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Ohio State vs. Nebraska: 2019 game preview and prediction

It’s back to Big Ten play. On the road. 

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Nebraska at Illinois Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Ohio State Buckeyes put up basketball-like numbers in their total annihilation of the Miami (OH) Redhawks last week. Having now completed a pristine, 3-0 non-conference slate, the Buckeyes (which boast a 4-0 overall mark) are ready to get back into Big Ten play as they travel to take on Nebraska in Lincoln.

Last season, in head coach Scott Frost’s inaugural year, Nebraska went 4-8 overall, including 3-6 in the Big Ten. After the Huskers’ season opener against Akron was cancelled due to lightning, Nebraska posted six-straight losses to start the season. However, compared obviously to their early-season run, the Huskers managed quite the comeback in the second half of the year with wins over Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan State and, it should be noted, a narrow, five-point loss to the Buckeyes in Columbus.

This season, Nebraska looks to get back to its former (read: 1990s) glory, but will need all the wins it can get in what looks each week like a tougher and tougher Big Ten West (read: Wisconsin).

The Huskers are 3-1 on the season with wins over South Alabama, Northern Illinois and, most recently, Illinois. The sole blemish on Nebraska’s schedule is a 34-31 overtime loss to Colorado -- a game in which the Buffs did not lead in regulation.

Ohio State was impressive against Miami. But this isn’t the MAC, and the Buckeyes will need to bring it against down-but-not-out Nebraska Saturday.


First, a bit of series history...

Ohio State and Nebraska have faced off just seven times in program history, starting in 1955. The Buckeyes hold a 6-1 overall advantage over the Huskers, with the only loss coming in 2011 in Lincoln during Luke Fickell’s interim season. In case a reminder is in order, Nebraska joined the Big Ten back in 2011. As a result, Ohio State doesn’t have quite the volume of history with the Huskers as it does with other conference foes, a fact which is exacerbated by the fact Nebraska is in the Big Ten West. While last year’s win by Ohio State was won by a narrow, 36-31 margin, the Buckeyes have been much bigger winners in the past (56-14 in 2017 and 62-3 in 2016).


Off to the plains

Ohio State has had one other road game this season in its first Big Ten matchup of the year. In that game, the Buckeyes brought home an impressive, 51-10 win in Bloomington on the back of Justin Fields’ three touchdowns. Now, the Buckeyes prepare to travel to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln which (fun fact) becomes Nebraska’s third-largest city on game days with an 85,000-plus person capacity. And the fact the game is at night gives an extra edge to the home crowd -- the Huskers are 46-7 in night games in Lincoln. It’ll certainly be the toughest environment the Buckeyes have faced this year, especially given Nebraska fans’ high, high hopes for this season and traditionally also high levels of delusion.


All eyes on Lincoln

For the first time this season, College GameDay is traveling to an Ohio State game -- but probably not the one anyone had circled at the start of the year. It’s especially weird given there are two other ranked matchups (No. 18 Virginia at No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 21 USC at No. 17 Washington) this weekend.

Realistically, the Buckeyes’ television schedule hasn’t been phenomenally exciting thus far this season, with three noon games to kick things off followed by (finally) a 3:30 p.m. kickoff last week against Miami. Now, Ohio State finally has a prime time game, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. EDT on ABC. (The Buckeyes are also scheduled to face No. 25 Michigan State back in Columbus in the same time slot next week).


Fields like he’s been here forever

Justin Fields has exceeded even the wildest expectations set upon him by Buckeye fans following his transfer from Georgia. He’s managed to meld into the offense seemingly from the get go, connecting on 16 passing touchdowns to eight different receivers while managing Ryan Day’s pro-style offense even as a dual-threat quarterback (he does still have six touchdowns on the ground -- one more than starting running back J.K. Dobbins). In all, Fields has completed just under 70 percent of his passes and has thrown for zero (zero) picks on the year. His 92.5 QBR is fourth in the nation, and he’s finally started to enter Heisman conversations (but yes, it’s still too early).


Chase-ing the dream

In total, the Buckeyes have 19 sacks on the season. No surprise, Chase Young, a projected top pick in 2020’s NFL Draft, has seven of those on his own, racking up a total of 52 sack yards. By the way, those seven sacks are tied with Illinois’ Oluwole Betiku Jr. for most in the nation. More impressive is the fact young has managed that feat while playing only about half of each of the Buckeyes’ games so far this year. Young has already proven to be one of the most dominant players in college football this season, and is a key reason Ohio State ranks second nationally in total defense, allowing just 222 yards per game and three touchdowns all season. Plus, Nebraska has already allowed 10 sacks this season. So really, it’s only a matter of time before Young gets to him.


And finally catching it

In Brian Hartline’s second season as wide receivers coach, the Buckeyes have finally been able to establish themselves when it comes to receiving threats. Last season, Dwayne Haskins benefited from a troupe of young and veteran receivers who racked up 51 touchdowns on the season. Now, the Buckeyes are (almost) on pace to match that with a stable of speedy threats. As previously noted, eight receivers have caught touchdowns for the Buckeyes so far this season. Leading this group, as was expected at the outset of the year, are Chris Olave (four touchdowns) and K.J. Hill (three), but freshman Garrett Wilson has also emerged with two early touchdowns this season. And like Young, the starting wide receivers have had the benefit of resting for most of the second half of their respective games.


Turnover advantage

One thing that the Buckeyes haven’t had to worry about thus far this season? Turnovers (knock on wood). In fact, it was something of a surprise last week when Fields fumbled the football in the endzone, giving Miami a safety and the short lived lead in the first quarter. In all, the Buckeyes have lost a total of just four turnovers on the season while gaining seven from its opponents. Nebraska, meanwhile, is 127th in the NCAA in turnovers lost, coughing up the ball a whopping 11 times through just four games.


More and more NFL-caliber defensive backs...

Last year’s Ohio State secondary was something of a disappointment compared to previous seasons, but that might just be a curse of comparison with five first-round NFL selections from Ohio State’s secondary in recent years. Things seem to be looking up this season, however, as several players have stepped up to collectively allow just 161.8 yards per game. In fact, through four games, four members of the Buckeyes’ secondary -- Jordan Fuller, Jeffrey Okudah, Damon Arnette and Shaun Wade -- all earned 75.0-plus grades from Pro Football Focus.


Scotty doesn’t know (but maybe he does)

It was a huge deal when Nebraska successfully poached Scott Frost away from UCF, and Husker fans expected an immediate payoff. They certainly did not expect the 4-8 season they ultimately got in 2018, but there was a reason Nebraska wanted a coaching change from Mike Riley and frankly not everyone can fix things in a season like Urban Meyer can. Frost, who played quarterback for Nebraska’s 1997 national championship team, was a natural choice to fill the coaching vacancy, and the university was certainly going to give him the time and space to do so.

The start of Frost’s second season has already looked infinitely better than last year, as he is just one win away from matching his previous win total. TBD on if the second-year coach will be able to carry the momentum throughout Big Ten play.


Making a comeback

There are two ways to look at Nebraska’s narrow win against Illinois. First, and perhaps most obvious, is that the Huskers, which entered the season ranked 24th in the AP Poll (another reason preseason polls should never be used as a basis for anything), nearly lost to one of the most struggling teams in the Big Ten. The other is that Nebraska went on the road and fought back from 14-points down away from their corn-fed supporters. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. After all, one could easily point out how Ohio State was down to Miami (OH) 5-0 at one point (right? Not the same thing? The Buckeyes came back by midway through the first? Okay). But really Illinois has dropped at least 31 points on each of its opponents this year. And it shows a lot of strength as a team to be able to make a second-half comeback on the road.


Another Martinez from Nebraska

Remember Taylor Martinez, the Huskers’ quarterback from 2010-2013? It’s not really relevant, because Adrian Martinez, Nebraska’s sophomore quarterback, is no relation.

Last season against the Buckeyes, (Adrian) Martinez one touchdown through the air and ran for two more in the Huskers’ 36-31 loss in Columbus. In all, the then-freshman completed 22-of-33 passes for 266 yards and no picks. So far this season, Martinez has thrown for greater than 1,000 yards, completing seven touchdown passes while tossing two picks and running for three more scores. And as he prepares for the Ohio State defense Saturday, Martinez has a veteran cohort of receivers to distribute the ball to, which leads us to...


Spreading the love

Martinez has thrown touchdowns to five different receivers this season. Junior J.S. Spielman leads the pack, having brought in 18 receptions for 383 yards so far this year. Spielman has already made his way into Nebraska’s record books as one of the top-five receivers in program history. In fact, he holds the single-season receiving record for the Huskers with his 206-yard performance against Wisconsin last season. And while Martinez is entering his second season relying on Spielman, he’s acquired a new weapon this season in freshman Wan’Dale Robinson, who has caught 17 passes, including two touchdowns, through four games. Both receivers will make exciting matchups with Ohio State’s aforementioned and stingy secondary.


Blackshirts a little more grey these days

In a conference with some of the most stout defenses in college football (like Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa, all of which rank in the top-12 in total defense nationally), Nebraska is just...not. Allowing north of 350 yards and 25 points per game, the famed “blackshirt” defense hasn’t quite shown up this year.

Regardless, some players have managed to stand out so far this season, including linebacker Mohamad Barry, who leads the team with 33 tackles through four games. In the defensive backfield, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt has already pulled in two picks and forced three fumbles this year, despite missing time due to injury.


Summary

The Buckeyes are 17-point favorites over Nebraska. Given the game is on the road in the toughest environment Ohio State has faced thus far this season against a conference foe who hasn’t beaten the Buckeyes since entering the conference in 2011 (breathe), there’s little doubt this will be the biggest test of the young season, so maybe the spread is appropriate. However, 17 points doesn’t seem like quite enough, given Ohio State has outscored its opponents 214-36 this season.

Ohio State had more trouble than it expected last year when Nebraska came to town. Scott Frost is a great coach, and Adrian Martinez is not a bad quarterback. And the defense, while not fabulous, does have playmakers who could give Justin Fields and the offense trouble. Though there’s no doubt Nebraska collapsed against Colorado, the Huskers did take the Buffs to overtime. And Nebraska did come from down against Illinois. Basically, they can’t be counted out for their one loss and narrow escape last week. Plus, for the Buckeyes, being on the road in one of the historically tough places to play in college football tends to throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans.

Those factors aside, things generally seem to favor the Buckeyes in this matchup. With one of the best defenses in the country, featuring one of the top players in next year’s draft class, and a just as highly-touted offense, led by one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation, the Buckeyes look to have the game locked down -- at least as much as can be done before the kickoff happens. Key for the Buckeyes will be not letting Nebraska get a foothold on offense or allowing them to hang in the game.

Another 42-point second quarter might be nice this week.

LGHL prediction: Ohio State 42, Nebraska 18*

*Two touchdowns, one extra point, one two-point conversion and a field goal