The first real test of the year is almost here as Ohio State finishes its final preparations ahead of tomorrow night's clash in Lincoln against Scott Frost's Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Ryan Day's outfit looks to move to 5-0 after blitzing past Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati, Indiana and Miami (Ohio version) and will enter the game as a 17-point favorite.
Will the Buckeyes continue their streak of dominance against an upgrade in competition? Can the defense contain a true dual-threat quarterback test?
Nebraska’s pass defense ranks just No. 81 nationally through four games giving up 240 yards per contest but has intercepted six balls while giving up five touchdowns. Can the Cornhuskers slow down Justin Fields and maybe even force him into his first interception of the season? What kind of day do you expect from Fields?
Dan: I think they could, but that doesn't mean I think they will. I don't think Nebraska's defense is as bad as people might think it is – the yardage numbers look bad in part because the Cornhuskers play with high tempo on offense, which leads to more defensive plays – and they have some talented defensive backs on the back end. I think Ohio State's receivers are better, though, and I think Ryan Day and Mike Yurcich will have another good game plan to put Fields in positions to succeed. He's going to throw an interception eventually, and in a big primetime game on the road where he might be inclined to make a few more risky throws, I wouldn't be surprised if it happens on Saturday. All in all, though, I'm expecting Fields to have another big day.
Andrew: I’ve seen nothing out of Ohio State or Nebraska to suggest things will slow down for Fields and the passing attack. He hasn’t thrown for the prolific yardage that we saw from Haskins, but he’s been extremely efficient and his rating is top-five in the country. I’m predicting some sort of turnover this weekend but am expecting another fine passing day with about 240 yards and three scores through the air.
Andy: Not a chance. The passing game under Ryan Day’s tutelage has been a breath of fresh air the past two seasons, and it’s hard to see the Cornhuskers being the team to disrupt Fields’ mojo at this stage in the season. Although Nebraska held former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters to a season-low 78 yards on a 40.9% completion rate on the road at Illinois, they managed only a single pick against one touchdown in Champaign last week. And the athletic comparisons between Justin Fields and Brandon Fields are few and far between.
According to Bill Connelly’s SP+ ratings, Ohio State’s early-season opponents (save Miami) weren’t exactly dead fish: Indiana currently ranks 32nd in SP+, Cincinnati ranks 59th, and FAU ranks 76th, and the Buckeyes won those games by an average score of 54-9. Nebraska only clocks in this week at 35th according to Connelly’s advanced metrics, so statistically the ‘Huskers would be 1-point dogs versus the Hoosiers on a neutral field… If I’m not making myself clear, I don’t think the not-quite-Blackshirts are going to give Fields’ offense much trouble Saturday night.
Every position group on both sides of the ball has looked phenomenal through four games albeit against pretty weak competition. Considering Nebraska’s specific strengths, which position group on offense or defense needs to step up the most on Saturday?
Andy: I’m still watching the new-look linebackers as my unit to watch. So far, so good - as scheme-master Kyle Jones noted this week the Silver Bullets are looking championship-caliber against the run, so I’m not sweating Nebraska’s running backs so much. With Adrian Martinez having already tossed for a conference-leading 1,052 yards this season including seven touchdowns, I’m interested to see if he can find a hole to exploit in the short passing game.
Ohio State has been susceptible to that type of attack in the past, so this game is a good chance to see if a skilled signal caller can find a chink the armor and move the ball down the field. If the Silver Bullets come home from Lincoln looking as good as they have the first four weeks of the season, look out world.
Andrew: It’s tough to find a position group that you’re concerned about right now, but I’d say the linebackers are who I’ll be watching the most closely. While I have full faith in the defensive line, there are bound to be some times that Adrian Martinez breaks contain and uses his legs. Malik Harrison and Co. are going to need to hold him in check. They’ll also need to help out with Wan’Dale Robinson in the middle of the field on occasion.
Dan: Ohio State's defensive back seven has looked substantially better this year than it did last year, but Nebraska will give them a much tougher test than any of the first four opponents. Remember how much the linebackers and secondary struggled to cover Rondale Moore at Purdue last year? They could face a similar challenge from Wan'Dale Robinson on Saturday, while JD Spielman is another dangerous weapon at receiver and Maurice Washington is a dangerous pass-catcher out of the backfield. Pete Werner and Baron Browning have looked excellent against the run so far this season, but they haven't really been tested in pass coverage the way Nebraska could test them. Shaun Wade has emerged as a top playmaker in the secondary but struggled against shifty slot receivers like Moore and Tyler Johnson last season, so how he holds up against Wan'Dale and the Cornhuskers on Saturday will be more telling than the first four games of how much he's actually improved.
Nebraska’s chances at an upset hinge on the play of dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez. Last year, Martinez burned OSU for 338 total yards and three touchdowns. How will he fare against a resurgent batch of Silver Bullets and how should Ohio State’s defensive braintrust scheme to slow him down?
Dan: I'll answer the second part of the question first: Ohio State should force Martinez to beat them with his arm. He ran for 118 yards against Illinois last week, but the Buckeyes' run defense has been one of the best in the nation so far this season, and Jashon Cornell said this week that keeping Martinez in the pocket will be a priority for the defensive line. I think Martinez and the Cornhuskers will make some plays in the passing game and will be the first team to pass for more than 215 yards against the Buckeyes this year. But I think they will stop him from making big plays with his legs, so I'll say they at least hold him to less total yards than last year.
Andy: Going back to Connelly’s SP+ rankings, Ohio State is the only team in the country currently ranked in the Top 5 of both the offensive and defensive ratings. Given how porous the defense looked in 2018, this is perhaps the most exciting development of the offseason staff transitions.
Looking back at Nebraska’s loss to Colorado earlier in the season, Martinez threw for an acceptable 61.5% completion rate, but was sacked a season-high six times that day, leading to a 2-touchdowns-against-1-interception box score. If Chase Young and company can feed Martinez a steady diet of turf and frustration in front of his hometown crowd, it’ll go a long way to keeping his obvious talents in check.
Andrew: I see Martinez putting up some yardage but also being plagued by a few costly turnovers. It wouldn’t surprise me if he approached 300 yards of total offense on the night with a couple fumbles and maybe an interception or two. He’s going to take his lumps against that defensive line but the yardage and a couple of touchdowns will likely be there. It certainly won’t feel like last year, though.
At basically the quarter-mile marker of the college football season, give us your four best teams in the nation. I’m not interested in most-deserving for now, just straight up eye-test, which four teams have impressed you the most?
Andrew: Give me LSU, Ohio State, Alabama, and Wisconsin as the four best teams right now. Then I’d have Oklahoma and Auburn ahead of Georgia and Clemson based on what I’ve seen as well. Those are the best eight teams in the country and I think there’s a decent little drop-off after them.
Andy: In no particular order: LSU, Ohio State, Alabama and Wisconsin. There’s one thing these teams have in common: balance, and consistency. They’re good in almost all facets of the game, not prone to stupid mistakes, have clear identities and an understanding of who they are and what they do well.
Ohio State, as I mentioned earlier, is the only team in the country ranked in the Top 5 of both the offensive and defensive SP+ ratings, standing No. 5 in each. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is 8th and 9th, and Alabama stands 3rd and 7th. LSU’s offense is No. 2 in the country, and although it stands just 38th in defense, that’s 11 spots better than Oklahoma and I believe in their ability to get better as the season progresses. Plus I’ve really enjoyed watching their progression under
Farmer Fran Coach Ed Orgeron and quarterback Joey Burrow. They’re a fun team to watch.
Dan: Based on what we've seen so far this season, I believe the four most complete teams in college football are Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia. Not necessarily in that order, but all four of those teams currently rank in the top 20 nationally in both total and scoring offense and total and scoring defense, and I believe all of them have enough talent on both sides of the ball to win the national championship this year. The toughest team to leave out of my top four right now is LSU, because its new offense led by offensive coordinator Joe Brady and quarterback Joe Burrow has looked spectacular. The Tigers' defense, however, hasn't played to the same level as the top four; Oklahoma, which would be sixth in my personal rankings right now, misses the cut for the same reason.
Ohio State is a hefty 17-point favorite on the road? Do the Buckeyes cover? Give us your final score and game MVP.
Dan: I wouldn't feel confident putting my money on the Buckeyes to cover, because I do believe this is the best team Ohio State has played this year and will be more competitive than the Buckeyes' first four opponents, but I also wouldn't bet against them. Ultimately, I see this being somewhere between a 14-28 point game in which the Buckeyes score 40-some points and the Cornhuskers score 20-some points. I'm going with a 45-21 final score, and I think Justin Fields will have a big game in the national spotlight to lead the Buckeyes to victory and make his first real pitch to Heisman voters.
Andrew: I’ve got Ohio State covering by a score of 43-20. I can see them perhaps getting off to a slow start but then rolling once they get things going. Chase Young plays a full game this time and records three sacks and forces a fumble. He’s the MVP Saturday night in Lincoln.
Andy: I normally have little faith in the Buckeyes against the spread, but they’re going to cover this week. The stats suggest they should be favored by 21.5 on a neutral field, so giving the ‘Huskers a 2.5-point home-field advantage Ohio State is still a good bet at 17.5. The Buckeyes feel hungry like the 2014 squad, not entitled like the 2015 edition, and I think they’ll roll out of Lincoln having put the rest of the conference on notice as legitimate playoff contenders.
Chase Young has a Heisman-worthy performance, holding Martinez to one of his softest performances to date, and walks away with the MVP honors on another 2-sack outing as the Buckeyes romp to a 42-17 victory.