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Ohio State vs. Nebraska: 2018 game preview and prediction

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Ohio State had a bye week to try and put the embarrassing loss to Purdue behind them, and now they’ll look to return to form when they host Nebraska on Saturday.

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

For the second year in a row, Ohio State hit the road to take on a Big Ten West foe and was thoroughly embarrassed. The Buckeyes suffered their first loss of the season two weeks ago, falling 49-20 to Purdue.. Ohio State not only was outplayed by the Boilermakers, but Jeff Brohm and his staff ran circles around Urban Meyer and his assistants. Now if Ohio State wants to stay in the thick of the College Football Playoff race, they can’t afford any more losses this season.

Assault on the record books

The lone bright spot for Buckeyes against Purdue was quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who continued to rewrite the Ohio State quarterback record book. In the blowout loss to the Boilermakers, Haskins set Ohio State single-game records for completions (49), attempts (73), and passing yards (470). Haskins was able to eclipse the 400-yard passing mark for the third game in a row, making him the first Ohio State quarterback to accomplish that feat.

Haskins now has 30 touchdown passes this year, which is tied for the most in the country. With five more touchdown passes, Haskins will tie J.T. Barrett for the single-season school record. With three games with at least five touchdown passes this season, it is possible Haskins could reach that mark this week against Nebraska.

The single-season passing touchdown record isn’t the only record in Haskins’ crosshairs. Haskins has passed for 2,801 yards this season, which is third in the country, and 529 yards away from tying Joe Germaine’s school record for most in a season. About the only record Haskins won’t come close to touching is Barrett’s school record for passing yards in a career. Haskins currently has 3,366 passing yards, which is 39 yards behind tying Terrelle Pryor for 12th place in school history.

Rush to judgment

With what Haskins has done through the air this year has meant Ohio State has had to sacrifice some production in the running game, but it’s shocking to see the Buckeyes this bad at rushing the football. Ohio State has rushed for 1,374 yards this year through eight games, which is the lowest total at this point of the season during Urban Meyer’s tenure in Columbus.

The biggest area where a lack of a running game has hurt the Buckeyes has been inside the red zone. Over the past two games, Ohio State has made eight trips inside the opponents’ red zone and only been able to muster four field goals. The Buckeyes are going to need more from running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, who both have just over 500 yards rushing this year, if Ohio State is going to be a threat this year in the College Football Playoff and Big Ten races.

A tough loss

The wide receivers have been able to pick up a lot of the slack for the ineffectiveness of the Ohio State running backs this year, but the group took a major hit in the Purdue game, when Austin Mack was lost for at least the rest of the regular season due to a foot injury. Even though Mack did have some issues with drops early in the year, he had hauled in 26 passes for 331 yards and a touchdown before suffering the injury.

Even more is needed

With Mack unavailable, even more responsibility with be placed on receivers Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill, who are catching everything in sight. Campbell has hauled in 52 passes for 600 yards and seven touchdowns, while Hill has 49 catches for 656 yards and four touchdowns. With his 105 yards receiving against Purdue, Hill went over 100 yards receiving for the second straight game, becoming the first Ohio State wide receiver to do that since Santonio Holmes in 2005.

Another wide receiver who more will be asked of going forward is Terry McLaurin, who is averaging nearly 20 yards per catch this year. McLaurin has only caught 21 passes on the season, but he makes sure they count when the football is thrown his way, with eight of those catches resulting in touchdowns. With 52 more receiving yards, McLaurin will reach 1,000 yards for his career, joining Campbell and Hill at the mark, and giving Ohio State their 12th trio of receivers with 1,000 career yards on the same team.

Adjustments are needed

What has really hurt Ohio State’s defense this year has been the play of their linebackers. The most notable problem of the group has been their tendency to lineup too close to the line of scrimmage, allowing opponents to exploit the large void left in the middle of the field, and also putting more pressure on the secondary to pick up the slack.

The Buckeyes do have talent at linebackers who have shown glimpses of living up to the hype, but they just haven’t been able to consistently make plays because they are often out of position. Pete Werner has shown moments of solid play, registering 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, while Malik Harrison has the athleticism to become a force for the “Silver Bullets”.

Rushless men

Ohio State has had to play their linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage lately because the defensive line has been struggling to create pressure after the loss of Nick Bosa to injury. Even after exiting in the second half of the TCU game, Nick Bosa still ranks third on the team with four sacks this year, which gives you an idea of just how little production Ohio State is getting with their pass rush.

The Buckeyes have recorded 26 sacks so far this season, but many of those came in the first three games of the year. The Buckeyes have recorded three sacks or less in each of the last three games, allowing opposing quarterbacks more time to pick apart the Ohio State pass defense.

Lack of sacks hasn’t been the only problem for the Ohio State defense this year, as they have struggled to force turnovers. Through eight games, Ohio State has just six interceptions and seven fumble recoveries, Last year the Buckeyes were able to force 24 total turnovers. Without as much of a turnover threat this year, opposing offenses have been able to sustain drives and wear down Ohio State’s defense. Against Purdue, Ohio State was shutout in the turnover department, and had they even been able to get just one, it could have changed the complexion of the game.

Quick response

The humbling loss to Purdue, along with the extra week of preparation for Nebraska, should have allowed Ohio State ample time to address some of the issues that are currently plaguing them. The Buckeyes have never failed to respond positively to a regular season loss under Urban Meyer, posting a 5-0 record after falling.

Not only does Meyer have a stellar record after a loss, but he is 48-4 in his head coaching career with more than a week to prepare for his opponent. The pathetic performance against the Boilermakers has to be eating at the head coach, so it’s high likely the Buckeyes come out prepped and ready to go on Saturday afternoon against the Cornhuskers.

A growing history

The history between Ohio State and Nebraska, two of the winningest programs in college football history, has been limited, but the teams are seeing each other with more regularity since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten earlier this decade. The two schools have met six times, with Ohio State holding a 5-1 edge in the series. Two of those meetings were in the 1950s, with the other four taking place since 2011.

After Nebraska took down Ohio State 34-27 in their first meeting as conference foes in 2011, the Buckeyes have dominated the series, scoring at least 56 points in each of the last three meetings. Last year Ohio State made their second-ever trip to Lincoln, and jumped out to a 35-0 halftime lead on their way to a 56-14 win. J.T. Barrett had a spectacular game for the Buckeyes, throwing for five touchdowns and adding another two on the ground.

Finding their rhythm

The Scott Frost coaching era in Lincoln got off to quite a rocky start, with Nebraska losing their first six games of the year. Two weeks ago, Nebraska was able to notch their first win under Frost with a 53-28 win over Minnesota. Last week the Cornhuskers built off that victory and easily defeated Bethune-Cookman, who was a late addition to Nebraska’s schedule after the Cornhuskers’ season opener against Akron was cancelled due to weather.

Frost files

Once Frost started receiving interest for head coaching jobs, it seemed like only a matter of time before he made it back to Lincoln. Frost played two years at Nebraska in the 1990s, and in his senior season become one of the few college football quarterbacks to not only throw for 1,000 yards in a season, but he also passed for 1,000 yards.

Frost took the reigns at UCF in 2016 after the Golden Knights suffered through a 0-12 season the previous year. The turnaround was quick in Orlando, with Frost posting a 6-7 record in 2016, followed by a 13-0 record last year, which included a Peach Bowl win over Auburn. With the Cornhuskers moving on from Mike Riley, the time had come for Frost to return home.

Even though the first year under Frost hasn’t translated into as many wins as the Nebraska faithful had been hoping for, the progress being made by the new coaching staff can definitely be seen. The biggest improvement made Nebraska has been with their running game. After averaging just 107.5 rushing yards per game last year, Nebraska has increased their rushing output by 113.1 yards per game this year, which is the second biggest improvement in the country.

Devine intervention

Devine Ozigbo has been at the front of the transformation, and has played some of his best football over the past five games. The senior running back has hit at least 100 yards on the ground in four of Nebraska’s last five games, with his best output of the year coming last month against Purdue with 170 yards rushing. Ozigbo has been especially tough to corral behind the line of scrimmage lately, with only one of his 67 carries over the past five games being stopped for a loss.

Fabulous true freshman

As if stopping Ozigbo wasn’t going to be tough enough, the Buckeyes will also have their hands full with true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, who is just one of four quarterbacks in the country averaging 225 passing yards per game and 50 rushing yards per game. Martinez is rolling up 294.9 total yards per game this year, which is the third-highest average in the Big Ten this year.

Dynamic duo

Nebraska might not have the depth Ohio State does at wide receiver, but they do have two prolific threats in the passing game. Senior wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. is closing in on a couple of former receiver Kenny Bell’s career school records. Morgan has 163 receptions in his career, which is 18 receptions shy of tying Bell’s record. A little more work will have to be done if Morgan wants to break Bell’s record of 2,689 career receiving yards, as Morgan currently has 2,381 receiving yards, which is fifth in school history.

If Morgan is able to break those two records, it might not be long before JD Spielman tops those marks. The sophomore wide receiver has 53 receptions this year, making him the first Nebraska wide receiver with at least 100 receptions before his junior season. Spielman is just the third Cornhusker with two 50-catch seasons.

Nebraska will need a lot of production out of Morgan and Spielman if they want to pull the upset on the Buckeyes, since they don’t get a lot of production out of their other receivers. While Morgan and Spielman have combined for 77 catches for 1,324 yards and 12 receiving touchdowns, the rest of Nebraska’s roster has combined for 69 catches for 681 yards and one touchdowns. If Ohio State can keep tabs on the duo, it will put a lot of pressure on Martinez, Ozigbo, and the rest of the Nebraska offense.

Blackshirts in training

The Nebraska defense is a little more of a work-in-progress than the offense, but they are making strides. Prior to last week’s game in which they allowed just nine points to Bethune-Cookman, Nebraska had allowed at least 24 points in each of their previous seven games. The Cornhuskers could be in for a long day if they haven’t addressed their pass defense this week, which is giving up 272 yards per game.

Barry good

Even though Nebraska has given up a lot on defense this year, they still have some playmakers on defense. The most notable is linebacker Mohamed Barry, who has 75 tackles this year, with 10 of those being for loss. For a more in-depth look at Barry, check out what our own Geoff Hammersley wrote earlier this week, when he identified Barry as Nebraska’s defensive player to watch.

Sack attack

The biggest area when Nebraska has improved this year has been with their pass rush. After recording just 14 sacks all of last year, the Cornhuskers already have 20 sacks this season. Leading the way for Nebraska is Luke Gifford, who has 5.5 sacks this year, while Ben Stille sits just behind Gifford with five sacks. Stille has record a sack in each of the last three games, while Gifford has done the same in three of the last four games.

Defensive ballhawks

Ohio State has been able to solve the pass defenses of their opponents this year, but to do the same against Nebraska, they’ll have to be wary of a couple of standouts. The biggest name in the Nebraska secondary is Dicaprio Bootle. The sophomore defensive back doesn’t have any interceptions on the season, but he has broken up 14 passes through eight games.

Another sophomore defensive back from Florida leads Nebraska in interceptions this year. Of the Cornhuskers’ seven interceptions on the season, Deontai Williams has two of those picks. One of those interceptions came earlier in the year in the blowout loss to Michigan, while the second one came last week against Bethune-Cookman. Both sophomores will need to continue to impress this week if Nebraska hopes to slow down Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeye receivers.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Ohio State 39, Nebraska 24

Win Probability: Ohio State 81.3%

The numbers say Ohio State should get back on track this week, but Nebraska won’t go away without a fight. With a week off to try and correct some of their issues that came to the surface in the ugly loss to Purdue. Expect Ohio State to abandon some of their RPO philosophies on offense and get Dobbins and Weber going through a more traditional running game.

Nebraska’s offense is gaining more confidence, which should worry Ohio State with the poor play their defense has shown this year. If the Buckeyes are able to slow down the combination of Morgan and Spielman at wide receiver, things will be a lot easier for Ohio State. But the Buckeyes can’t devote all their resources to locking down the duo, as Devine Ozigbo can hurt them on the ground.

Perhaps some adversity is what Ohio State needed to wake them up ahead of the final push for the College Football Playoff. Meyer’s record off a loss, as well as off a bye week, is hard to go against. The Cornhuskers might keep things closer than Buckeye fans might like, but in the end they’ll send Nebraska back to Lincoln with a loss, guaranteeing Frost a losing season in his first year with the Cornhuskers.