Ohio State's defense is currently ranked No. 2 in the country. Say what you will about the level of competition, but that's quite the turnaround from last year's unit that was plagued by missed tackles, poor angles, and busted coverages.
Revisiting the Purdue debacle is not something folks want to do, but the game in West Lafayette was a prime example of what Ohio State's defense was in 2018. Watching a 5-foot-9, 180-pound true freshman run circles around Buckeye linebackers and break tackles from safeties en route to the end zone wasn't a pleasant sight.
Yet that's exactly what Rondale Moore did last October in Ohio State's 49-20 road catastrophe; its lone blemish during Urban Meyer's final season in Columbus.
Fast forward to September of 2019 and we're looking at a similar group of players that are playing at a significantly higher level thanks to some new leadership and a more simplified scheme.
This weekend's trip to Lincoln will present the stiffest competition of the young season so far with a talented quarterback and a number of weapons on offense. One of those weapons has a skill set similar to that of Rondale Moore and is fresh off a coming-out party that earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
As a four-star prospect out of Frankfort, Kentucky – just 50 miles east of Moore's hometown of Louisville – Wan'Dale Robinson was a guy that Brian Hartline and the Ohio State staff had their eyes on.
A top-100 national recruit, the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder was a do-it-all athlete who truly was reminiscent of his Kentucky counterpart. He ran with the ball, caught passes, had great speed, and was surprisingly strong for a guy his size. He also had offers from all over the country.
The shifty playmaker committed to the in-state Wildcats before eventually flipping to Nebraska before December's early signing period. Hartline had the Buckeyes right up toward the top of his list as Robinson made multiple trips to Columbus – including an official visit – throughout the process.
After enrolling early and bulking up to 190 pounds, he's seen action dating back to the opener against South Alabama, but Wan'Dale Robinson didn't have much national fanfare until last week's game against Illinois. In what ended up being a come-from-behind win for the Huskers, Robinson caught eight passes for 70 yards and two scores while adding another 89 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
While one game against a team like Illinois shouldn't make anyone get too crazy, it's no secret that Robinson has the skills to fill a much-needed role in Scott Frost's offense. Quarterback Adrian Martinez, tailback Maurice Washington, and wideout J.D. Spielman are the lead guys on offense. But Frost made it clear that Robinson will be heavily involved as well.
It goes without saying, but facing a team like Ohio State is going to be much different than facing the Fighting Illini. And while Robinson fills a role similar to what Moore does for Purdue, he's not going to have the luxury of facing off against a unit like the Buckeyes fielded a season ago.
It will be interesting to see Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison's strategy Saturday night in Lincoln. While the Buckeye defense has been fantastic through its first four games, it hasn't faced a team with the offensive firepower that Frost and Co. can bring to the table.
Ohio State's linebacker play has been significantly better than it was in 2018 and really every aspect of the defense has improved. Martinez will undoubtedly get pressured Saturday night as Chase Young continues his pursuit of the single-season sack record. Spielman and the rest of the Husker receivers will have their hands full with Jeffrey Okudah and Damon Arnette.
As for Wan'Dale Robinson, the true freshman is likely to once again line up in the backfield and at wide receiver. Last week he did most of his damage on curls and short routes across the middle of the field but also did plenty of work at tailback with 19 carries while filling in for a banged-up Maurice Washington.
Junior Dedrick Mills is another big part of the Nebraska backfield. Mills is in his first year in Lincoln after attending Garden City Community College in 2018. He's rushed for 229 yards and already has five scores on the season.
#Huskers running back Dedrick Mills said he ran like thunder while Maurice Washington provided the lightning against Illinois. What does that leave Wan'Dale Robinson?— Evan Bland (@EvanBlandOWH) September 22, 2019
Mills: "He brightened the game up for us, you feel me? I look at him as the sun right now."
Washington has been practicing in full this week and is expected to return this weekend. That means the Buckeye defense will be facing a quarterback who is a major threat to run (224 yards on the season), a 220-pounder in Mills, an all-purpose back in Washington, and then the running back/receiver hybrid in Robinson.
Ohio State's linebackers and safeties will likely be the key as well as a versatile defender like Shaun Wade. Will Baron Browning see the field a bit more since he brings more of a speed element than someone like Tuf Borland? Larry Johnson and the pressure from the front four certainly may be problematic for Nebraska's plans as well.
The Buckeye defense has been terrific thus far, but it faces a real test Saturday night in Lincoln. Wan'Dale Robinson is a player Ohio State wanted and now he's a player coming off a breakout performance. Ryan Day spoke highly of him yesterday when meeting with the media. Now his defense just has to stop him.