Five Things: Ohio State's Defense Leads the Way Past Nebraska As Offense Struggles With Balance, Unforced Errors

By Chris Lauderback on November 7, 2021 at 10:20 am
Jaxon Smith-Njigba

The talk coming into Ohio State's 26-17 win over Nebraska centered on the Cornhuskers being the "best bad team" in America and well, I guess that's somewhat valid after Scott Frost's squad gave the Buckeyes a fight in Lincoln. 

The Buckeyes led just 17-10 at the half and scored a mere two touchdowns in 14 possessions, not counting the 15th when Ohio State successfully ran out the last 56 seconds on the clock. 

Fortunately for Ohio State, kicker Noah Ruggles has become quite the weapon. The transfer from North Carolina went 4-of-4 yesterday including a pair of season-long 46-yarders, becoming the first kicker in school history to make four field goals in back-to-back games. 

The victory improved Ohio State to 8-1 overall and with No. 3 Michigan State falling to Purdue, the Buckeyes should move up in the College Football Playoff rankings despite an uneven offensive performance. 

Quarterback C.J. Stroud was inconsistent with accuracy and decision-making even as he completed 36-of-54 passes for 405 yards and two scores but with two interceptions. He also had a nearly disastrous fumble late in the fourth quarter but center Luke Wypler saved the day hopping on the loose ball. 

More frustrating than some of Stroud's decisions, it didn't seem like Ryan Day had his best day as a play-caller or game manager. 

Lucky for the Buckeyes, the defense came to play and save for a few long plays, controlled Nebraska's respectable offense. 

Next up for Ohio State is another stiff test, this one in the form or Purdue at home, on the heels of the Boilers knocking Michigan State from the ranks of the unbeaten. But before we turn to all things Purdue, here are Five Things from the nine-point win over Nebraska. 


Ohio State's Saturday morning injury report noted the Buckeyes would be without all-everything receiver Garrett Wilson meaning Stroud would be without one of his top three targets. 

That wasn't a problem however as Jaxon Smith-Njigba continued his incredible season, breaking David Boston's single-game receptions record (14) with 15 grabs for 240 yards (2nd all-time to Terry Glenn's 253 in 1995) and a touchdown.   

JSN's score came on a short hitch route after he turned the corner, got a block from Chris Olave and outraced the Cornhuskers for 75 yards giving the Buckeyes a 17-3 lead with 3:32 left in the second quarter. Ten of his grabs went for first downs (or a touchdown). 

Smith-Njigba also did work on punt return in Wilson's absence, taking one back 21 yards giving OSU excellent field position on its first possession of the second half. The offense would sputter and settle for a field goal despite the short field to take a 20-10 lead midway through the third quarter. 

Through nine games, despite not getting as much national hype as his teammates, Smith-Njigba leads the Buckeyes in receptions (50), receiving yards (888), and receiving yards per game (98.7). He also leads all Buckeyes with at least 10 receptions in yards per catch (17.8). 

Pretty wild but it's a good bet Smith-Njigba will be the first one of OSU's lethal receiving trio to reach the 1,000 barrier this season. 


Tyreke Smith had a pretty rough first half of the season as the fourth-year defensive end posted zero sacks and just one tackle for loss during the first three games (3 QBH, tbf) before not being available for games four and five. 

Smith returned for game six against Indiana and posted his first sack of the season across 177 snaps. 

Over the last two weeks however, Smith's been Ohio State's best edge player. 

He lit up Penn State with five stops, one sack, one tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble in a huge performance. 

Yesterday, Smith was back it, giving Nebraska trouble on nearly every snap. For the game, he posted another five tackles, another sack and tackle for loss, with a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry. 

After OSU took a 20-10 lead midway through the third quarter, Smith wrecked Nebraska's ensuing possession with the pass breakup on first down before he got pressure on a 3rd-and-4 to force an incompletion. 

On Ohio State's next defensive series, he hurried Adrian Martinez to force an incompletion from the end zone. The Cornhuskers punted three plays later giving the Buckeyes excellent field position. They'd only net a field goal because of course but the 23-10 lead with 2:05 left in the third quarter was big. 

Though the collective defensive ends started slow this season, production has improved and with Smith leading the way, the DE quartet of Tyreke, Zach Harrison (4 tkls, sack, FF), Javontae Jean-Baptiste (sack) and Jack Sawyer (sack, hurry) had a solid day against the Cornhuskers. 


I'm not an offensive coordinator, I didn't sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night and I'm certain Ryan Day's forgot more about football than I know but that won't stop me from being concerned about the Why behind Day's play-calling. 

Before I touch on some metrics, a standalone item is it seems like dialing up a quick, wide throw to Mitch Rossi to the boundary side is a suboptimal idea with the amount of talent on the field. That's truly no slight to Rossi so don't even try getting hurt about it - but let's be real. When he brings playmaking value to this offense, it's down by the goal line, not on 2nd-and-7 form the OSU 37. 

It was also wild to see Day call a pass play late in the game with only basically just needing a first down to run out the clock, instead he called a pass play in which Stroud was stripped. Center Luke Wypler saved the day as he pounced on the fumble for an 11-yard loss. Day would call two more pass plays and got in field goal range to put the game away but the first down call definitely caused many OSU fans to gain a lump in their throat. 

The much bigger concern however is why Day pretty much abandoned the run in a tight game again. It was a lot more understandable against Oregon considering Ohio State trailed the entire second half, usually by two scores, when he called 54 pass plays to just 31 rushing attempts. Last week, Day was vocal about liking the run/pass play balance versus Penn State, another tight game of course, when OSU ran it 34 times and passed it 34. But as we'll see in a minute, that's not really the "balance" Day sought during his first two years in Columbus. 

Then yesterday, Day again went away from the run, asking Stroud to throw it 54 times while the rushing attack logged only 30 attempts. 

It's hard to think anything other than Day lacks confidence in his team's ability to run the football and well, it's sadly understandable. On paper, Ohio State came in to yesterday's game averaging 5.99 yards per carry, good for No. 4 in the country but it averaged just 4.1 versus Oregon, 4.7 against Penn State and a ridiculous 3.0 yesterday. The run game accounted for just 18% of Ohio State's 495 total yards against the Cornhuskers. Basically, the rushing stats became inflated against largely shitty defenses and against good defenses, Ohio State can't run the ball. 

With the run game struggling against better defenses, Day is significantly off trend from his his run/pass play-calling splits over his first two seasons as Ohio State's head coach. 

2019 62% 50% 38% 50%
2020 61% 50% 39% 50%
2021 YTD 49% 35% 51% 65%

After yesterday's lopsided play-calling, this year's offense is now officially trying to pass more than it's trying to run. And holy hell the yardage output is way out of whack compared to the previous two seasons with the run game accounting for just 35% of the total offense through eight games after averaging 50% of the yardage production in 2019 and 2020. 

So, next time you're pissed off that Day isn't running the damn ball, just know it's because, right now at least, he probably doesn't think the Buckeyes can actually move the ball on the ground with more consistency than Stroud and his elite receivers can through the air against competent defense. 


A week after Ohio State's defense gave up 11-of-18 third down conversions to Penn State including 11-of-14 on those of eight yards or less, the Buckeyes held the Cornhuskers to just 2-of-13 yesterday. 

In fact, Nebraska didn't convert its first third down until early in the fourth quarter. To that point, the Buckeyes stopped nine in a row.

Ohio State also held Nebraska to 13 points below its season average, 108 yards below its total offense average and held the 'Huskers 89 yards under their rushing yards per game average. 

Really, the main blemishes came via big plays as Samori Toure got loose for a 72-yard touchdown catch cutting Ohio State's lead to 17-10 late in the second quarter before Toure burned the Buckeyes again late in the third quarter, this time for 53 yards setting a 1-yard touchdown plunge a play later. That one cut the Buckeye lead to 23-17. 

Those two plays, totaling 125 yards, accounted for more than half of Adrian Martinez's 248 passing yards on the day. On his other 29 throws, Martinez hit on 14 for just 123 yards. He did add a 1-yard touchdown run as part of 51 yards on the ground but he averaged just 2.8 yards per carry overall. 

Ohio State also held tailback Rahmir Johnson to 3.9 per try and only two of Nebraska's 34 rushing attempt went for 14 yards or more. 

Since giving up 31 points to Minnesota in the opener and 28 to Oregon the following week, Ohio State is allowing 15 points per game over the last seven contests. 


Ohio State's defensive tackles have been really good up the middle, the defensive ends have come on in holding down the edges and getting pressure while the cornerbacks led by Denzel Burke have been solid. Up the middle of the Buckeye defense, behind the line, still has an opportunity to tighten up. 

At linebacker, it's time for Steele Chambers to start. Chambers of course missed the first half due to a targeting penalty last week but in the second half, he posted six tackles to finish third on the team for the game and added an interception to ice it. 

I also feel like Cody Simon continues to improve and led the team with eight stops yesterday. If I'm running the show, Chambers and Simon need to start and see the bulk of the snaps with Teradja Mitchell and Palaie Gaoteote providing rotational depth. 

At safety, fans have crushed Bryson Shaw at times this year but if I'm being honest, Lathan Ransom has been a much bigger liability in the secondary, including yesterday as he was in the neighborhood both times Toure got loose for huge gains. 

On the 72-yard touchdown pass, Ransom was beat in coverage by a couple yards. Maybe Shaw should've been there over the top to help, we'll have to see in the film study but either way Ransom was beat bad. On the 53-yard Toure catch to set up another touchdown, it again appeared to Ransom beaten in coverage. 

I'm not trying to crush Ransom here - he's a second-year guy and I think he's got real upside - but he's got to tighten up along with a couple others helping man the back-middle of Ohio State's defense. This becomes especially important in bigger games if the Buckeye offense is going to keep sputtering when facing legit defenses. 

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