Nebraska Debriefing: Despite Jaxon Smith-Njigba's Record-Setting Day, Ohio State's Offense Sputtered In the Redzone for a Second Straight Week

By Andy Vance on November 7, 2021 at 9:38 am
Jaxon Smith-Njigba

Ohio State handed Nebraska it's biggest loss of the season Saturday. The deficit was a whopping nine points.

In their previous six losses, the Cornhuskers were within eight every time. Scott Frost's team is without a doubt the "best awful team in America." Adrian Martinez is feast or famine at times and a bit turnover prove, but the Huskers defense held both Oklahoma and Ohio State to under 30, which is something you would expect from a defense as ballyhooed as Georgia's world-beaters.

The Buckeye offense looked amazing at times – Jaxon Smith-Njigba set a new school record for receptions in a game and was basically one catch away from setting the school record for receiving yards in a game – but continued to sputter in the red zone and to commit sloppy mistakes and untimely penalties. Fortunately, Noah Ruggles is a Lou Groza Award semifinalist and playing like he really wants to win it.

So. as the Debriefing noted last week, "A win's a win in The Ten," and Ohio State improved to 8-1 in another "survive and advance" type of game. Let's break it down.

TL;DR: Just the Facts, Ma'am

Ohio State never trailed in the game, but it was one of those games where fans might be excused for feeling like their team was constantly playing from behind. The Buckeyes scored a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter, and then settled for a trio of field goals in the second half to hold Nebraska in check.

It was the second week in a row that the vaunted Buckeye offense looked vulnerable, and the second week in a row the team was plagued by penalties, getting dinged eight times in the second half for 65 yards, which was just a touch better than last week's 10-penalty, 75-yard debacle.

For all the grief the Buckeye defense took early in the season, the work-in-progress Silver Bullets looked solid in all but two drives. The team held Nebraska to converting just two of 13 on third down, sacked Martinez five times, recorded eight tackles for loss, forced a fumble and an interception.

How It Went Down


The first drive of the game may have been a bit of foreshadowing as to how the game would play out, with Ohio State taking eight plays to drive 32 yards before turning the ball over on downs just across midfield. The second drive wasn't much better: the team moved the ball 51 yards in eight plays, but gave the ball back as C.J. Stroud thew one down the sideline into the waiting arms of Nebraska linebacker JoJo Domann.

Ohio State's first-quarter drive chart went Turnover on Downs, Interception, Punt, End of Quarter.

Things finally got going in the second quarter, and it was really the only stretch of the game where it felt like Ohio State's offense remembered it was the best offense in the country. After marching down the field on an 11 play, 57-yard drive to the Nebraska's nine-yard line, a pair of incomplete passes forced a successful field goal attempt.

“Some things weren’t clicking in the run game, and they put it on me to execute the pass game,” Stroud said after the game. “I feel like we did that well. Of course we had two turnovers, which was blatantly my fault. But other than that, we played really well. Definitely we got to start executing and finishing drives, I feel, but for the most part, I feel like as an offense, we played well.”

The offense did finish the next two drives, first a seven-play, 49-yard march that ended with a three-yard pass to Chris Olave, and then after Nebraska made its first field goal of the day Smith-Njigba caught a nice pass roughly yards past the line of scrimmage and turned it into a 75-yard touchdown reception.

After making the first Nebraska defender miss, the ultra-talented wideout picked up a pair of blocks from Olave and it was off to the races. With the rushing game feeling bogged down for a second week in a row, Smith-Njigba tried to put the team on his back, catching a school-record 15 receptions for a near-record 240 yards (he'll appear at No. 2 on the school records list, behind Terry Glenn's 253 yard game at Pitt in 1995).

You could make an argument for either Smith-Njigba or Ruggles as the MVP of the game. Ruggles went four-for-four on field goal attempts for a second week in a row. The team's placekicker was named a semifinalist for the Groza Award earlier in the week after taking care of business versus Penn State, and his performance in Lincoln was a sharp contrast to the home team's woeful special teams play.

The second half was not kind to the Buckeyes, as the team managed just 31 yards rushing on 14 attempts and converted just two of seven third-down attempts. Coupled with the plethora of penalties, were it not for Ruggles' stellar play and the stout Ohio State defense, things could have gone sideways for the No. 5 team in the country.

Helmet Stickers
  • Jaxon Smith-Njigba: He's been stellar all season, but this game was a masterwork. He caught 15 of 18 passes thrown his way and made play after play to keep his team in the running.
  • Noah Ruggles: This kid is the real deal. He may not win the Groza, but he's darn sure in contention. Jim Tressel smiles.
  • TreVeyon Henderson: Although it felt like the Buckeyes had big trouble establishing the run, Henderson still managed 92 yards on the ground and then caught all six passes thrown his way for another 44 yards.


What can you say about the Buckeye defense? If Matt Barnes isn't under consideration for the Broyles Award, he should be. The turnaround he and Kerry Coombs have orchestrated since Ryan Day reshuffled their responsibilities is astounding given that it has occurred in-season in real-time.

Ohio State held Nebraska to 361 yards of total offense, forced a trio of three-and-outs, sacked Martinez five times, and tackled the Huskers in the backfield another eight times for good measure. Only three of Nebraska's 14 drives ended in points: Big Red punted eight times, frequently giving Ohio State excellent field position, and only made one of their three field goal attempts.

While Big Ten officials are contractually prohibited from calling holding against Ohio State's opponents (that call early in the game was a mistake that will surely be punished swiftly), Larry Johnson's big eaters kept the pressure on Martinez and stymied any attempt to get the ball moving on the ground.

There were only two drives where the Buckeye defense looked swamped, and one of those came after Smith-Njigba scored on a one-play, 75-yard drive. Barnes said after the game that the two big plays his unit gave up were "bad calls" by the coaching staff.

Steele Chambers – sidelined in the first half due to a targeting penalty early in the second half versus Penn State – came up big in the second half as he effectively ended the game with a late interception.

Helmet Stickers
  • Ronnie The Rocket Hickman: Hickman continues to be a star, recording four solo tackles, one for a loss, along with a sack. He plays with tremendous intensity and has a knack for making big plays.
  • Tyreke Smith: He had one of everything: a sack, a tackle for loss, a pass break-up, and a quarterback hurry. This guy was causing problems for Nebraska all night.
  • Steele Chambers: Playing just two quarters, Chambers reminded everyone that he is Ohio State's best linebacker, recording three solo tackles along with the game-icing pick.

Jim Tressel's Least Favorite Moment of the Game

After a late night of bingo in the student union, President Tressel was actually a little disappointed Saturday's game was a noon affair. He took comfort in knowing that, even though Daylight Saving Time is total rubbish and should be consigned the recycling bin of history, he'd still get that extra hour of sleep anyway.

After finishing up some handwritten thank-you notes to the student activities staff and autographing a bingo card for the undergraduate who beat him on the last card of the night ("Emails are so impersonal, aren't they, Ellen?"), the Hall of Fame coach adjusted his vest and snuggled up with a cup of cocoa to watch the big game.

While most fans were frustrated by a scoreless first quarter, Tressel was not. He wasn't overly concerned that Day went for it on fourth down so early in the game ("Sometimes you have to be aggressive on the road"), and he was very pleased to see just how well the Buckeye kickers handled their business.

He was so pleased with the smart field position game the Buckeyes were playing that he largely shrugged off how poorly Nebraska's kickers played ("It's a shame to see a good defense hamstrung by poor special teams play, really").

In the midst of mentally composing a congratulatory letter to Noah Ruggles, however, his concentration was totally blown when he heard color commentator Joel Klatt say that Stroud had already thrown more than 40 passes, "and it's not even the fourth quarter yet!"

"Great galloping ghost!" Tressel said, realizing that Ohio State was throwing the ball nearly twice as often as it was running. "A little power football never hurt anyone. With a platoon of running backs like that..."

Miss Ellen wisely poured another mug of cocoa, and the former Coach turned back to how pleased he was with the Buckeye kicking game.

It Was Over When...

Center Luke Wypler fell on the ball after Stroud was strip-sacked late in the game. A turnover there would have put a surging Nebraska in position for a go-ahead scoring attempt. Instead the Buckeyes would add the game's final field goal, putting a comeback out of reach for the Cornhuskers. 

Up Next: Ohio State returns to the Horseshoe to face a Purdue team that just knocked off No. 3 Michigan State.

The Spoilermakers have been the Kryptonite of highly-ranked teams this season, and have dashed Ohio State's title hopes in recent memory, so this game should be one for the ages. Kickoff from Ohio Stadium is scheduled for 3:30 p.m.

View 29 Comments