After four weeks of relatively pedestrian competition, Ohio State’s first true test of the young college football season is upon us. On Saturday night, the Buckeyes will venture into Lincoln Memorial Stadium to take on an enigmatic Nebraska Cornhuskers team that has spent most of their year not playing up to expectations. Aside from a romp of Northern Illinois at home, Nebraska’s season so far has featured:
- A 34-31 overtime upset loss to Colorado
- A schedule-opening 35-21 victory over South Alabama in which the Cornhuskers failed to score any offensive points for the final 40 minutes of the contest
- A 42-38 survival against Illinois last week that didn’t see a Nebraska lead until the final eight minutes of the game
But this is a Saturday night road game in one of the most raucous environments across the football universe, and it’s therefore hard to expect that the Buckeyes will have a walk in the park on their hands at Lincoln Memorial. Nebraska is an absolutely beatable football team, but Ohio State will still need to bring their A-game on both sides of the ball if they are to avoid a third straight season with a road game gaffe against a B1G West team.
Buckeye Offense vs. Cornhusker Defense
To get an idea of just how “good” Nebraska’s defense is, look no further than their most recent showing against Illinois. The Fighting Illini led for 51 of 60 minutes despite only managing to throw for 78 yards the entire game, and the Cornhuskers forfeited 5.8 yards per carry to their opponents as well as rushing touchdowns to four different Illinois offensive players. Were it not for a herculean 445 total yards performance from Adrian Martinez, Nebraska almost certainly would have gone down in Champaign last weekend.
Metric stats that measure defensive line effectiveness are a bit nicer to the Cornhuskers’ run defense. Nebraska’s defensive line ranks in the top 40 across college football for restricting:
- Line Yards Per Carry — or the number of rushing yards tangible to the effectiveness of blocks near the line of scrimmage — (1.99 LYPC, 22nd overall)
- Standard Downs Line Yards Per Carry — or the effectiveness of runs on first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer — (2.04 SDLYPC, 30th overall)
- Passing Downs Line Yards Per Carry — same idea for SDLYPC, but in passing situations — (1.80 PDLYPC, 20th overall)
- Opportunity Rate — or the percentage of carries where an offensive line produces at least four yards of running room that the ball-carrier gains — (41.7%, 39th overall)
Essentially, Nebraska has done a good job of restricting the running space their opponents have close to the line of scrimmage — regardless of the down or situation — and even when an offensive line effectively blocks them, they do a good job of getting off said blocks to corral the ball carrier before they can do significant damage.
But the most established rushing attack that Nebraska has faced this season came in the Illinois game, and the Fighting Illini barely rank in the top half of the Big Ten in team rushing yards per game (181.2, 6th overall). The only other team Nebraska has faced with a team rushing ypg total in the top half of college football is South Alabama, and one can easily make the argument that their metrics are heavily inflated by their win over an NIU team that averages an abhorrent 77 team rushing ypg (4th worst among FBS teams).
Now, those same stats I mentioned earlier in this section can be read for measuring the effectiveness of offensive lines as well. It should come as no surprise to anyone that has watched all four games this season that many of Ohio State’s offensive line metrics are sparkling:
- 3.16 Line Yards Per Carry (8th overall)
- 3.25 Standard Downs Line Yards Per Carry (4th overall)
- 58.2% Opportunity Rate (8th overall)
- 11.2% Stuff Rate — or the percentage of carries that an offensive line allows a defense to stop at or before the line of scrimmage (6th overall)
Translation: Ohio State’s offensive line gets the push they need often — especially in obvious run situations — and creates enough space for their running backs to make the most of their carries while avoiding negative plays.
The undoing of the Buckeyes in their game against the Purdue Boilermakers last season had everything to do with not getting their running backs going. Once control of the pace of the game fell out of Ohio State’s hands, the Buckeyes’ offensive game plan fell apart in an unfriendly night time atmosphere, and Purdue continued to throw haymakers on their way to a dominant victory.
While Justin Fields has been nothing short of brilliant during the first month of the season, this will be his first time running the show in an overly-hostile environment, and the Buckeyes would be well-served to take some pressure off him by focusing on feeding J.K. Dobbins. Nebraska has yet to face a rushing attack with the demonstrated talent that Ohio State possesses, and if the Buckeyes can dominate the line of scrimmage, that will go to go a long way towards putting the offensive skill players in a position to make game-winning plays. Look for the Ohio State linemen — particularly Wyatt Davis and Branden Bowen — to make a lasting impression in a national spotlight on Saturday.
Cornhusker Offense vs. Buckeye Defense
Continuing with the theme of the battle at the line of scrimmage will define the results of this game, Nebraska’s offensive line is truly awful. Here’s where they rank with respect to those same stats I mentioned earlier to illustrate Ohio State’s offensive line prowess:
- 2.23 Line Yards Per Carry (110th overall)
- 2.36 Standard Downs Line Yards Per Carry (89th overall)
- 49.1% Opportunity Rate (59th overall)
- 23.6% Stuff Rate (116th overall)
Bear in mind, none of Nebraska’s opponents this season have a defense that ranks in the top half of college football in total yards per game, and their offensive line still hasn’t been able to control the line of scrimmage. Their pass blocking metrics aren’t much better, either:
- Sack Rate — or the percentage of non-garbage time passing plays that an offensive line allows a sack — (8.5%, 104th overall)
- Standard Downs Sack Rate — (4.2%, 64th overall)
- Passing Downs Sack Rate — (14.9%, 122nd overall)
For a Cornhusker team that boasts one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in college football, this is an embarrassing level of efficiency with respect to protecting Nebraska’s most important player. Again, bear in mind that these numbers have come against teams that don’t necessarily hang their hats on the play of their defense.
Chase Young is going to eat this entire offensive line alive, and any player he isn’t feasting against is going to have to deal with another Buckeye that’s likely more talented than any blocking assignment these Cornhuskers have been tasked with so far this season. When factoring in Nebraska’s alarming 11 turnovers so far this year (tied for second most among FBS teams), it’s hard for Ohio State fans not to conjure up more images of Chase Young strip-sacks in their heads.
Adrian Martinez is too damn talented to contain entirely, and given how dynamic quarterbacks have stressed out the Buckeyes in recent years, its reasonable to expect that Nebraska is going to have an easier time putting up points than any opponent Ohio State has faced thus far in 2019. However, the talent chasm along the line should be plainly obvious by now, and I expect that this is what will ultimately prove to be the deciding difference for the Buckeyes on both sides of the ball.
The Bottom Line
Checking in with the latest SP+ rankings again this week — which suddenly look very fond of Ohio State — Nebraska currently finds themselves at 35th overall, which would put them in roughly the same area Cincinnati and Indiana were when Ohio State faced each earlier on in the schedule. However, Nebraska clearly has the best quarterback, best coach, and the most difficult environment to play in that Ohio State has faced in the first half of their season.
This game could become very worrisome if Adrian Martinez is able to keep the Buckeyes’ defense off balance. However, nothing anybody has seen from the Cornhusker offensive line so far this season suggests that Martinez is going to have adequate time to operate Nebraska’s ideal offensive game plan.
Conversely, while it would be highly encouraging to see Justin Fields shine in a national spotlight, it’s probably best if Ohio State focuses on first pummeling Nebraska’s defense into submission on the ground. After all, this offense is going to be the Cornhusker defense’s first real test of the season, and they still failed to contain a hilariously one-dimensional attack from the Fighting Illini just a week prior to this contest.
If Ohio State takes care of the ball on offense, the game really should just come down to their ability to dominate the line of scrimmage for 60 minutes. I would expect Nebraska to feed off the energy of their home crowd early on in the game, but once the halftime adjustments are in, expect Ohio State’s smashmouth running game to take its toll and pave the way to a statement victory for the Buckeyes with the whole country watching.