Northwestern rallies past Nebraska 31-28 in opener in Dublin
DUBLIN -- Scott Frost isn’t calling plays on offense this season.
However, the embattled Nebraska coach still made the biggest decision in Saturday’s 31-28 loss to Northwestern in Ireland.
He ordered an onside kick and it didn’t work. Now, he’s facing even more pressure with Nebraska’s losing streak at seven games.
“You’ve got to win in this business to keep your job,” said Frost, who is in his fifth year at the helm. “That’s the way it is. I love the state of Nebraska. I love these fans that sacrificed to come over here. We’ve got to get this turned around.”
Ryan Hilinski threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns to help Northwestern rally to a victory in the season opener before 42,699 fans at Aviva Stadium in the Irish capital.
Frost took the blame for a failed onside kick that changed the momentum of the game in the third quarter.
“I made that call so that’s on me,” Frost said of the decision after the Huskers took a 28-17 lead. “At that point in the game, I thought all the momentum was on our side. I thought if we got it, we could end the game.
“You can’t really foresee them scoring 14 straight and us sputtering after we played well to start the second half on offense. Again those are excuses. If I had (to do) it over, I wouldn’t make the call.”
The Wildcats finished with 528 yards and gained a measure of revenge after their humiliating 56-7 loss to the Huskers last October. Nebraska hasn’t won since then.
Following a 3-9 season, Nebraska was looking to bounce back with a revamped offense under new coordinator Mark Whipple - who took over play-calling duties from Frost - but the team and its many fans who made the trip are headed home disappointed.
Quarterback Casey Thompson had a big game in his Huskers debut, throwing for 355 yards, but a fourth-quarter mistake was costly. Cameron Mitchell intercepted Thompson’s pass and returned it almost 40 yards. Six plays later, Evan Hull ran it in from the 4 to give the Wildcats a 31-28 lead. Hull finished with 22 carries for 119 yards.
Xander Mueller picked off a pass that bounced off receiver Wyatt Liewer’s hands with 1:27 to play and the Wildcats sealed the win.
Anthony Grant rushed for two third-quarter scores, including a 46-yarder to put the Huskers ahead 28-17. He ran it in from 3 yards on the previous drive to get Nebraska in front after the Wildcats went into halftime with a 17-14 lead. Grant had 19 carries for 101 yards.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald called the onside kick “a huge momentum swing” in the game.
“We went down and punched it in,” he said of Cam Porter’s 3-yard touchdown run on a direct snap to close the gap to 28-24.
Nebraska still led at that point, Frost pointed out.
“You don’t win a lot of games in the Big Ten giving up 31, so we have some things to answer on defense,” he said.
The Huskers had built a 14-3 lead after Thompson threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to fellow transfer Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda and then punched it in from 1 early in the second quarter. Garcia-Castaneda finished with 120 yards on four receptions.
But Hilinski capped a terrific first half by finding Donny Navarro at the back of the end zone for a 6-yard scoring strike to give the Wildcats a 17-14 lead with 25 seconds left in the half.
Earlier, Hilinski hit a wide-open Raymond Niro III on a play-action pass for a 41-yard score.
After Niro’s touchdown, Nebraska was driving again when linebacker Greyson Metz ripped the ball from Garcia-Castaneda after a 24-yard completion to the Northwestern 11- yard line.
ALL ABOUT WINNING
Frost said he wouldn’t consider stepping down: “Absolutely not. ... I’m going to fight with the guys, as long as I can fight.” His record as Nebraska’s coach is now 15-30.
Hilinski credited the offensive line with protecting him - he wasn’t sacked.
“When I can sit back there and be patient with the ball, and see the field, as a quarterback, that is the best feeling,” he said. “Today, I felt so calm in the pocket. I felt like I could see the whole field.”
Northwestern: The Wildcats look as if they’ve found a quarterback in Hilinski, who completed 27 of 38 passes.
Nebraska: More questions for Frost. The Huskers lost all their games by single digits last season, and now another one. Despite the two interceptions, Thompson made big plays. On their first scoring drive of the third quarter, he scrambled left on a third-and-8 and heaved a pass to Garcia-Castaneda for a 58-yard gain.
Concession stands gave out free beer at one point during the game when they lost the internet connection at the stadium. Aviva Stadium is cashless, so they opted to not turn away thirsty fans. Ronan McGowan said he waited 40 minutes in long lines and missed portions of the game, though added: “They did the right thing.”
Nebraska hosts North Dakota on Saturday in the first of four consecutive home games, including a matchup with Oklahoma on Sept. 17.
Northwestern is off next weekend and hosts Duke on Sept. 10 in the first of three straight games at Ryan Field.