The door barely shut behind him, and Urban Meyer exhaled as he grabbed the stat sheet from his 58th win as Ohio State's head football coach.
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“Wow,” Meyer said. “I didn't see that one coming.”
That one was a 62-3 curb-stomping of Nebraska, the 10th-ranked team in America in front of a jam-packed Ohio Stadium and a mess of top-rated recruits. With struggles on offense leading to questions popping up all week about how—or if—the Buckeyes could create explosive plays, they were more than impressive on Saturday night against the Cornhuskers.
Meyer joked with reporters and appeared in good spirits during press conferences previewing the game and providing updates on key developments with offensive creativity, play calling and everything in between this week.
In what is a common theme, however, his jovial attitude in front of the camera was not what Meyer felt while he pored over game tape and hit the practice field after the Buckeyes barely did enough to beat Northwestern at home 24-20.
“I was a mess,” Meyer said. “Because I just thought—I really thought this was going to be, get to the month of November, you know, top 10 team coming in here.”
It had the makings of a dogfight like the one against the Wildcats a week earlier on paper. But not even 90 seconds in, the Buckeyes showed their depth and talents and essentially ended the game before it began. Damon Webb's pick-six of Tommy Armstrong Jr. ignited the crowd to a greater level than it already was and the momentum never stopped building.
Then Malik Hooker added intercepted another pass and returned for a touchdown late in the 3rd quarter. J.T. Barrett led an offensive onslaught that included scoring plays of 23 and 75 yards. The Buckeyes didn't punt, converted 11-of-15 third downs allowed the Cornhuskers to pick up only nine first downs.
“We're starting to put it all together, and I'm glad it's happening now,” Meyer said.
Barrett finished with 290 yards passing and added 39 more on the ground. He threw four touchdown passes, two to star H-back Curtis Samuel, including the 75-yard strike to open the second half. A jump pass with 3 seconds left in the second quarter to Samuel made it 31-3 after 30 minutes and backups took over even before the final 15 minutes of the game even began.
“I just feel like the preparation was right. We had a great practice Tuesday and Wednesday,” Barrett said. “I knew we were on the edge of it to really break through. I wasn't surprised as much as you want to say.”
“We're starting to put it all together, and I'm glad it's happening now.”– Urban Meyer
Fans and outsiders will be surprised when they see the score, especially considering how the Buckeyes failed to put together anything in the downfield passing game the last month. It contributed to the shocking 24-21 loss but the program chalked it up to the way defenses played Cover 3 to take away deep passes.
The Buckeyes noticed opportunities in Nebraska's attacking defense, where the safeties roamed and corners weren't always a handful of yards off the ball. The difference is, they took advantage on Saturday night. The result was an absolute explosion.
“Everything was clicking. Quarterbacks, receivers, we did what we had to do and it was a great game for everybody,” said Samuel, who finished with 137 receiving yards and 41 more rushing. “Nothing really different, it's about execution. We had many opportunities in recent weeks to do it but today we took advantage as an offense and that's what we did.”
Nebraska's hopes to stay in the game left with Armstrong Jr. in an ambulance midway through the second quarter. The quarterback slammed his head on the turf after picking up a first down on a third-down rush and he left completely immobilized but later returned to watch the rest of the game after precautionary tests at the hospital.
A scary moment for all in attendance. But not even the brief delay could stop the Buckeyes on this night.
“It is a little relief to know that right now I saw some explosiveness that we kind of have been lacking in some positions,” Meyer said. “And I think relief is probably the correct word, that we've all been waiting for that to happen.”
Everyone has after the way the Buckeyes stormed out to a 3-0 start with a 21-point victory at Oklahoma in September. Then teams began scheming things differently after getting a look at the young talent on Meyer's roster on tape. Adversity came in the form of two road games at Wisconsin and Penn State in back-to-back weeks against programs coming off their open weekends.
“You try to simplify things and know every game counts,” Barrett said. “Just go out there and play as best as you can. Nothing is really guaranteed.”
Linebacker Chris Worley said practice at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center had a different vibe to it this week than in the past. Players were looser, back to enjoying playing the game instead of paying attention the pressure of being perfect to please the masses.
It showed on Saturday night, even if it came as a major surprise despite the fact the Buckeyes are a top-10 team themselves and now 8-1.
“I didn't see 62-3, I didn't see that coming either,” Worley said. “I knew we would play nine units strong, that's Coach Meyer's thing. But I didn't think anybody could have predicted 62-3.”
Added offensive coordinator Ed Warinner: “You never see that coming. You’re playing a really good team, well coached, highly rated. We knew we had good offensive pieces. We had put together good games earlier in the year and it was time to put another one together. We did tonight. Our players came around.”
Meyer said Ohio State searched for its identity as it slogged through October. Still very much in the thick of things in the Big Ten race, the Buckeyes leave Columbus for two weeks to visit Maryland and Michigan State. A pair of very winnable games set the stage for The Game, when Jim Harbaugh and No. 3 Michigan come to Ohio State the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
The Buckeyes took a step toward finding the identity as a team that looks very much like a contender in the crucial month of November. Doing so against a top-10 team on a national stage takes it even further—an "A to Z very good performance," Meyer said—added something a little extra on a day when another top team all but lost its chance at competing for a College Football Playoff spot.
“I saw Texas A&M lose to Mississippi State,” Meyer said. “I was actually watching part of that, and I just thought, we've all been around this sport long enough that the youth, when that youth grows up it's kind of cool to watch. And I'm hoping that's what's happening here. I'm not saying it is yet, because we've still got a lot left.”