Because of what happened before the bye week, this week’s game against Nebraska might be Ohio State’s most anxiously anticipated game – with an emphasis on anxious – of the season.
Nearly all of the conversation surrounding the Ohio State football team for the past two weeks has focused on the Buckeyes’ faults, following their 49-20 loss at Purdue, which was their first loss but continued what had been an uninspiring string of performances for Ohio State’s defense and run game.
On Saturday at noon, however, the Buckeyes will finally have a chance to wash that bad taste out of their mouths, as they look to get back into the win column and improve to 8-1 in their ninth game of the season against Nebraska at Ohio Stadium.
“We're looking at the rest of the season as just a clean slate, just a four-game season,” said Ohio State safety Jordan Fuller. “Really just taking it as that. We can't change the past, but we can definitely control our future.”
2-6 (1-4 BIG TEN)
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
NOON – SATURDAY, NOV. 3
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Despite the lopsided defeat they suffered in West Lafayette, the Buckeyes still control their own destiny in the Big Ten, and still have a shot at making the College Football Playoff and competing for a championship. But they know now, as they get set to play their first game of November, that there’s no longer any margin for error.
“There’s always a sense of urgency, but if we want to still get to where we want to get to, we can’t lose any more games,” said Ohio State wide receiver Terry McLaurin.
Playing at home against a Nebraska team that is just 2-6 this season, Ohio State should theoretically be able to get its first win in three Saturdays without much trouble. That will only happen, though, if the Buckeyes start playing up to their ability – or at least much better than they did in their last game.
On offense, the Buckeyes couldn’t run the ball effectively or finish drives with touchdowns in the red zone. On defense, the Buckeyes continued to give up big plays and missed 20 tackles. And on defense and special teams, the Buckeyes committed costly penalties that kept their opponent’s offense on the field.
That’s just a summary of the issues that plagued Ohio State in its 29-point loss at Purdue, a performance that was all too familiar after the Buckeyes’ 55-24 loss at Iowa last year, and also one that cast doubt on the potential of this year’s Buckeyes to be championship contenders.
Dwayne Haskins rewrote the school record books at Purdue, completing 49 passes on 73 attempts for 470 yards, all now the most ever by any quarterback in a single game in Ohio State history. Entering this week’s game against Nebraska, Haskins is now only 16 pass completions, 529 passing yards and five passing touchdowns away from matching the single-season school records in each of those categories.
|COMPLETIONS||224||240 (J.T. BARRETT, 2017)|
|PASSING YARDS||2,801||3,330 (JOE GERMAINE, 1998)|
|TOUCHDOWN PASSES||30||35 (J.T. BARRETT, 2017)|
Yet despite Haskins’ record-setting performance, Ohio State only scored two touchdowns against the Boilermakers. The Buckeyes failed to reach the end zone on any of their five trips to the red zone, largely because of their struggling rushing offense – which averaged less than 3.3 yards per carry for the fourth game in a row – but with some missed opportunities by Haskins to complete touchdown passes, as well.
Ohio State knows it needs to get its running game going, and desperately wants to do so this weekend. That might not happen on Saturday, however, because of the “Bear” defensive front that the Cornhuskers run, which could force the Buckeyes to stick to a pass-heavy game plan once again.
“It’s a run defense that’s put in there to fill all the gaps inside, and that’s given us a hard time, gives everybody a hard time to run the ball,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said. “At the time that we’re trying to get this going, the run game going, it’s going to be tough against a Bear defense. Hopefully we have enough balance that if they make a decision to stay in Bear, it gives you single coverage across the field, and that’s something we’ve been good at.”
The Buckeyes believe they can still win games with the passing game carrying the offense, as they did in their first seven games of the season. What needs to happen that didn’t happen at Purdue, however, is they need to execute when they have opportunities to make plays to finish drives.
“We lost that game on our own,” said Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell. “We had three opportunities (to complete touchdown passes) in the red zone, we missed them all. So if we complete on those three attempts, that’s a completely, totally different ball game.”
Defensively, the Buckeyes’ issues have been especially glaring. They’ve given up 42 plays of 20-plus yards and 26 plays of 30-plus yards this season; they can’t keep allowing opponents to keep making big plays against them with so much regularity. One of the biggest reasons that happened at Purdue was the amount of tackles they missed – defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said they missed more tackles in that game than any other game since he has arrived at Ohio State – so they need to be much more sound in that area.
Middle linebacker Tuf Borland said the Buckeyes did make some adjustments to their defensive scheme over the bye week, and that Ohio State fans should see some different looks on that side of the ball on Saturday.
“You’ll see some different things,” Borland said. “Have some things we haven’t done before. We’ll see. We’re excited about it.”
Like on offense, though, Fuller said he believes the biggest key for the defense is just simply execution and not making mistakes.
“It's really just doing your job and when you have an opportunity to make a tackle, go make it,” Fuller said. “Just doing your job, and finishing plays. That’s all I can really say.”
Given that Ohio State did have a bye week last week to focus on improving itself before spending this week focusing on playing Nebraska, and there was clear need for improvement on both sides of the ball, there should be changes to what the Buckeyes do on both sides of the ball in Saturday’s game – though those changes could be more subtle than easily noticeable.
The only sure-fire personnel changes the Buckeyes are making this week are at wide receiver. With Austin Mack out for the remainder of the regular season after undergoing foot surgery, Binjimen Victor will start at X receiver on Saturday, while Terry McLaurin will also see playing time at that spot. Chris Olave is set to join the rotation at Z receiver, where Johnnie Dixon and McLaurin typically split snaps, while Meyer said this week that Parris Campbell – who typically rotates with K.J. Hill at H-back – could also see some snaps outside.
While Ohio State isn’t expected to make any changes to its starting lineup on the offensive line, Meyer also said that Wyatt Davis is the “next man in” on the offensive line, and that Davis – who has not played on offense in any of the last four games – will “play a little bit Saturday.”
Fellow backup offensive linemen Branden Bowen and Brady Taylor are not yet ready to play as they continue to recover from injuries, but cornerback Damon Arnette is expected to play Saturday after missing the Purdue game with an injury, while cornerback Jeffrey Okudah and wide receiver C.J. Saunders are also in line to play after leaving the Purdue game with injuries.
Blake Haubeil is expected to start at kicker for a third consecutive game as Sean Nuernberger continues to recover from a groin injury.
One other possible personnel change could be at the starting safety spot next to Jordan Fuller, where both Schiano and co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Alex Grinch said over the past two weeks that the competition to start remains unsettled. While Isaiah Pryor has seen most of the repetitions at that spot, Shaun Wade and Amir Riep are potentially candidates to see expanded playing time at safety, but no starter was named this week.
Regardless of what changes the Buckeyes have made over the past two weeks, one thing that’s for sure is Ohio State – which will also be wearing its black alternate uniforms, with fans encouraged to wear black to Ohio Stadium, for Saturday's game – should be motivated to play at its best after coming well short of that against Purdue.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost expects that, and knows that could increase the challenge his team will face this weekend.
“I know what we’re getting into, going up there,” Frost said. “Probably the worst week of the year to play these guys. But our guys are excited to go up there and play, and they’ve had a good week of practice. So we can’t control any of the other things. All we can control is our preparation.”
It’s tempting to look at Nebraska’s 2-6 record and write off the Cornhuskers as an interior opponent. In this case, though, the Cornhuskers’ record isn’t truly indicative of where they are at as a team right now.
|126.6||53rd||PASS EFFICIENCY DEFENSE||127.8||59th|
Nebraska lost its first six games in a row to start the season – Frost’s first six games as head coach – but the Cornhuskers have shown steady progress over the course of the year. Since suffering a 56-10 beatdown at Michigan in its third game of the season, Nebraska has become increasingly competitive, losing by only three points to Northwestern – the current Big Ten West division leader – on the road before achieving its first two wins of the year in home games against Minnesota and Bethune-Cookman.
Given that, Meyer has expressed a recognition all week that this week’s opponent is not an opponent the Buckeyes can afford to take lightly, even though Ohio State earned a 62-3 win against Nebraska at home in 2016 and a 56-14 win at Nebraska last season.
“This is a completely different Nebraska team than we saw a year ago,” Meyer said. “They started a little slow, but they’re hitting on all cylinders right now.”
One of the biggest reasons for the Cornhuskers’ improvement over the course of the season has been the rapid maturation of true freshman starting quarterback Adrian Martinez. While he missed the Cornhuskers’ second game of the season against Troy and was limited against Michigan due to a knee injury, he’s been excellent since, completing 66.3 percent of his passes for 1,656 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions while also rushing for 408 yards and four touchdowns for the season as a whole.
With Martinez leading the way, Meyer says the Cornhuskers’ offense is similar to that which the Buckeyes had in recent seasons with J.T. Barrett at quarterback, and Martinez’s ability to both throw and run the ball will put Ohio State’s defense to the test once again.
“The quarterback makes it go,” Meyer said. “He’s a very talented guy. Young, but he can really run. That’s the thing. He’s that dual-threat, thing that gives defenses a hard time.”
Martinez has some talented playmakers around him, too. Devine Ozigbo and Maurice Washington have emerged as a strong one-two punch at running back, combining for 1,118 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 179 carries this season. The Cornhuskers also have two of the Big Ten’s best wide receivers in JD Spielman, who had 11 catches for 200 yards and a touchdown against the Buckeyes last year and has caught 53 passes for 686 yards and seven touchdowns this season, and Stanley Morgan Jr., who has caught 44 passes for 638 yards and five touchdowns this season.
With those playmakers leading the way, Nebraska has put up at least 468 yards of offense and 24 points in each of its last five games, and are in the top 20 nationally in offensive yards per game (471.3), so the Buckeyes’ defenders know they must step up.
“They just have so many ways they can attack you, so from the D-line to the linebackers to the safeties and corners, we all have to be ready,” Fuller said. “It’s a big test.”
Nebraska’s weakness this season has been its defense, which ranks outside the top 100 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in both points allowed per game (33.4) and yards allowed per game (438). But the defense has improved as the season has progressed, too, allowing less points than the game before in each of its last five games, while holding its opponents to less yards than the game before in each of its last three.
Meyer says the difference he has seen from the Cornhuskers’ defense from the beginning of the season to now has been “night and day.”
“They’re playing very good defense right now,” Meyer said.
Much like Ohio State, the Cornhuskers are aggressive up front but play mostly press man coverage on the back end. They haven’t done so very effectively this year, though, allowing 272 passing yards per game (110th in the FBS), and Ohio State’s wide receivers are looking forward to the opportunity to try to defeat those one-on-one matchups.
“Their DBs are extremely aggressive,” Campbell said. “This is probably the most press we’re going to see all season. But we’re ready for the challenge.”
Needing to win the remainder of their regular-season games just to become bowl-eligible, and having lost each of its last three matchups with Ohio State by 25 points or more, Nebraska is certainly the underdog entering Saturday’s game at the Shoe. But while the Cornhuskers might have doubted their ability to win a game like this earlier in this season, they say they believe they can now.
“To be honest, when we went up to Ann Arbor (to play Michigan), I’m not sure the team thought they could win. I think they wanted to, but I’m not sure deep down that some of the guys that could win,” Frost admitted Thursday. “I think we have a team that’s going up there (to Columbus this week) thinking we’ve got a chance if we play well. And that’s a big change and improvement. We’re playing a really good team, we’re going to have to play our absolute best to have a chance to beat them, but I think the mindset’s in the right place.”
While it might be a bad time for the Cornhuskers to play the Buckeyes in the sense that Ohio State should be fired up coming off a loss, it might also be a good time for Nebraska to make the trip to Columbus because of the momentum it finally has coming off of back-to-back wins.
“We’re coming off two quality wins, two wins that we needed for our team. I feel like if there was a time that we needed to play this team, it’s right now,” said Nebraska cornerback Dicaprio Bootle. “We’re riding a wave, and we’re trying to keep it going, trying to keep it trending in the right direction. Everybody’s just fired up for this game.”
How It Plays Out
Because of how poorly Ohio State played at Purdue, and the improvement that Nebraska has shown after a terrible start, it’s difficult to feel particularly confident in how Saturday’s game between the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers will play out.
That much has been reflected in the betting lines for this week’s game. While Ohio State opened as a 22.5-point favorite for Saturday’s game, the line has dropped all the way down to 17.5 points, though it has since moved back up slightly to 18 points, per Vegas Insider.
|2017||Lincoln||Ohio State 56, Nebraska 14|
|2016||Columbus||Ohio State 62, Nebraska 3|
|2012||Columbus||Ohio State 63, Nebraska 38|
|2011||Lincoln||Nebraska 34, Ohio State 27|
|1956||Columbus||Ohio State 34, Nebraska 7|
|1955||Columbus||Ohio State 28, Nebraska 20|
Ohio State’s defense has struggled all season, and Nebraska’s offense is more than capable of taking advantage if the Buckeyes haven’t figured a way to shore up their issues during their two weeks between games. That’s reason enough to believe that the Cornhuskers could keep this game close, and potentially even threaten the Buckeyes with a potential upset.
If Ohio State can play better defense, turn yards into points and avoid costly mistakes, though, the Buckeyes really should be able to win this game big. Nebraska’s defense is likely to be overmatched by Haskins and Ohio State’s passing offense, and the Buckeyes have the talent to dominate this game in all phases if their off-week work allows them to finally put all the pieces together.
Ohio State has typically bounced back in a big way after regular-season losses, including last year, when the Buckeyes followed up their 31-point loss at Iowa with a 48-3 win against Michigan State (and went on to win each of their final five games of the year). You might recall that confidence in Ohio State was down going into that game, too, with some predicting the Buckeyes would lose two in a row.
So if the Buckeyes finally come out and have a dominant performance against a less talented team on Saturday, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
It’s hard to be too confident in that prediction, considering that there are a multitude of areas in which Ohio State must demonstrate improvement in order to make that happen. But it would come as a surprise if the Buckeyes don’t at least come away with a win from Saturday’s game.
ELEVEN WARRIORS STAFF PREDICTION: Ohio State 48, Nebraska 21