DUBLIN — The college football Week 0 slate featured an international contest to kick off the Power Five action as Northwestern vs. Nebraska headlined the early slate in late August. The Pro Football Network team is live from Dublin, Ireland, with live reactions, takeaways, and analysis from Aviva Stadium.
Northwestern vs. Nebraska live analysis
Final: Northwestern 31, Nebraska 28
In an eventful and entertaining clash in Dublin, Northwestern emerged victorious to get a much-needed victory under their belt to start the 2022 college football season. Meanwhile, the defeat for Nebraska adds further fire to the hot seat threatening to end Scott Frost’s tenure in Lincoln. Here are our takeaways from the all-Big Ten clash.
Ryan Hilinski, Evan Hull flash reasons for Northwestern hope
To be honest, no one expected Ryan Hilinski to be the quarterback that we’d be talking about at the end of this game. The former South Carolina QB grabbed the starting opportunity with both hands, and after a clunky start to the game, he put together an impressive game of football that gave Northwestern a shock win in a game where they were a 13-point underdog.
Hilinski finished the night 27 of 38 for 329 yards and two touchdowns. While there were some throws that he’d want back, there were also accurate ones that moved the chains and chunk plays where he was able to show off his arm talent.
He was helped by the Nebraska pass defense (we’ll get to that shortly), but it was a stellar showing for an often-maligned QB that should give Wildcats fans hope for a better year than last season’s 3-9 debacle.
When Northwestern needed him, Evan Hull showed up in a big way. The 5’11”, 210-pound fourth-year RB helped run down the clock to seal the Northwestern win. He ran the rock to the seventh 100+ yard game of his career, doing so with the eyes of the college football world on him. With speed, elusiveness, vision, and receiving capability, he’s a complete back who should attract significant attention in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Nebraska’s pass defense a big question mark going forward
It’s all well and good having a high-powered, up-tempo offense, but if you can’t stop your opponent from throwing on you, you’re not going to turn around a consistent losing program into a winning one. Ironically, for an offensive guru like Frost, it could well be the defense that ends up costing him his job.
While Hilinski performed admirably, there were frequent missed tackles from the secondary. It was similar play concepts that they were susceptible to.
It all looked too easy for Northwestern receiver Malik Washington at times. When you consider that the Huskers have to face Ohio State and their elite quarterback C.J. Stroud, plus a Maryland team that has a ludicrously talented wide receiver room, there could be some serious issues just around the corner.
Anthony Grant is a genuine difference-maker
While Casey Thompson received the first-half plaudits, running back Anthony Grant was a genuine difference-maker for the Huskers. The pride of Buford High School has walked a rocky road to Dublin but was the second-half spark plug that Nebraska needed. The 5’11”, 200-pound RB accounted for the majority of the Huskers’ rushing yardage.
Meanwhile, the former JUCO standout was active in the passing game with a 16-yard reception. Grant frequently flashed vision, the ability to absorb contact, open-field elusiveness, and enough juice to take it the distance on a 46-yard TD that opened up a significant gap between the two teams. Mark Whipple isn’t going to turn away from throwing the football a ton, it’s not his style, but it’ll help keep this Nebraska offense fresh.
Mark Whipple must learn when to dial it back
“Our old offensive coordinator had no desire to run the ball,” Pat Narduzzi told the amassed reporters at Big Ten media days. “Everybody knew it. He was stubborn. Wake Forest was 118th in run defense, and we threw the ball every down. When we ran it, we ran it for 10 yards, but that wasn’t good enough.”
While Whipple’s impact was positive in the first half, the second half brought bubbling to the surface some of the issues that Narduzzi alluded to during the preseason. While leading, and with Grant performing admirably, Whipple was still dialing up plays that made Thompson force the issue in the middle of the field.
The result? Several dangerous throws that culminated into an interception. Northwestern took the lead on the following drive. Smart decision-making isn’t the sole preserve of the quarterback, and if Whipple doesn’t dial it back, it could have a ripple effect for serval people within the Nebraska organization.
First-half takeaways include an impressive performance from Casey Thompson
Nebraska might have found the quarterback Scott Frost needed for success all along. It took just one half of football here in Dublin, Ireland, to realize one thing. Thompson is legit. The former Texas quarterback has the ability to do the things that former Huskers QB Adrian Martinez could do. Only better. Oh, and Thompson showcased the ability to achieve some of the things for this Nebraska offense that Martinez couldn’t.
As expected, the new-look Nebraska offense led by Whipple came out firing. The Huskers played with tempo on their opening drive, with Thompson orchestrating a drive that culminated with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda. For as good as the pass was, the snag by the 6’0″, 185-pound former New Mexico State pass catcher was equally as exquisite.
There were multiple impressive elements to Thompson’s first-half performance. Gone was the inconsistency that blighted his short tenure as Texas’ QB1. He continuously flashed his arm talent, with driving darts mixed in with impressive touch throws. Meanwhile, Thompson avoided pressure with aplomb and put his mobility to use to score Nebraska’s second touchdown of the early Irish evening.
Furthermore, Thompson didn’t just lock onto one receiver. Spraying it around to multiple pass catchers with apparent ease, newcomers Garcia-Castaneda and Trey Palmer both had multiple receptions.
Tight end Travis Vokolek got in on the action, showcasing beautiful body control on a superb snag. Grant also got the opportunity to showcase his ability as a pass catcher, adding another elusive option for a Nebraska offense that was night and day compared to last year. Yet, it wasn’t enough to go into the half ahead.
Northwestern ground game gripes
Despite Hull running for over 1,000 yards last fall, Northwestern seriously struggled to move the rock on the ground. Those issues continued during the first half of action in Aviva Stadium.
Aside from a particularly bruising first-half run from Cam Porter, who showcased his physicality and lower body strength as he refused to go down, and a chunk play from Hull midway through the second quarter, the Wildcats failed to get the ground game going, a key component if they are to have any chance of halting the rampant Nebraska offense.
Adetomiwa Adebawore leads some impressive Wildcats’ defensive performances
In addition to being unable to run the rock last fall, the Wildcats also hemorrhaged rushing yardage. A retooled defensive front had some early struggles but grew in strength as the half progressed. They were led by 6’2″, 280-pound defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore who was a disruptive force throughout the first half. The Feldman’s Freak has an alluring combination of motor, length, and power, and he’s dragging his teammates along for the ride.
With that said, Adebawore wasn’t the only Wildcat with some impressive first-half contributions. Cameron Mitchell — who many view as being a better cornerback than first-rounder Greg Newsome — made an important pass breakup against Palmer. The Nebraska WR also fell victim to a pass breakup from safety Coco Azema. Meanwhile, junior linebacker Graham Metz forced and recovered a fumble that stopped the Huskers deep in Northwestern territory.
Left tackles lead the way with some stellar protection
Northwestern offensive tackle Peter Skoronski came into the game with significant 2023 NFL Draft hype. He lived up to it early on in the Wildcats’ close-fought game with Nebraska. As Skoronski repeatedly held up in protection, Hilinski grew in confidence as the first half developed.
Meanwhile, the much-touted OT flashed his athletic ability while demonstrating some drive in the ground game, something lacking from his summer scouting report.
While not as heralded as his Northwestern counterpart, Nebraska giant Teddy Prochazka helped facilitate Thompson’s stellar play with an impressive performance of his own. The 6’10”, 320-pound true sophomore has rebounded from a season-ending injury last fall to establish himself as a cornerstone of the Huskers’ offensive line.
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