The No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes survived the first real test of conference play, overcoming Penn State 33-24 last Saturday and earning their first signature win of the 2021 season.. It was enough to position the Buckeyes as the fifth-ranked team in the first iteration of the College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday, just behind Oregon — the lone loss on Ohio State’s season.
The work is just beginning for the Buckeyes, though. Ohio State has among the toughest strengths of schedule remaining on the season, with the Buckeyes yet to face No. 3 Michigan State, No. 7 Michigan and, likely, either No. 20 Minnesota, No. 21 Wisconsin or No. 22 Iowa (assuming all goes well) in the Big Ten Championship game.
If they run the table, the Buckeyes will have one of the best resumes in the FBS, but before they can even start to think about those schools up north, Ohio State has to head west to face a reeling Nebraska squad that has to end the season perfect to even be bowl eligible.
The odds would seem to be in Ohio State’s favor, but Scott Frost and Company are backed into a corner. And with a talented roster that’s underperformed this year, a top-five upset isn’t quite out of reach for this team. .
Ohio State holds an 8-1 all-time advantage over Nebraska, and have taken the last six-straight meetings. The pair had faced off only twice before the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, but have played one another in each of the last five seasons.
This year happens to be the last of Ohio State’s crossover series with Nebraska, which pits Big Ten East and West squads against one another in subsequent years. The current iteration between Ohio State and Nebraska dates back to 2016. The Buckeyes are scheduled to rotate to Wisconsin for the 2022-27 seasons, while Nebraska gets to take on Michigan. Ohio State will certainly be looking to end this series on a high note.
On the road again
The Buckeyes head to Lincoln for the first time since 2019, when Ohio State won 48-7 in the first matchup between Ryan Day and Scott Frost.
Ohio State has been solid on the road so far this season, going 3-0 against Minnesota, Rutgers and Indiana. Redshirt freshman quarterback CJ Stroud showed significant growth between his first road start against the Gophers in the Buckeyes’ season opener and his subsequent road games. In all, Stroud has connected on 70% of his passes for 13 touchdowns and one pick (which came against Minnesota) on the road this year.
Of course, Lincoln looks to be the toughest environment the Buckeyes have traveled to thus far in 2021.
What happened last year?
In 2020, the Buckeyes marched to a 52-17 victory over Nebraska in their delayed season opener in Columbus in front of an empty stadium. Despite Nebraska jumping to a 7-0 lead on the game’s opening drive, Ohio State jumped ahead and, by the second quarter, had built a lead they would not relinquish.
Quarterback Justin Fields would finish with 276 yards passing and two touchdowns. While not the most prolific game in his Ohio State career, Fields would finish with just a single incompletion the entire evening. Fields was also the leading rusher for the Buckeyes with 54 yards and another touchdown on the ground (the running back by committee approach happened to total 215 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the afternoon.
Then-junior Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez went 12-for-15 for just 105 yards, no touchdowns and no picks. He added 85 yards and a touchdown on the ground, also as Nebraska’s leading rusher.
It was a sloppy outing for the Huskers in their season opener. Not only did they lose two fumbles, they also had eight penalties for 90 yards.
A rough start
The opening of the 2021 season was no more pleasant for Nebraska. In week zero, the Huskers opened with a confounding, embarrassing and very public loss to Illinois. However, Nebraska seemed to bounce back somewhat against the formidable powers of Fordham and Buffalo.
The Huskers are now sitting at 3-6 overall, including 1-5 in conference play. That ties Nebraska for last in the Big Ten West standings with Northwestern (fortunately for the Huskers, they hold the tiebreaker over Pat Fitzgerald’s team as it was their lone Big Ten win).
But that record doesn’t tell the whole story. Nebraska has been cursed by a series of narrow defeats, including three losses to top-10 teams, with a 13-point total margin of defeat. The Huskers’ defense has been keeping them in games, but they’ve been going up against even better defenses that they can’t seem to score against.
However, the most recent trends don’t look to favor Nebraska. The Huskers have lost three-straight games after beating Northwestern to Michigan, Minnesota and Purdue. By the way, the total margin of loss in those three matchups was just 15 points.
About last weekend…
Ohio State is riding high after the Buckeyes’ first major win of the year. Things did not go as smoothly as Ryan Day might have hoped, and the Buckeyes did not beat the 19.5-point spread which, earlier last week, felt very achievable. Stroud had his worst statistical performance of the year, connecting for just one touchdown pass despite throwing for 305 yards. True freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson had an extremely slow start, but ended the night with 152 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown. Surprisingly, that yardage total was Henderson’s second-best of the season behind his prolific performance against Tulsa. Henderson’s 28 carries were the most he’s had all season.
But then there was the defense. While Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford successfully threw for 361 yards, he had just one touchdown and a pick on the night. The Buckeyes also had four sacks on the evening. The big news of the night, though? Ohio State’s rushing defense contained the Nittany Lions to just 33 yards on the ground
Meanwhile, transfer kicker Noah Ruggles made the kicks when it counted — including all four of his field goal attempts on the night.
Points from unexpected places
We’ve got to get into Ohio State’s defensive performance more, because it’s become a pattern on the season, especially since the Buckeyes’ loss to Oregon. In what’s undoubtedly the best play of the game last week, Ohio State defensive tackle Jerron Cage returned one of Penn State’s two fumbles for a Big Man Touchdown late in the second quarter.
The Buckeyes lead the nation in defensive touchdowns with six. Ohio State recorded a pick-six in four-straight games (Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers, Maryland). In addition to Cage’s score, Haskell Garrett’s fumble return for a touchdown versus Minnesota makes six on this list. There was also that safety against Indiana, which means that Ohio State has scored points on defense in every one of its wins.
While the Buckeyes’ margins of victory have meant that, to this point, these defensive touchdowns haven’t really swayed the outcome of the game, being able to score points on defense will certainly be clutch down the stretch.
Protect against exposure
The Buckeyes had appeared to be running on all cylinders since their win against Tulsa in week three. A switch to Matt Barnes calling plays on defense had seemed to cure the struggling units of all their ills, and CJ Stroud seemed to mature before our very eyes.
But alas, Ohio State had been playing against inferior competition, and last week’s narrower win was something of a reckoning for the Buckeyes, who can expect that level of competition (or better) from several of the teams remaining on their schedule — especially as Penn State was better able to exploit weaknesses on Ohio State more than the Buckeyes’ previous five opponents.
The Buckeyes finished their night against Penn State with a solid rushing performance, a passable passing game and a rather impressive defensive outing. All showed improvement against a better opponent, though they might appear on their surfaces like regressions from what we saw against Akron, Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana.
Husker domination for Heisman
C.J. Stroud has come a long way from being Justin Fields’ backup. After just seven games as starting quarterback for Ohio State (friendly reminder that he sat out against Akron due to injury), Stroud has emerged as one of the top candidates in this year’s Heisman Trophy race. In fact, many watch lists have Stroud as the No. 2 player behind Alabama’s Bryce Young — and for good reason.
Stroud has 23 passing touchdowns on the season and is averaging 324 passing yards per game. He’s far and above the top quarterback in the Big Ten and, despite a statistical setback against Penn State, has seemed to only get better the more he’s on the field.
Beyond Stroud, there’s also TreVeyon Henderson (though Henderson has fallen out of the Heisman conversation as Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker has risen). While Henderson has had limited carries — you know, because he scores 10% of the time he touches the ball — he is averaging 7.91 yards per carry, which is the best in the FBS (mandatory shoutout to the Ohio State offensive line here).
A Frosty arrangement
Scott Frost is fighting to keep his job as head coach at Nebraska. The former Husker player was hailed as the savior who would bring Nebraska back into relevance after years of demise (in fact, the last time the Huskers were relevant on the national stage was when Frost was a player back in the mid-1990s).
Frost has been at the helm in Lincoln since 2018, amassing a 15-26 overall record, including a 10-22 mark in conference play.
Of course, Frost is also dealing with NCAA violations which, on top of a series of seasons that did not meet Nebraska fans’ (perhaps unrealistically) high expectations, mean that Frost was in hot water before Nebraska lost to Illinois in week zero this season.
In the black in the red zone
Of course, the Buckeyes will be going up against a team that can put up points...at least when they make it to the red zone. The Huskers have scored more red zone touchdowns than any Big Ten team thus far this season (yes, even Ohio State). While Nebraska converts less than 79% of their red zone possessions for scores — they’ve turned the ball over twice on picks, twice on downs and missed several field goals — they seem less content to simply take the field goal and more likely to go big. We can reasonably expect that strategy to continue against an Ohio State team which puts up an FBS-high 47.2 points per game.
A familiar name
Leading that Nebraska offense is Adrian Martinez, who is in his fourth season as starting quarterback for Nebraska. Martinez is third all-time in career passing yards at Nebraska with 7,091. He needs just 169 yards to eclipse Taylor Martinez (unrelated) to move into the No. 2 spot.
Unfortunately for Martinez, the quarterback had one of his worst games ever last weekend in the Huskers’ outing against Purdue. In that five-point loss, Martinez was 14-of-29 for 269 yards and three total touchdowns, but the story was the four picks Martinez threw to the Purdue defense.
Turnovers have been a struggle for Martinez since his freshman season, and something the Ohio State defense is keen to exploit. In 2019, as a sophomore, Martinez threw three picks and no touchdowns against Ohio State. A year later, while the then-junior didn’t have any picks against Ohio State, he didn’t have any passing touchdowns either, and totaled just 105 yards passing and a single touchdown on the ground.
While Martinez has not performed at a high level against Ohio State, he does present a dual threat on the ground and through the air. So far this season, Martinez is Nebraska’s leading rusher with 106 attempts for 451 yards and 11 scores. Through the air, Martinez has totaled 2,264 yards passing, 12 touchdowns and seven picks.
Open season on the QB
Granted, Martinez isn’t exactly getting the protection he needs. Nebraska has allowed 22 sacks this season, which places them 12th in the Big Ten in the category. While the Huskers definitely have the talent and capability to move the football, sacks, as we know, can be drive killers.
The offensive line played particularly poorly against Michigan State, allowing a dangerous shot on Martinez that temporarily knocked him out of the game. A major shakeup on the line prior to the Northwestern game yielded better results, but the two opponents are not exactly comparable. That being said, Nebraska has allowed four sacks in the last four games. By comparison, the Huskers allowed seven sacks against Michigan State alone.
On the opposite side of the line, Ohio State hasn’t slouched in the sack department through eight games, recording a Big Ten-best 28 sacks this season. The defense will be looking to boost that number even more against the refurbished Nebraska line.
Score no more
While defense was the story at Ohio State for very different reasons at the start of the season, this weekend will actually bring a battle between two highly ranked scoring defenses. Ohio State has risen to the 19th-ranked scoring defense in the FBS, giving up a mere 19.25 points per game. Nebraska is not far behind at the No. 26 spot, allowing 20.33 points per game.
As an aside, while Ohio State has a top-20 scoring defense on the national stage, the Buckeyes are seventh in the Big Ten in the same category. In other words, it’s a tough conference to score points in.
A sneaky secondary
While Ohio State has established its turnover-nabbing reputation this season, Nebraska has hauled in eight picks of its own on the season (though none that have been returned for touchdowns). Leading the Huskers in interceptions is Deontai Williams, who has a team-high four (which happens to be tied for third in the NCAA). Williams missed Nebraska’s last outing against Purdue with a knee injury, and it’s unclear if he’ll be available come Saturday. Of course, there’s also Cam Taylor-Brit, a name familiar in Big Ten circles, who has one pick this season.
That being said, the Buckeyes have the best receiving corps in the country, with not one, not two but three outstanding receivers, and if secondaries choose to cover all three, there’s a tight end who will come off the line in play action to catch the out. Even with a challenging road environment, Stroud should benefit from Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson’s experience to pull in passes against talented defenders.
Struggling special teams
Nebraska has made just 7-of-13 field goal attempts this season, but a recent change up might just be working out for the Huskers. After senior kicker Connor Culp struggled in the first half of the season, connecting on 6-of-12 attempts, Scott Frost replaced him with sophomore Chase Contreraz, who had a much better outing against Purdue. Contreraz went 2-for-2 on extra points and made his only field goal try. Granted, it was a 33-yard attempt for Contreraz.
The Huskers also happen to be at the bottom of the Big Ten in net punting (36.4 yards per punt) and punt return yardage (2.8 yards per return).
Ohio State enters Saturday’s matchup as a more than two-touchdown favorite, with Nebraska sitting as a 15-point dog at home. Even with Nebraska’s very good scoring defense, which allows just over 20 points per game on average, this game feels more akin to what we saw when Ohio State faced Indiana than what we saw last week against Penn State.
The matchup of Ohio State’s defense against Nebraska’s offense would seem to favor the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes have seen many of these puzzle pieces before, and beat them handily. It’ll be Martinez’s fourth outing against Ohio State, and he is still seeking his first win. Martinez is also prone to many of the errors (sacks, picks) that the Ohio State defense is known to exploit.
Meanwhile, there’s the more interesting match of Ohio State’s offense against Nebraska’s defense. Even with a solid secondary, the Buckeyes’ receivers would seem to be too much to handle. We saw the matchup of Cam Taylor-Brit and Chris Olave/Garrett Wilson last season. It would also seem that even a top-50 rush defense would have challenges containing TreVeyon Henderson.
The Huskers might be down at 3-6, but they’re not out. With Scott Frost fighting for his job and veteran players looking for a signature win of their own, expect some scrappy play from Nebraska come Saturday. It doesn’t help Ohio State that the game is in one of the largest stadiums in college football full of fans that are none-too-kind toward the Buckeyes.
This step is the next in Ohio State’s long march toward the end of the season and a berth in the Big Ten Championship. At this point, there is no margin for error.