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Ohio State vs. Nebraska 2016: Game preview, prediction, and 6 things to know

Ohio State enters the final month of the college football regular season and will hope to keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive when they host Nebraska on Saturday night.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t pretty, but Ohio State found a way past a game Northwestern team last week. Now the Buckeyes will have another tough challenge under the lights at Ohio Stadium on Saturday night when they host Nebraska. The Cornhuskers will be itching to get back on the winning track after they lost at Wisconsin in overtime on Saturday night. The loss snapped an eight-game winning streak, which was Nebraska’s longest in 15 years.

This marks the first meeting between the schools since 2012, when Ohio State beat Nebraska 63-38 in Columbus. Saturday’s game will be just the third meeting between the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers as Big Ten foes. Ohio State holds a 3-1 advantage in the brief series, with the only Nebraska win coming in 2011 when the Cornhuskers rebounded from a 27-6 deficit to beat the Buckeyes 34-27. The schools will become more familiar with each other in the near future, with games scheduled each year from now until 2019.

Urban Meyer teams continued their trend of bouncing back quickly from losses, improving to 23-5 during the head coach’s 15 years of coaching. The Buckeyes jumped out quickly on the Wildcats, scoring 17 points on their first three possessions. From there the offense became stale, as Northwestern was able to eventually tie the game at 17. Curtis Samuel again came to the rescue, with his three-yard touchdown run with less than 10 minutes remaining giving Ohio State the lead for good.

Now Meyer will be looking to improve on a tremendous record against ranked teams. Since he took over at Ohio State, Meyer has gone 14-3 against top 25 teams, and he is 35-13 overall against top 25 teams as a head coach. All three of his losses at Ohio State against ranked teams have come against top 10 teams, as Meyer is 6-3 against top 10 squads, and 17-6 during his coaching career. Meyer will also be trying to add to the record he set last week. The win over Northwestern gave 161 wins in his first 15 seasons as a head coach, passing Bob Stoops’ 160 wins from 1999-2013.

Nebraska will be finishing off a tough two-game road stretch. Last week’s loss to Wisconsin in Madison gave the Cornhuskers their first loss of the season, and now Nebraska has to travel to Columbus this week. Even with the loss, the Cornhuskers sit atop the Big Ten West, but only a game separates Nebraska from Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota, and Iowa. With games still left against the Golden Gophers and Hawkeyes, Nebraska can’t afford any other slip ups if they have any designs on heading to Indianapolis in early December for the Big Ten Championship Game.

The loss to Wisconsin continued the trend of close losses for Nebraska. Dating back to 2014, the loss 10 losses by the Cornhuskers have come by 10 points or less. Nebraska did show a lot of fight against the Badgers, rallying from a 17-7 deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime. Last year was especially tough for the Cornhuskers in close games, with their seven losses coming by a combined 31 points in Mike Riley’s first season in Lincoln.

The biggest improvement for Nebraska this season has been on the defensive side of the football. After allowing just three opponents to 17 points or fewer this year, the Cornhuskers have already held five opponents to 17 points or less this year. Nebraska has been especially tough in Big Ten play, with all five of their opponents failing to score more than 23 points. This could be the right time for Nebraska to catch Ohio State, since the Buckeyes have had issues on offense over the past few games.

Ohio State’s biggest advantages

Bend but don’t break. The Buckeyes haven’t been as crisp lately on defense as they were earlier in the year, but they still aren’t giving up many points. Last week Ohio State gave up 400 yards at home for the first time since 2014, but the Buckeyes were able to hold Northwestern to just 20 points, but it could’ve been more if the defense didn’t tighten up inside the red zone, with Northwestern settling for field goals on two possessions inside the 20-yard line. For the year the Buckeyes have only allowed opponents just eight touchdowns on 24 possessions, and on seven of those red zone possessions opponents have come away with no points.

Ohio State will have to continue their stinginess inside the red zone if they want to hand Nebraska their second straight loss, as the Cornhuskers have scored touchdowns on 20 of their 33 red zone possessions, and have added field goals on another seven possessions. Nebraska will likely find the sledding tough if they try to run the football inside the red zone, as Ohio State has allowed just three rushing touchdowns this season.

The Buckeyes should be able to have a little more success trying to shut down Nebraska inside the red zone than previous opponents of the Cornhuskers this year because of the talent Ohio State possesses in all three levels of the defense. The defensive line with players like Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa creating pressure in the backfield should be able hurry Tommy Armstrong Jr. and possibly allow the linebackers and defensive backs to create some turnovers, something they have done so well all year long. Ohio State has 11 interceptions on the season, with Malik Hooker leading the team with four picks.

A balanced attack. Nebraska’s defense is considerably better than it was last year, allowing just 205 yards per game through the air after giving up 290 yards per game passing in 2015, but they’ll face their toughest test of the season on defense against the Buckeyes. Even though Ohio State hasn’t been as strong the last few games as they were to start the season, the Buckeyes are still very balanced on offense, which makes it a challenge to slow them down.

Ohio State’s has seen some growing pains in the passing game, averaging just 220 yards per game this year, but Curtis Samuel is still a big threat catching passes out of the backfield, leading Ohio State with 44 catches this year. Noah Brown is second on the team with 24 catches, and he is leading the team with six touchdown catches. The Buckeyes have used a variety of weapons in the passing game this year, with 15 players having caught a pass through eight games, but they just need a few receivers to step up on a more consistent basis, which could open up the passing game more.

There’s no question that Ohio State’s bread and butter is their running game, with Mike Weber, Samuel, and J.T. Barrett all having accumulated at least 500 yards rushing so far this year. Weber is tops on the team, with the redshirt freshman having rolled up 770 rushing yards through eight games. If Ohio State blends the physical rushing style of Weber, along with the big play ability of Samuel, there aren’t many teams in the country that can slow them down.

Light up the night. Even if this matchup was taking place during the afternoon on Saturday there’s no question that Ohio Stadium would be rocking, but the volume will be turned up even more because this contest will take place in primetime. Since arriving at Ohio State, Urban Meyer is 7-1 in games starting after 5 p.m. EST, with the lone loss coming in 2014 against Virginia Tech. The Buckeyes already own a victory against Nebraska under the lights at Ohio Stadium, as the 2012 game between the schools was also played in primetime.

Even before Meyer’s arrival in Columbus, something special usually happens under the lights at The Horseshoe, with the Buckeyes owning a 14-4 record all-time in games starting after 5 p.m. EST. Even in the majority of the losses the margin of victory by the opponent was razor thin, with Ohio State losing three of those losses coming by three points. The only exception was in the loss to Virginia Tech, where the Hokies won 35-21.

With Ohio State knowing they need to win the rest of their games, including the showdown with Michigan in Columbus later this month, the Buckeyes will be playing with their backs against the wall on Saturday night. This is something Ohio State has had to deal with recently, as a second loss in 2014 after the loss to Virginia Tech would have dashed any hopes the Buckeyes had of making the College Football Playoff. Ohio State will be ready to go on Saturday night, and it will be up to Nebraska to respond.

Nebraska’s biggest advantages

Tommy terrific. Tommy Armstrong Jr. continues to rewrite some of Nebraska’s quarterback records. Last week the senior became the 11th Nebraska player to eclipse 10,000 yards of total offense, and with just 53 yards he’ll break Taylor Martinez’s school record of 10,233 total yards of offense. Armstrong Jr. already broke Martinez’s record of 56 career touchdown passes earlier this year and he currently has 64 touchdowns for his career at Nebraska.

It isn’t just through the air where Armstrong Jr. can hurt opponents, as his 1,726 career rushing yards are sixth among Nebraska quarterbacks. The senior has 22 career rushing touchdowns, which makes him the 10th Nebraska quarterback with at least 20 touchdowns. Currently Armstrong Jr. is the only active FBS quarterback who has amassed 8,000 career passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards.

Coming into the game against the Buckeyes, some of Nebraska’s receivers are getting healthy, which will help Armstrong Jr. After missing the previous two games, Jordan Westerkamp returned to action against Wisconsin. Last year Westerkamp paced Nebraska’s passing attack with 65 catches and 918 yards. Tight end Cethan Carter should return after missing the last three games with an elbow injury. Sophomore Stanley Morgan Jr. has stepped up with the injury, as he leads the Cornhuskers with 23 receptions on the year, and his five catches against Wisconsin were a career-high.

Team turnover. What allowed Nebraska to make a comeback and force overtime in Madison last week were the turnovers they created. Nate Gerry had two interceptions against the Badgers, giving him 13 interceptions for his career, which is one shy of tying the school record. This was the second game this year in which Gerry has intercepted two passes, with the first coming against Wyoming in the second game of the season.

Gerry isn’t the only Nebraska defender who has been opportunistic this year, as Keyan Williams is tied with Gerry for the team lead with four interceptions. After having just 10 interceptions as a team last year, Nebraska already has 15 interceptions this season, which is the most in the country.

After posting a -12 turnover margin last year, Nebraska is sitting at +5 in turnover margin through eight games this year. Just once in the last 12 years has Nebraska posted a positive turnover margin for the season, as back in 2009 the Cornhuskers were +5. When Nebraska is able to post a positive turnover margin in a game they are unbeatable of late, winning their last 18 games, with six of those wins coming under Mike Riley. Not only does Nebraska capitalize on the turnovers they force, scoring 59 points on 16 takeaways this year, but they also tighten up on defense after committing a turnover, only allowing 18 points on 11 turnovers.

Saving their best for last. Nebraska has excelled in the fourth quarter this year, outscoring opponents 108-13 in the final quarter. The 95 points Nebraska have outscored opponents by in the fourth quarter is by far the best in the country. A big reason for the huge point differential in the final quarter is because the Cornhuskers are dominating time of possession, averaging 10:05 of possession in the final quarter.

The Cornhuskers have been able to hold on to the football so much in the fourth quarter because they have three players who are effective in the rushing game. Tyrell Newby, Devine Ozigbo, and Tommy Armstrong Jr. have all rushed for at least 350 yards this season. The trio has also accounted for 16 rushing touchdowns through eight games.

In contrast, Ohio State has been good in the fourth quarter, outscoring opponents 69-27 in the final quarter, but lately they haven’t been quite as strong. In the past three games the Buckeyes have been outscored 27-17 in the fourth quarter, with the worst of those performances coming against Penn State, where Ohio State was outscored 17-0 over the final 15 minutes.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Ohio State 35, Nebraska 20

Win Probability: Ohio State 81.5%

The numbers say Ohio State should win on Saturday night, but Nebraska will hang around a bit. With the recent struggles of the Ohio State offense, along with how well Nebraska has played earlier in the season, this doesn’t look like it will be a blowout like in 2012. If the final score ends up being close to this projection, it would mark the first time under Mike Riley in which Nebraska has lost a game by more than 10 points.

What will likely be the biggest downfall for Nebraska in this one is the fact that they are on the backend of back-to-back road games. Ohio State had to deal with this earlier in the year, when they weren’t able to earn a victory over Penn State after going to overtime in Madison the previous Saturday. The physical game against the Badgers last week, along with the travel to Columbus this week, should allow for the Buckeyes to win here by a couple touchdowns.