was able to find an outlet downfield – the second a remarkable extended play:

Thompson finished 25/42 for 355 yards with a fantastic touchdown strike to Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda on the first drive. The Big Red crowd were ecstatic. Nebraska was back! And they looked dangerous on every successive drive in the first half.

Thompson threw two interceptions in the second half; the first a slightly overthrown ball that the dangerous DB Cam Mitchell returned twenty yards. The second a tipped ball that effectively ended the game. But this coaching staff will be excited by what they saw. Unfortunately, they may not be around for too much longer to cultivate Thompson’s talents, with the knives out back in Lincoln. But all is not lost for Frost – if he can pick his team up they should win the next two games comfortably. And there’s every chance this team is 6-2 by the time they hit November. With his $15m buyout only halved in October, he may just be afforded the opportunity to get there.

Pat Fitzgerald Right At Home In Ireland

Credit: Twitter (@coachfitz51)

A win for Northwestern was always going to be first described as a Nebraska loss, such is the pressure on Scott Frost this season. But this was an impressive performance from a football program that won just three games last year. Pat Fitzgerald is almost a God in Evanston, enjoying a ten-year contract and a new $250m facility. And rightly so – the Wildcats routinely manage to compete with the powerhouses in the Big Ten, even getting to the title game two years ago despite the high academic entry requirements they set. It’s a disadvantage that Fitzgerald has been able to overcome with good recruiting and good coaching. Northwestern is not Vanderbilt – they are competitive in their conference.

Still, even Fitzgerald would have been impressed with the transformation, particularly on offense. Ryan Hillinski, in his second year in Evanston, looks transformed. Gone is the lost kid from South Carolina, and in his place a man who enjoyed supreme protection and carved up Nebraska’s susceptible pass defense. This TD strike to Raymond Niro at the beginning of the second quarter showing the confidence with which the Wildcat QB was playing on Saturday:

But it was the offensive line that won this game for Northwestern. Led by highly touted draft prospect Peter Skoronski, the five men up front dominated the line of scrimmage. Fitzgerald was impressed, and in the post-game presser said it was a point of emphasis this offseason:

“We talk about it all the time. You gotta win the six-inch war”

Hillinski himself was buoyant, telling the media what a privilege it is to play behind such a secure offensive line:

Throw in some big plays from the NU secondary, and this was a complete performance. Cam Mitchell, who had the first pick, explained how the team stayed calm despite being down by eleven twice in this contest, saying they just avoided getting on ‘the rollercoaster in games, staying level headed and trusting the process’. Ultimately, the team stayed true to Fitzgerald’s mantra, and the five thousand or so Wildcat loyalists that made the trip to Dublin will be heading back to Illinois happy.

CFB Ireland Is BACK

Credit: Twitter (@__BCos5)

The first game back in Ireland after a two-year COVID hiatus, Nebraska and Northwestern delivered an exciting game at the AVIVA Stadium. The trip to Dublin represented a first for me – both visiting the city and attending a college football game. And it’s fair to say that the hospitality and atmosphere lived up to the billing. The stadium wasn’t sold out, perhaps a nod to the tough times we are living in. It also suggests that college football in the UK & Ireland has someway to go before it matches the NFL in popularity. But considering the average American Football fan over here wouldn’t be able to tell you where Northwestern University is, you can only describe the occasion as a success. Next year? Notre Dame v Navy. Don’t expect an empty seat for that one folks.

Fitzgerald was effusive in his praise of the organisers, the city and the fans after the game, and suggested he would be delighted to return. Despite being outnumbered by Nebraska fans, Northwestern did a good job of making Dublin their home, with purple adorning pubs and bars everywhere. Visiting Fitzsimmons bar late on Saturday evening gave me a true taste of what a college football town would be like, an experience I won’t forget. And hopefully neither will the Northwestern fans.

For Nebraska, the trip may be remembered differently. Scott Frost will face some tough questions once he gets back to Lincoln. Indeed, they already began in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium. When asked if there was ever a moment where he would consider resigning, Frost was bullish:

“No. Absolutely not. I love Nebraska”

The hero Quarterback of the last Cornhuskers National Championship win, Frost has a special relationship with the Nebraska fans. But do they still love him? The money says we’ll find out after the 5th October. But as any head coach will tell you, a seven-game losing streak doesn’t make you friends.

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