As you are all well aware of by now, Ohio State begins its 2020 football season in just two days, and first up on the schedule is Nebraska. We’ve spent all week previewing the game through both our own lens and through discussions with national media folk and those who cover the Huskers, and we hope you’ll continue to ride with us here at LGHL for all your pre-game, mid-game, and post-game needs!
It was not a great year to be a Cornhusker in 2019, as high preseason aspirations gave way to a lowly 5-7 record with the team losing six of its last eight games. You would think that the flipping of the calendar would bring with it positive vibes for a fresh start, but unfortunately for Scott Frost, his roster experienced a ton of turnover in the offseason, so it is really tough to get a handle on just how good this year’s Nebraska team can be.
The program saw 14 scholarship players enter the transfer portal since the end of last season, with the biggest name on that list of course being star wide receiver J.D. Spielman. The former three-star recruit became a stud in Lincoln, and was the team’s leading receiver in 2019 with 49 receptions for 898 yards and five TDs. In three seasons with Nebraska, Spielman accounted for over 2,500 receiving yards — good for third-most all time in school history.
On defense, Frost is tasked with replacing last year’s leading tackler in linebacker Mohamed Barry, who graduated at the end of last season, as well as basically the entire defensive line including the Huskers’ top two sack leaders in Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis. They will also be missing corner Lamar Jackson, who is currently a member of the New York Jets.
That all being said, Nebraska still does have some playmakers on both sides of the ball that Ohio State will have to contend with, including an explosive sophomore wide receiver and an incredibly versatile junior defensive back.
Offensive Player to Watch: Wan’Dale Robinson
Now I know what you’re thinking: Wan’Dale sounds dangerously close to Rondale (Moore), and we have seen that go poorly for Ohio State in the past. However, I think now that we have escaped the dark days of the Bill Davis/Greg Schiano-led defense, we shouldn’t see another receiver catch 12 passes for 170 yards and two TDs against the Buckeyes — regardless of how talented they may be.
Which is important, because Robinson is incredibly talented in his own right. While Spielman stole the show for Nebraska last season, Robinson was right behind him with 40 receptions for 453 yards and two TDs. They used the dynamic playmaker in the ground game as well, as he rushed for 340 yards on 88 carries with another three TDs. The Huskers have claimed they plan to use Robinson primarily as a wide receiver in 2020, but Ohio State is preparing to see him in all facets of the game anyway just in case.
Unlike the Moore incident at Purdue, the Buckeyes have prior experience going up against Robinson. Co-defensive coordinators Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison put together a spectacular gameplan against Nebraska a year ago, holding Robinson to nine carries for 27 yards with only one catch for eight yards. Without Spielman in the fold, we should see a drastically increased workload for the sophomore wideout this time around. Kerry Coombs will have to make sure his guys are ready for the challenge he presents to avoid getting burned.
The Cornhuskers do have some other key players on offense to keep an eye on, including a pair of returning starters in quarterback Adrian Martinez and running back Dedrick Mills. Martinez threw for nearly 2,000 yards in 10 games last season, but was inconsistent and prone to too many turnovers — as evidenced by his 10 TD to nine INT ratio. They’ll be hoping to get more out of Martinez, but they’ll just be hoping for more of the same from Mills, who led the team a year ago with 745 yards rushing and 10 TDs.
Defensive Player to Watch: Cam Taylor-Britt
The Nebraska defense is a much bigger mystery than its offense. As we touched on in the onset, the Cornhuskers will be replacing four of its front five from a year ago, and while the defensive line and the linebacker core are young and show signs of promise, they are very unproven. The strength of this defense will come from the secondary, where Nebraska does have a number of returning productive starters from last season — including perhaps the best player on the unit in hybrid DB Cam Taylor-Britt.
Last season, Taylor-Britt played a role very much similar to that of Isaiah Simmons’ at Clemson. The junior brought tremendous versatility to the defense, starting six games at safety, three games at corner and one at outside linebacker during the 2019 campaign. A true jack of all trades, Taylor-Britt finished the year racking up 49 total tackles, four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two picks (one for a TD) and four forced fumbles. When people talk about a stat sheet stuffer, Taylor-Britt is the type of guy they're describing.
This year, Taylor-Britt is expected to settle into a more steady role as one of the team’s starting cornerbacks, which is the spot both he and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander feel is his best position. Ironically, his career-high in tackles came last season against Ohio State, when he registered seven total tackles with one for loss and a half-sack against the Buckeyes. Justin Fields and the rest of Ryan Day’s vertical passing attack will have to keep an eye on Taylor-Britt as they look to efficiently run their offense.
In addition to Taylor-Britt, the Huskers will also return two more starters at defensive back in Dicaprio Bootle and Marquel Dismuke. Bootle has starting experience at both corner and safety, and was second on the team a year ago with six pass breakups. Dismuke, a safety, totaled a career-high 67 tackles in 2019 — good for second-most on the Husker defense. Ben Stille, a senior, is the most experienced of the returning defensive linemen. His three sacks last season tied him for third on the team, boasting 11.5 sacks in his career in Lincoln.