Nearly 10 full months after its last game of the 2019 season against Clemson, Ohio State will finally play its first game of the 2020 season.
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
NOON – SATURDAY, OCT. 24
FOX SPORTS GO
Forty-three weeks after the Buckeyes lost to the Tigers in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State will finally get a chance to get back in the win column.
Ohio State's eight-game regular season schedule, which consists solely of conference games, begins Saturday at noon against Nebraska in a clash of the two teams who fought hardest for the Big Ten to reverse its decision to cancel the fall football season.
For a team that's had a bad taste in its mouth all year long, has aspirations of making another playoff run this year and has had to wait seven extra weeks to play a real football game, Saturday at noon can't come soon enough.
“The guys are fired up,” Ryan Day said Thursday. “It’s been a long time coming, and now it’s time to go play.”
The Season They Fought For
The statements Day and Scott Frost released in August and September, the lawsuit filed by Nebraska players and protests staged by Ohio State parents all came with the same goal: For their teams, and all the other football teams in the Big Ten, to get the opportunity to play this fall like other Football Bowl Subdivision conferences.
While it's coming nearly two months later than usual, that opportunity is finally coming now, and the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers playing each other in their season openers is probably too convenient to have just happened that way.
“No, I don't think it's a coincidence,” Frost said Monday.
On Saturday, though, the drama of this summer will be a thing of the past as Ohio State and Nebraska get their seasons underway. It might be a shorter, later-starting season than usual, but it's still the start of the season nonetheless, and that's certainly what Day wants his team to be focused on now.
“The No. 1 thing was how do we safely find a way to play this season? I think a lot of it had to do with the communication that was had between the coaches. I’m proud to say that because of that, I think that had something to do with all of this,” Day said this week. “But that’s behind us right now. The focus right now is playing this game. It’s here, it’s on us, finally. And that’s really what we’re starting to think about.”
It's Gonna Be Different
Even though football will be played on Saturday, the reminders that the nation is still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic will be impossible to ignore. Most starkly will be the fact that Ohio Stadium will be limited to a capacity of just 1,600 people on Saturday, with fan attendance limited to 656 guests of Ohio State players and coaches and 400 guests of Nebraska players and coaches.
The Ohio State Marching Band, cheerleaders and Brutus Buckeye won't be in attendance either, so most of the noise in the stadium will be supplied by artificial crowd noise, which will be set at 70 decibels during game play.
There will be no pregame Skull Session or team walk to Ohio Stadium – the Buckeyes will just bus over from the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Saturday – and stands that would almost certainly be full under normal circumstances will instead sit mostly empty. To put it simply, as Gene Smith said earlier this week: “It's just gonna be weird all the way around.”
“There will be a lot that we’ll miss, but we’ve accepted that, and we’ll just save that for next year,” Day said. “In the meantime, we’re gonna play with an imagination and just imagine them being in the stands and cheering us on, and we know they’re somewhere. Maybe they won’t be right in the stadium, but they’re somewhere cheering us on.”
The Start of Something Special?
Day doesn't want his team to be thinking about winning a national championship or anything else it could accomplish later this season right now. All he's wanted everyone inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center to be focused on this week is playing the best possible game against Nebraska on Saturday to get to 1-0.
Outside the Woody, however, Ohio State's championship hopes are going to be a constant topic of conversation whether Day likes it or not. Just about everyone expects Ohio State to be one of the three best teams in college football this year, along with Clemson and Alabama, so every game the Buckeyes play this season will be viewed through the prism of whether they're good enough to win their fourth straight Big Ten title, get back to the playoff and beat those two teams in January.
For all the belief that Ohio State will be a top-three team in college football this season, that's all just unproven hype as of now. But when the Buckeyes play the Cornhuskers on Saturday, we'll finally get our first actual look at how good this year's team might be – and conversely, where improvement might be needed for Ohio State to actually make a title run.
Keep an Eye on These Guys
QBs Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey
|JUSTIN FIELDS||QB||ADRIAN MARTINEZ|
|TREY SERMON||RB||DEDRICK MILLS|
|CHRIS OLAVE||WR||KADE WARNER|
|GARRETT WILSON||WR||LEVI FALCK|
|JAMESON WILLIAMS||WR||WAN'DALE ROBINSON|
|LUKE FARRELL||TE||JACK STOLL|
|THAYER MUNFORD||LT||BRENDEN JAIMES|
|HARRY MILLER||LG||BOE WILSON|
|JOSH MYERS||C||CAMERON JURGENS|
|WYATT DAVIS||RG||MATT FARNIOK|
|NICHOLAS PETIT-FRERE||RT||BRYCE BENHART|
|JONATHON COOPER||DE||BEN STILLE|
|ZACH HARRISON||DE||JORDON RILEY|
|TOMMY TOGIAI||NT||DAMION DANIELS|
|ANTWUAN JACKSON||DT/OLB||JOJO DOMANN|
|BARON BROWNING||OLB||CALEB TANNOR|
|TUF BORLAND||ILB||COLLIN MILLER|
|PETE WERNER||ILB||WILL HONAS|
|SHAUN WADE||CB||DICAPRIO BOOTLE|
|SEVYN BANKS||CB||CAM TAYLOR-BRITT|
|MARCUS WILLIAMSON||CB/S||DEONTAI WILLIAMS|
|MARCUS HOOKER||S||MARQUEL DISMUKE|
Martinez is Nebraska's most well-known player, and he's had success against Ohio State before – in 2018, he threw for 266 yards and a touchdown and ran for 72 yards and two touchdowns against the Buckeyes. He didn't do nearly as well against a much better Ohio State defense last season, throwing for just 47 yards and tossing three interceptions with no touchdowns, but the Buckeyes are still taking him seriously as both a passing and running threat.
“His skill set gives anyone challenges,” Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland said. “Any time you have a running quarterback, that can give defenses issues.”
That said, Martinez might not be the only quarterback Ohio State's defense sees on Saturday. He was pushed for the starting job this preseason by redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey, who offers a dynamic skill set of his own as a dual-threat quarterback, so the Buckeyes need to be prepared for the possibility that he could see playing time, too.
“We just gotta be ready for both, really, and just fall back on our preparation,” Borland said.
WR Wan'Dale Robinson
Everyone remembers what Rondale Moore did to Ohio State's defense the last time the Buckeyes lost a Big Ten game two years ago, and the similarities between Moore and Robinson go beyond their rhyming first names. An explosive athlete who lines up all over the formation for Nebraska's offense, Robinson will provide a real test to Ohio State's mostly inexperienced secondary – perhaps especially slot cornerback Marcus Williamson, as Robinson often lines up inside.
The Cornhuskers often used Robinson as a runner last season, too – he finished his true freshman campaign with 88 carries for 340 yards and three touchdowns in addition to 40 catches for 453 yards and two touchdowns – and with 10 months to prepare for their first game against a top-ranked opponent, one would think they'll get creative with how they use him on Saturday to try to manufacture big plays.
Given that, the Buckeyes know they need to be prepared for Robinson to do just about anything.
“You never know in an opening game what somebody's going to do,” co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “But the fact that they did that a lot last year with him and they did a lot of things throughout the season with him, we have really tried to make sure we've covered every base.”
Nebraska Offensive Line
Like the secondary, Ohio State is breaking in mostly new starters on its defensive line, and that part of the Buckeyes' defense will also be in for an immediate test, as Nebraska's offensive line is arguably the Cornhuskers' strongest unit.
All five of Nebraska's starting offensive linemen from last year are back this season, including a trio of seniors who are third-year starters in left tackle Brenden Jaimes, left guard Boe Wilson and right guard Matt Farniok. The Cornhuskers are making some changes to the unit – Wilson moved from right guard to left guard, Farniok moved from right tackle to right guard and 6-foot-9, 330-pound Bryce Benhart is the new starting right tackle, with 2019 starting left guard Trent Hixson moving to the bench – but there's reason to believe this will be one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines in 2020, which means everyone in Larry Johnson's rotation on Ohio State's defensive front needs to be ready for a challenge.
“I was impressed with their offensive line as I watched it last year and I’m sure with another year under their belt, they’re bigger, stronger,” Day said. “It’s always good to have an offensive line that’s been together for a year.”
Game Week Talk
“I thought we did a really good job of keeping the game close last year ... for about five minutes.”– Nebraska coach Scott Frost
Frost wasn't ashamed to make light of the beatdown the Buckeyes handed the Cornhuskers in Lincoln last year, when an Ohio State team that Frost also said “was one of the best college football teams that I've been on a field with” beat Nebraska, 48-7.
“Our guys can’t try to win a championship on Saturday. Justin Fields can’t try to win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday. It doesn’t work that way.”– Ohio State coach Ryan Day
As I said before, Day doesn't want his team to be looking ahead. Many will be talking about Ohio State's championship aspirations and Fields' Heisman candidacy on Saturday, but all the Buckeyes can accomplish this week is beating Nebraska and starting the season 1-0.
“There’s no room for error. you don’t have a few games to get under your belt before you go out there in Big Ten play, so we know that.”– Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland
Ohio State almost certainly would have cruised to a victory in its originally scheduled season opener against Bowling Green, but the Buckeyes don't have the luxury of opening this season against a lesser non-conference opponent. Ohio State is heavily favored to beat Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers will provide more competition than the Falcons would have, and with an all-Big Ten schedule with only eight regular season games, the Buckeyes can't afford to stumble out of the gates.
- Ohio State is playing a cross-divisional game against Nebraska for the fifth consecutive year, with a sixth straight matchup scheduled to take place next year in Lincoln. Ohio State has beaten Nebraska in each of the previous four games.
- Overall, Ohio State has won five straight games against Nebraska and holds a 7-1 all-time record against the Cornhuskers, with Nebraska's only win over the Buckeyes coming in 2011.
- Ohio State has won every season opener it's played since the turn of the millennium. The Buckeyes' last loss in a season opener came in 1999, when they suffered a 23-12 loss to Miami in the Kickoff Classic.
- The Buckeyes are starting their season in October for the first time since 1939.
- Ohio State returns 11 players (seven on offense, four on defense) who have started at least six games as Buckeyes. Nebraska returns 15 players (nine on offense, six on defense) who have started at least six games for the Cornhuskers.
How it Plays Out
Line: Ohio State -26.5, O/U 68.5
If Ohio State is in fact the caliber of team that it's expected to be this season, this game shouldn't end up being close. Ohio State has won three of its last four games against Nebraska by 41 or more points, and this year's Buckeyes have the chance to be as good as any of those teams. Nebraska has enough talent and experience that it should be an above-average Big Ten team, but the Cornhuskers are coming off three straight losing seasons.
That's why Ohio State is favored to win this game by nearly four touchdowns, and why most of Eleven Warriors' staff believes the Buckeyes will cover that large spread. Our staff's average score projection adds up to a nice total of 69, which suggests the current over/under of 68.5 points is right where it should be.
It's risky to bet on any college football game between two teams that haven't played yet this season, but there is reason to be confident that Ohio State's high-powered offense will score a lot of points against a Nebraska defense that was mediocre last season. It shouldn't come as a shock if Nebraska's offense makes its share of plays too, though, against an Ohio State defense that is playing its first game without seven starters from last season who were all NFL draft picks.
|Eleven Warriors Staff Prediction|