With four weeks left in the regular season, the Ohio State Buckeyes have every single goal they set out for at the beginning of the year within their grasp. Despite losing to Penn State two weeks ago, they still control their own destiny in the Big Ten, and beyond. In fact, the Buckeyes already rank 6th in 2016’s initial College Football Playoff Top 25, with multiple big-time games left to prove their worth to the committee. The first of those games comes on Saturday.
Against No. 10 Nebraska, the Buckeyes have chance to notch another signature win to go with their victories over Wisconsin (8th) and Oklahoma (14th). It’s also a game that may make-or-break this team’s identity as one good enough to compete for a conference title (and more), or ultimately, one that was just too young to reach such lofty goals.
Ohio State has been inconsistent enough over the course of the last month that it isn’t hard to picture the Huskers coming into Columbus and winning, despite what Las Vegas would have you believe. To avoid such a fate, the Buckeyes will probably have to play their most complete game since their road victory in Norman in mid-September.
So, with that in mind, here are five things to watch for on Saturday:
In the fourth quarter versus Northwestern, the Ohio State passing game came up big when it needed to. JT Barrett hit Noah Brown twice on intermediate routes, including a massive third down conversion late, which helped the Buckeyes seal the win. However, it was an earlier completion to KJ Hill that stood out the most:
Hill’s 34 yard catch-and-run set the Buckeyes up to score what would ultimately be the winning touchdown, and was by far the team’s longest reception of the day. It’s easy to play couch quarterback and yell “DO THIS PLAY AGAIN,” at the coaching staff (who can’t hear you), but it was refreshing to see the Buckeyes strike on an intermediate route, and let one of their superior athletes make a play, rather than the usual incomplete pass 40 yards downfield. It was only one play, but don’t be surprised to see similar concepts incorporated more this week. (Hopefully)
Hucking the ball downfield and hoping a receiver makes a play has been a futile exercise, but for a passing game searching for both efficiency and explosiveness, plays like these will be crucial to unlocking the offense we saw in the Oklahoma and Wisconsin games.
Back to basics
The potential return of consistent passing is a major key to the Buckeyes’ offensive success this week, but they’ll also need to improve what’s been a stagnant running game as of late to keep Nebraska’s defense off balance.
The Buckeyes have averaged a paltry 4.7 yards per carry over their last four games, and haven’t had a 100-yard rusher since Barrett’s 137 against Indiana. With opponents loading the box and daring Ohio State to pass, early downs have become a grind for an offense that prides itself on running the ball effectively. Against Nebraska, there’s a decent chance they’ll be able to do so, and maybe with some extra explosion.
The Huskers’ defense comes into the game ranked a nice (depending on your point of view) 69th in Defensive Rushing S&P+, including 124th in Rushing IsoPPP. They’ve given up 10 runs of 30-plus yards, and if there were ever a game for Ohio State to break out of it’s explosive rushing lull, it’s this one.
Be on the lookout for an improved rushing attack on Saturday, with the possibility of a few explosive runs, especially from Curtis Samuel.
(Provided he gets more than like three carries)
Winning up front
One of the bigger stories of Nebraska’s season has been the ridiculous amount of injuries along the offensive line. The injuries, and constant shuffling have played a big role in the Cornhuskers’ running game’s struggles (83rd in Rushing S&P+) and the line has essentially invited opponents into the backfield if they ask nicely enough (110th in Stuff Rate). This should play right into the hand of the Ohio State defense.
The Buckeyes boast one of the best run defenses in the country (3rd in Defensive Rushing S&P+, and are quite skilled at invading opponent’s backfields (1st in stuff rate). The numbers would indicate that Nebraska is going to have an extremely difficult time running the ball, especially on standard downs. That means a lot of 2nd/3rd and longs, which brings us to what will probably decide the game.
On this week’s podcast, Hail Varsity’s Erin Sorensen broke down what Nebraska needs to do to be successful on offense tomorrow, and one of those keys was limiting turnovers, especially through the air.
As she put it, every once in a while, quarterback Tommy Armstrong has a tendency to drop back and throw what Cornhuskers fans lovingly call, “YOLO bombs” (The spawn of Rex Grossman’s own legendary quarterbacking philosophy)
Indeed, Armstrong’s 43 career interceptions in three-plus seasons would indicate the profile of a quarterback unafraid to take chances, such as this first down throw against Wisconsin last week:
It’s a good bet that Ohio State’s rangy and athletic secondary will take advantage at least once when Armstrong making this type of decision on Saturday, and it’ll could end up being the turning point of the game.
The running game’s recent four game slide has put more pressure on Armstrong to make plays through the air, and he’s thrown six of his seven interceptions in those games as a result. If the Buckeyes consistently put Nebraska into passing situations, the more likely it becomes that Armstrong forces passes, and gives Ohio State’s secondary an opportunity to make a game-changing play.
One of the more frustrating aspects of watching Ohio State the past month has been its lack of consistency over the course of a full game. It’s to be expected of a team this young, but at times the Buckeyes have oscillated between looking dominant (Parts of the Penn State and Wisconsin games) and being downright lost (Also those games, as well as Indiana and Northwestern).
While they may be able to beat Nebraska with another up-and-down performance, playing their first complete game since Oklahoma, —You don’t count, Rutgers— would go a long way in proving their aspirations of winning the Big Ten East and possibly more are still legitimate.
At some point, you play enough games to have established what you are, and maybe they’ve reached that point. Maybe the 2016 Buckeyes are merely a very good —but not great— team, who are just young enough to not be able overcome their inconsistencies and make a run at a title. There’s no shame in that, and no matter what, Ohio State will probably be set up for a big 2017 season. But, Saturday’s game provides them another opportunity to showcase that 2016 can still be more than that.
Nebraska provides an excellent test for where the Buckeyes are at heading into the home stretch, and ultimately, how this season will be remembered. If Ohio State is able play a complete game for the first time since Oklahoma, they probably win comfortably and head into the season’s home stretch with all of their goals very much still in play.