Nebraska football is an unnatural disaster. An oil spill, a bridge collapse, an industrial explosion, that old black-and-white video of two trains colliding — this is what has come to represent what was once one of the proudest programs in the Bowl Subdivision.
While the program’s irrelevance predates coach Scott Frost, the decline has escalated wildly under the Cornhuskers’ former quarterback.
After losing 31-28 to Northwestern in the season opener, Frost’s record at Nebraska now stands at 15-30. Of those losses, 21 have come by a one-score difference. His comments last week about offensive linemen throwing up “15 to 20” times during practice had to have been met with shrugged shoulders by a disheartened fan base, which must feel the urge to upchuck at least that many times every fall Saturday.
The loss to Northwestern, like so many others during Frost’s tenure, hit all the same beats as a horror film.
The happy, sun-is-shining start. Nebraska led 14-3 early in the second quarter after putting together two touchdown drives under new quarterback Casey Thompson, who was very sharp in the first half.
The “something seems off” moment. Northwestern responded with two scores, the second capping an 82-yard drive with 25 seconds left in the first half to put the Wildcats ahead 17-14 after two quarters.
The “call is coming from inside the house” twist. The Cornhuskers would respond with a pair of touchdown runs from junior-college transfer Anthony Grant, including a pinballing 46-yard run to put Nebraska up 28-17 with nine minutes to go in the third quarter. Nebraska would then attempt an onside kick, which was recovered by Northwestern. The Wildcats would score a touchdown off that short field; the Cornhuskers wouldn’t score again.
The bloody and inevitable conclusion. With 6:10 left in the fourth quarter, Northwestern took over at its 6-yard line and drove 53 yards on nine running plays, using up 4:18 of the game clock before punting. Pinned at its 4-yard line, Nebraska ran three plays before a Thompson pass attempt clanged off his intended receiver and was intercepted by Northwestern.
And like any horror movie, train wreck or multiple-car pileup, it’s impossible to look away. The Cornhuskers and Northwestern lead the list of winners and losers from an abbreviated Week 0 slate kicking off the 2022 season:
Picked to finish last in the Big Ten West after winning just three times last year, Northwestern took a great first step toward what has become a Pat Fitzgerald-era tradition: the bounce-back season. With games ahead against Duke, Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio) before returning to Big Ten play, the Wildcats are in position to reach bowl eligibility for what would be the fifth time in a year following the program’s six losing seasons under Fitzgerald. In another trend among Big Ten teams in Nebraska’s weight class, Fitzgerald managed the game to take advantage of the Cornhuskers’ inevitable implosion.
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A series of offseason personnel and coaching changes lingered into the Hilltoppers’ season opener, a 38-27 win against Austin Peay of the Championship Subdivision. Behind quarterback Bailey Zappe, wide receiver Jerreth Sterns and offensive coordinator Zach Kittley — now playing for the Patriots, playing for the Packers and coaching in the same position at Texas Tech — last year’s offense ranked first nationally in passing, second in total offense and second in scoring. But WKU put up 387 yards against Austin Peay, way below last season’s average, while former West Florida transfer Austin Reed threw for 279 yards and four touchdowns with one interception.
The already slim odds on his return in 2023 essentially drop to zero. Even when no longer in control of the offense — he handed those reins over to new coordinator Mark Whipple, who may update his résumé on the flight home — Frost still managed to upset the Cornhuskers’ timing with the mindboggling onside kick; looking for the knockout punch, he instead delivered a potentially fatal blow to his safety. With a non-conference game against Oklahoma on Sept. 17 and a brutal November ahead, Nebraska is going to struggle to win enough games to save Frost’s job.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg