The 2011 edition of Nebraska-Ohio State was both that group of Buckeyes best and worst games of the season. The first half represented the pinnacle of Walrus ball; that rare one off occurrence when the planets aligned perfectly, Dave was cooking with gas, and a streaky offensive line was at the height of their prospective powers. Even the then rather green Braxton Miller looked mature beyond his years. A tight end had a touchdown catch. Carlos Hyde looked unstoppable. Ohio State under Luke Fickell had finally arrived...and then everything went to hell in a hand basket.
Taylor Martinez found his stride and put on one of his best passing stretches of his 2011 season. Both Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead were suddenly unstoppable with a puzzled, oft out of place Buckeye defense on their heals. A 21 point road lead suddenly didn't feel a 21 point lead and then it very literally wasn't. In a stretch of 10 minutes, Nebraska was down by 7. And in just over two minutes some two thirds of the way through the fourth quarter, Nebraska had the lead for good.
Gone are running gag Jim Bollman, nightmare fuel Exxon Valdez Joe Bauserman, and other Buckeyes such as J.B. Shugarts who were equal parts engaging and enraging. The returning players a year older, 10 months in to life with Mick Marotti as their strength and conditioning coach, and five games into Tom Herman and Urban Meyer's offense. The defense of yesteryear...well it hasn't been as dramatic of a departure with Luke Fickell more focused on the defense as we'd hoped, but there weren't just flashes, but sustained glimpses of excellence against a tough Michigan State team a week prior. Nebraska presents the opportunity to turn a one off occurrence into a trend.
Quarterback play is no mystery with Taylor Martinez on the many shortlists for all-first team Big Ten. During his freshman year, Martinez garnered horrible B.o.B./Rivers Cuomo parody songs featuring his horrificheesy nickname "T-Magic" before suffering from one of the more talked about sophomore slumps in the country during his second season. After completing 116/196 of his passes (59%) as a frosh for 1631 yards, Martinez upped his yardage but at a cost to his efficiency. The then sophomore completed just 56% of his passes while also increasing his interception total from 7 to 8. His first five games of 2012 have been a total revelation, however.
To this point in 2012, Martinez has completed a career high 67.8 percentage of his passes while accounting for 1059 passing yards and 11 TDs to just 1 INT. Martinez' legs, which were never really in doubt, have been as effective as ever. After falling from 6 yards a carry to 4.6 in 2011, Martinez is back up to the same 6 average in 2012. He's also rushed for a career long 92 yard touchdown.
Of course Nebraska isn't fifth nationally running the ball solely for Martinez' ways making defenders miss. They also bring arguably the best back in the country to the table in Rex Burkhead and an extremely viable second option in Ameer Abudullah. While Burkhead's had to battle through some injury issues early in 2012, Abdullah's been busy accruing 486 yards rushing and 5 TDs. Of course even in a reduced load (and arguably small sample size), Burkhead's averaged a ridiculous 9.4 yards per carry including a 61 yard touchdown. If the remnants of the defense Jim Tressel built to stop the run haven't fully made the transition to the hybrid-pro style-spread stopping juggernaut Urban Meyer craves, this is the game to prove just that.
Somewhat forgotten in all this are Nebraska's wide receivers. Sophomore Kenny Bell leads a viable core that includes Quincy Enunwa and former quarterback recruit turned wide out Jamal Turner. Bell leads the group with 330 yards receiving on 15 catches and 4 TDs to show for his efforts. Senior tight ends Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed also factor into offensive coordinator Tim Beck's downfield vertical passing game.
Protecting Taylor Martinez and paving the way for their stable of war horse running backs is an upperclassmen offensive line. Junior left tackle Brent Qvale, a 6'7" 315 pound behemoth leads the way, with senior Seung Hoon Choi to his right at left guard. Center Justin Jackson, also a senior, anchors the middle of the offensive line. On the right side, junior Spencer Long is at guard with Jeremiah Sirles and Andrew Rodriguez, both juniors, likely to see time at right tackle. Almost all of the #2's on the two deep on the line are also either juniors or seniors giving Nebraska a pretty decent luxury in that department.
Keeping up with last week's tradition, kicker Brett Maher is all-American class, but has regressed from a stellar 2011. In addition to setting the tone as the Huskers' punter, Maher is a historically accurate kicker for Big Red (though likely not up to the lofty standards of his predecessor, now Eagles kicker Alex Henery). While Maher's being 7 for 12 for 3 at this point in the season is disappointing only in context of his ridiculous 19/23 2011, it's still just that. The four misses from 40 plus should have some Cornhuskers fans concerned if Nebraska needs a longer-ish field goal at any portion during the game.
While not the blackshirts of the '80s or 90's and while probably not even Bo Pelini's first two defenses, this Nebraska defensive group is still as viable as any Ohio State will see during the entirety of their 2012 campaign. Seniors Eric Martin and Cameron Meredith are the two ends, though junior Jason Ankrah has been known to spell either. Thad Randle and Baker Steinkuhler are the starting tackles. Martin and Meredith have already combined for 5.5 sacks. The big tackle Steinkuhler even has an interception to his credit.
Nebraska's linebackers are where things begin to get real nasty with Mike linebacker Will Compton likely to be the name you hear most often Saturday night. Compton leads the entire Cornhusker team with 44 tackles and already has 3 sacks on the year. Fellow senior Alonzo Whaley starts at weakside linebacker with Sean Fisher starting at strong. While neither have the number of tackles that Compton does combined, they're both effective and can't be overlooked if the Buckeyes are to have a successful evening in the intermediate game.
The Huskers are also spoiled with depth in the secondary, going just about four or five deep at almost every position. Andrew Green and Josh Mitchell are the starters at corner. Mitchell's already picked off an opposing quarterback once in 2012. Daimion Stafford, a one time JUCO transfer who broke out as a first team all-Big Ten defensive back last season, is the starter at strong safety, with senior P.J. Smith manning the free safety role. None of these guys can be particularly taken lightly.
Ohio State enters this one as big as 4.5 point favorites in some places (though 3 to 3.5 by most counts). Nebraska, even at home, is a tough out for the Buckeyes and is going to be a game they'll have to play at the same standards they did in Lansing last week to pull out. WIth the memories of that blown 21 point lead still fresh on the minds of just about everyone donning Scarlet & Gray, and Nebraska potentially somewhat lighter in the emotional gas department following a comparable large home comeback against Wisconsin a week back, this could well be Ohio State's game to continue the tone they established last week. However, should the wishy washy Buckeyes we saw during the Cal and UAB games rear their ugly faces, Urban Meyer might just be facing his first defeat as Ohio State's head coach.
Holy War An extremely trying, hard fought contest, but one Ohio State ultimately prevails in.
Ohio State 24 - Nebraska 17