While Ohio State was better against Nebraska in some of its major areas of concern entering Saturday’s game – the Buckeyes finally had an effective game running the ball (5.7 yards per carry), finished three out of four trips to the red zone with touchdowns and only committed six penalties for 46 yards – there was another significant problem for the Buckeyes on Saturday that hadn’t been a big issue coming in.
Ohio State lost three turnovers on Saturday, marking only the second time the Buckeyes lost that many this season (they also had three turnovers against Indiana), and those turnovers played a big part in Nebraska being able to keep the game, which Ohio State eventually won 36-31, close.
Those three turnovers came in a span of just four drives, and over the course of those drives, Nebraska went from trailing 16-7 to taking a 21-16 lead, forcing the Buckeyes to have to battle back in the second half.
The first turnover came on Ohio State’s second possession of the second quarter, when Dwayne Haskins took a hard hit from Nebraska linebacker JoJo Domann (who was unblocked on the play) that knocked the ball out of his hands, and Cornhuskers defensive tackle Carlos Davis recovered the loose ball on the strip sack.
Nebraska took advantage of the turnover, driving 64 yards in 10 plays, to cut Ohio State’s lead to 16-14.
On Ohio State’s next possession, K.J. Hill fumbled the ball on a hit by Luke Gifford at Ohio State’s own 47-yard line, where Nebraska safety Aaron Williams recovered that loose ball. Once again, the Cornhuskers were able to score points off the turnovers, putting together an eight-play touchdown drive to take a 21-16 lead into halftime.
Then, on Ohio State’s first possession of the second half, Haskins gave away a prime scoring opportunity for the Buckeyes by throwing an interception to Nebraska cornerback Lamar Jackson in the end zone.
Ohio State’s defense was able to limit the damage after that turnover, forcing a punt on Nebraska’s ensuing possession. The Buckeyes then scored a touchdown on their next possession, and didn’t relinquish the lead for the rest of the game. Nonetheless, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer wasn’t pleased about the turnovers after the game, feeling they made the difference between the Buckeyes potentially winning convincingly and the Cornhuskers instead keeping the game close.
“I'm very upset with the turnovers. That would have been a different game,” Meyer said. “If we didn't have those three turnovers, obviously, you don't put your defense in bad situations.”
While only two of them resulted in turnovers, the Buckeyes had six total fumbles on Saturday, with Haskins, Hill and Mike Weber each putting the ball on the ground twice.
The Buckeyes deviated from their usual rotation at the running back position late in Saturday’s game, keeping J.K. Dobbins on the field for the entirety of the final two drives instead of alternating Weber in, and Meyer said that was in part because of Weber’s fumbles, though he didn’t make that decision himself.
“Ball security has something to do with that too,” Meyer said. “If there's a chance that ball is going to go on the ground then really, that’s just something – I wasn't aware who was in. I let Coach Alford and Coach Day obviously handle that.”
Weber said after the game that the fumbles bothered him “a lot,” but he plans to get back to work in practice this upcoming week to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
“Kind of switched things up on how I approach guys when I try to run them over, and it just fell out a couple times,” Weber said of the fumbles. “I’m going to get that fixed, and it won’t happen again.”
Special teams make a big difference
While turnovers and an inconsistent passing performance on offense and continued struggles on defense kept Nebraska in Saturday’s game, Ohio State’s special teams played a big part in the Buckeyes ultimately finishing the game on top.
The first special teams play that went Ohio State’s way was simply a gaffe by Nebraska. The Cornhuskers boldly attempted an onside kick after their opening-drive touchdown, and kicker Caleb Lightbourn failed miserably, tripping as he kicked the ball, giving the Buckeyes the ball just 31 yards away from the end zone.
Worst kickoff in history belongs to Nebraska pic.twitter.com/pWk24Tf3K7— Dustin Schutte (@SchutteCFB) November 3, 2018
Ohio State failed to take advantage of that field position, going four-and-out on its subsequent possession. But after forcing Nebraska to go three-and-out on its next possession, backup linebacker Keandre Jones delivered the Buckeyes’ first two points of the game when he blocked Isaac Armstrong’s punt and the ball rolled all the way out of the end zone for a safety.
Keandre Jones could have taken this off of his foot. pic.twitter.com/6gJ3Lw3A5I— Eleven Warriors (@11W) November 3, 2018
Drue Chrisman had another excellent day punting the ball for the Buckeyes, averaging 47.8 yards per punt, including one punt that was downed at the 4-yard line. He also had help from great punt coverage; on his first punt of the day, a 53-yard boot and the only punt that Nebraska’s JD Spielman attempted to return, freshman wide receiver Chris Olave – filling in for injured cornerback Jeffrey Okudah as one of the Buckeyes’ gunners – made a great tackle to take Spielman down for a 2-yard loss.
Ohio State’s kickoff coverage was excellent, as well; both kickoffs that the Cornhuskers opted to return in Saturday’s game were stopped inside the 20-yard line, with Josh Proctor making one tackle and Dallas Gant and Amir Riep combining for another.
The Buckeyes’ own returners didn’t make any impact plays, but otherwise, it was a banner day for the phase of the game that Meyer spends the most time directly coaching himself.
“I thought special teams was awesome,” Meyer said. “We blocked a punt. Our punter did a great job. He had four kicks, averaged almost 50 yards per kick. Kickoff return wasn't great.”
New role for Wyatt Davis
Meyer teased this week that we would see redshirt freshman backup guard Wyatt Davis “play a little bit Saturday,” but he didn’t get into specifics about how exactly Davis would be utilized.
There was a reason for that.
As it turned out, Davis role in Ohio State’s offense wasn’t to take any playing time from Malcolm Pridgeon or Demetrius Knox at either guard spot, but to play as a sixth offensive lineman for a pair of plays in the red zone.
Wearing No. 86, Davis lined up as a tight end next to right tackle Isaiah Prince in a package that also featured regular tight ends Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell lined up in the backfield.
The package worked. On the first play, Ruckert stuck a block that helped Dobbins run for a 2nd-and-4 conversion up the middle. On the second play, Dobbins ran behind Davis and Ruckert for a 3-yard touchdown run.
Here's another look at Dobbins' touchdown pic.twitter.com/VQDYIlC43M— Eleven Warriors (@11W) November 3, 2018
Dobbins said after the game that package was something Ohio State added to its offense in the last two weeks, as the Buckeyes had an extra week to prepare for Saturday’s game.
For Davis, those two plays were his first two career plays with Ohio State’s first-team offense, and his first playing time on offense in any game since the Buckeyes’ fourth game of the year against Tulane.
Ohio State appreciates military
Ohio State held its annual Military Appreciation Day festivities as a part of Saturday’s game, which included a standing ovation for service members attending the game during the pregame Skull Session and an Ohio National Guard enlistment ceremony during a third-quarter media timeout, among other recognitions.
Meyer opened his press conference after Saturday’s game by expressing his gratitude to the military and to Ohio State for holding those festivities, giving him an opportunity to show his support to a group of people that he has great respect for.
“That was an awesome experience,” Meyer said. “My father was in the Army. My sister was in the Air Force. And the one thing that Ohio State, that for as long as I can remember has been exceptional at supporting and showing appreciation for the men and women who serve. It's just a great experience to be part of that today.”
As part of the week of festivities, Ohio State also had several military members in attendance for its practice on Wednesday, after which Buckeye players and coaches went over to them to shake their hands, take pictures with them and express gratitude to them for their service.
After completing todays practice, Ohio State players shake hands with members of the military. pic.twitter.com/Tg8vycmapx— Colin Hass-Hill (@chasshill) October 30, 2018