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Ohio State will need more than just big hits from CB Denzel Ward against Nebraska

This week’s defensive player to watch isn’t your everyday corner.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State faces a Cornhuskers offense this Saturday that finds themselves without an identity. Quarterback Tanner Lee’s 11/10 touchdown/interception ratio doesn’t inspire much optimism, while the team’s rushing game is expected to be split between bruiser Devine Ozigbo and scat-back Mikale Wilbon — neither of whom is averaging over 5.0 yards per carry this season.

Nebraska isn’t ranked inside the top 10 this time around, as their 3-3 start has included close losses to Oregon and Northern Illinois (!!!) along with a Badger-induced beat down last week in Lincoln, Neb. We’ve seen the Buckeyes shut down opposing rush offenses for the better part of this season, but there have been issues defending the downfield pass. The onus will once again be on the secondary to keep the Buckeyes perfect in Big Ten play, and the secondary’s success largely hinges on the play of No. 1 cornerback Denzel Ward.

The Man Can HIT

Last week saw Ward become the victim of the most-atrocious targeting call of the past 100 years (probably). There’s no other way to justify the decision other than to conclude Ward hit the receiver too hard:

This isn’t anything too new for Ward, as he’s flashed his willingness to lay big hits throughout his career on kickoff coverage, as well on Oklahoma’s 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end in 2016. Cornerbacks aren’t supposed to hit like safeties, and Ward is actually small for the position by Ohio State’s standard at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds. Still, it sets the tone for the entire defense when the little guy delivers the big hit, and a confident Buckeyes secondary will be needed against a Cornhuskers offense undoubtedly looking for redemption after scoring just three points against the Buckeyes last season.

Ward needs to win the 50/50 balls

A common thread from Ohio State’s opponents this season has been the decision to take the game outside. Opposing coaches realize that attempting to battle with the Buckeyes’ maulers on the defensive line isn’t a great plan, so they’ve often decided to take their one-on-one chances against the Ohio State corners. The Buckeyes have some of the most-talented defensive backs in the nation, but there are plenty of talented receivers who can make plays without enough opportunities. Take Indiana’s second touchdown, for example, when Kendall Sheffield and Ward were tasked with defending three straight end-zone fades:

The Buckeyes ask their corners to read the receiver’s eyes and shoot their arm to the sky upon the ball’s arrival. A well-placed back-shoulder fade is pretty much impossible to stop, so playing the receiver’s reaction gives the defensive backs about as good a chance at making a play as they’ll get. Ohio State’s front seven makes the idea of methodically moving the ball downfield a tall task. The easiest way for Nebraska to give themselves a shot at creating explosive plays is to target the one-on-one matchups Ohio State gives the opposition’s wide receivers on a snap-by-snap basis. Ward and company will need to shut down their side of the field to allow the rest of the Buckeyes to do what they do best: Get after the quarterback.

Ohio State is currently a 24.5-point favorite with a 58-point over/under. Vegas is roughly implying a 36-12 victory for the Buckeyes.

The Ohio State offense has been a much-improved unit since the Oklahoma game, but will face their second-biggest test of the season Saturday. How Ohio State's secondary manages to set the tone will go a long way towards deciding how much close of a contest this game ends up being.