Northwestern wins battle for Ireland in thrilling season opener

By Jason Boué

Questionable decisions was the name of the game on Saturday in Dublin, Ireland, as the Northwestern Wildcats defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers 31-28 in the Aer Lingus Football Classic. 

Whether it was an odd onside kick call by Nebraska Head Coach Scott Frost or Northwestern’s inability to do practically anything but rush for three-and-outs for nearly an entire quarter, hungry football fans were left on the edge of their seats for 60 straight minutes.

Nebraska got the scoring started on its first drive when University of Texas transfer Casey Thompson connected with New Mexico State transfer Isaiah Garcia-Castenada for a 32-yard touchdown. 

Despite Northwestern junior quarterback Ryan HIlinski looking impressive out of the gate, Northwestern could not answer on its opening offensive possession. Penalties stalled momentum, and the Wildcats’ retort did not come until a 35-yard field goal by Adam Stage, a graduate transfer from North Dakota, with 2:16 left in the first quarter.

The second quarter started similarly to the first, with another Thompson score for the Cornhuskers, albeit by land instead of air. He scampered into the endzone from a yard out and with 11:59 to go in the half, Nebraska led 14-3.

The Wildcats had a much stronger response this go-round, with Hilinski finding this season’s steward of the Number 1 jersey Ray Niro III wide open in the middle of the field for a 41-yard touchdown. This touchdown came just 1:01 after the Cornhuskers crossed the goal line.

Northwestern struck once more before the half ended. Hilinski whipped one to Illinois transfer Donny Navarro III in the back of the endzone for six. Hilinski finished his stellar first half going 20-23 for 215 yards and two touchdowns and the Wildcats headed into the locker room up 17-14.

The start of the second half sucked the air out of living rooms across America (or maybe just ones located near Evanston, Illinois). Nebraska scored following an improbable third down conversion by Thompson that saw him scramble away from multiple Northwestern defenders before making a massive completion to Garcia-Castenada downfield for a 58-yard gain. 

Northwestern looked like they would perform its classic “bend, don’t break” move when the Cornhuskers were stuck on third and 16, but a questionable defensive pass interference call on junior Rod Heard III reset the downs. Junior college transfer Anthony Grant then punched it in two plays later from 3 yards out to give Nebraska the lead again, 21-17.

Northwestern looked ready to strike back as junior running back Cam Porter started the drive with a long run, but he fumbled the ball upon contact with Nebraska defenders, giving it back to the Cornhuskers with 9:27 left in the third quarter. Grant then broke free for a 46-yard touchdown run to extend Nebraska’s lead to 11.

At this point, all the momentum was with Nebraska – but the ‘Cats had the luck of the Irish on their side when Frost submitted an early application for Biggest Blunder of the Year. A failed onside kick decision by Nebraska left the door open for a Wildcat comeback, and Northwestern took advantage. Graduate student and team captain Andrew Clair recovered the botched kick, and Northwestern charged down the field to score. Porter made up for his fumble by scoring from 3 yards out.

The next scoring chance came at the start of the fourth quarter when Northwestern was on the redzone’s doorstep. A false start call on preseason All-American Peter Skoronski stalled the ‘Cats, and they elected to kick a field goal. This decision backfired, as Stage missed the 36-yard attempt.

All hope was not lost, however. Junior defensive back Cam Mitchell picked-off Thompson on the Cornhuskers’ next drive, giving Hilinski and the offense the ball back for a second chance with great field position to boot. Junior running back Evan Hull, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, took over on this drive, amassing 43 yards of total offense and scoring a 4 yard touchdown to put the Wildcats back on top by three, 31-28.

This score would hold, but an old fashioned Big Ten punt-off kept giving Nebraska chances to retake the lead. The Cornhuskers had three more offensive drives, but the Northwestern defense held firm – junior defensive back Coco Azema recorded a massive sack to end one drive, and junior linebacker Xander Mueller sealed the game with an interception. The Wildcats kneeled it out to win the battle for Ireland and start their 2022 campaign at 1-0.

Final Score: Northwestern 31, Nebraska 28

MVP: Ryan Hilinski, Quarterback

Honorable Mentions: RB Evan Hull, RB Cam Akers, The Entire Offensive Line, P Luke Akers

Hilinski finished the game with 314 yards and 2 touchdowns on 27-38 passing and a 157.8 passer rating. If he can keep this play up, this Northwestern offense may be a bigger threat that analysts and fans originally thought.

This game meant more to Hilinski than proving that he was deserving of the starting job.

“Hilinskis are now 2-0 in Ireland. Ireland’s got a special in my heart and in the Hilinskis’ heart,” Hilinski said.

Hilinski’s brother Tyler played and won in Ireland 10 years ago before going on to play at Washington State University. In 2018, Tyler died of suicide, leading the Hilinski family to start the Hilinski’s Hope foundation to provide resources and advocate on behalf of athletes struggling with their mental health. During the post-game press conference, Ryan showed a patch that was on Tyler’s jersey from the game in Ireland.

“I actually kept [the patch] in my pants during the game,” Hilinski said. “It just felt like Tyler was out there and he got another win as well as us.”

Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald has some Irish connections as well.

“It’s an honor to represent my family here in Ireland,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m very proud of my Irish heritage and just incredibly thankful.”

Fitzgerald indicated that he would pay homage to his heritage during the post-game celebrations as well.

“I’m going to have some good, clean, Irish fun tonight and tomorrow.”

Northwestern gets the next week off to rest and recuperate from their overseas adventure before taking on the Duke Blue Devils in Evanston on Sept. 10. The ‘Cats will be looking for revenge for last year’s disappointing loss in Durham. WNUR Sports will have the call, with kickoff set for 11 a.m. CST.

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