The Cornhuskers and Buckeyes meet in Columbus on Saturday night.
Ohio State and Nebraska were two of the top one-loss teams in the first College Football Playoff rankings, and Saturday night’s matchup in Columbus will play a big role in how both programs can shape the rest of their 2016 season.
For the Buckeyes, coach Urban Meyer’s team is squarely in the hunt to earn a playoff spot. The formula for Ohio State is simple: Win out and the Buckeyes will be one of the top four teams in the nation. Of course, that path isn’t easy. Michigan comes to Columbus on Nov. 26, and there’s a road date at Michigan State on Nov. 19. Ohio State rebounded from a road loss (24-21) at Penn State on Oct. 22 by beating Northwestern 24-20 last Saturday. The victory over the Wildcats certainly wasn’t perfect, but coach Urban Meyer’s team has a lot to build on over the next few weeks. The defense is one of the best in the nation, but the offense – especially the passing game – remains a work in progress.
Speaking of progress, Nebraska enters Saturday night’s game at 7-1 overall and looking to rebound from its first loss of the season. The Cornhuskers fell 23-17 in overtime to Wisconsin last Saturday but had some late chances to wrestle control of that game. Despite the loss, Nebraska is still in the mix to win the Big Ten West Division. With the Cornhuskers in the hunt to win the division a year after a 6-7 mark, it’s a clear sign this program is moving in the right direction under coach Mike Riley. Nebraska has navigated a few key injuries on the offensive line and found ways to win close games – something this team didn’t do in 2015 – to earn the No. 10 ranking in the first College Football Playoff selection committee top 25.
Ohio State owns a 3-1 series edge over Nebraska. These two teams have met only twice as Big Ten members, with the Cornhuskers winning in 2011 (34-27) and the Buckeyes taking the 2012 matchup (63-38).
Nebraska at Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 5 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Ohio State -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Ohio State’s Passing Game
On the surface, there isn’t a glaring issue with Ohio State’s offense. After all, the Buckeyes average 42.6 points a game (No. 2 in the Big Ten) and record 6.3 yards per play. However, a deeper dive shows this unit is a work in progress for coach Urban Meyer. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is still one of the nation’s most dynamic playmakers at his position and has passed for 1,675 yards and 17 scores so far in 2016. Barrett has an intriguing and promising group of receivers at his disposal, but this unit is young and has contributed to the inconsistency of the passing game. Running back/receiver hybrid Curtis Samuel (44 catches) is the team’s go-to target through the air, but Meyer and co-coordinator Ed Warinner are still searching for more big play threats and consistent options to help Barrett stretch the field. Through five conference games, Ohio State has only one pass of more than 40 yards. The Buckeyes have to be able to stretch the field and prevent defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage.
Can Nebraska take advantage of Ohio State’s passing attack? The Cornhuskers are fourth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and lead the conference with 15 interceptions. Safety Nate Gerry (four picks) is on his way to All-Big Ten honors, with cornerback Chris Jones quietly putting together a solid all-around season. Nebraska ranks fifth in the Big Ten against the run, and if the front seven slows down Barrett and Mike Weber on the ground, that will allow the Cornhuskers to force this offense into obvious passing downs. Ohio State made the clutch throws and plays in last week’s game against Northwestern to salt away the victory late in the fourth quarter. Can the Buckeyes do it again and open up the passing attack as needed? Or will Barrett and his receivers have another choppy effort through the air?
2. Nebraska’s Offensive Line Against Ohio State’s Defense
Injuries have taken a toll on Nebraska’s offensive line this year. While the Cornhuskers have used only two different combinations, David Knevel and Nick Gates have been banged up throughout the 2016 campaign, and starting right guard Tanner Farmer won’t play on Saturday after suffering an injury against Wisconsin. Despite the injuries, the Cornhuskers haven’t suffered a steep drop in production up front. The offensive line has allowed only six sacks and is clearing the way for rushers to average 4.5 yards per carry. Last week’s game against Wisconsin was a good test for Nebraska’s front five, and this unit held up relatively well. The Cornhuskers recorded 152 rushing yards and only gave up one sack. Will this unit hold up against Ohio State’s defensive front? The Buckeyes utilize a different approach than Wisconsin (3-4), as co-coordinator Greg Schiano has a 4-3 scheme anchored by a stout defensive line. Ohio State seems to have an endless supply of pass rushers, with Tyquan Lewis (five) and Nick Bosa (four) leading the way on the stat sheet. The interior is anchored by Michael Hill, Dre’Mont Jones and Robert Landers. There’s also plenty of athleticism and talent at linebacker, with junior Raekwon McMillan the headliner.
Few teams have experienced success against Ohio State’s run defense, and that’s a key area for Nebraska to win on Saturday night. Wisconsin found some room (236 yards) and had some success using fly sweeps. However, running back Corey Clement also had a couple of nice runs between the tackles. Can Nebraska’s front five generate a push in the trenches? Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo are a talented duo at running back, but they have to generate some production against a tough defensive front and keep Armstrong out of third-and-long or obvious passing situations.
3. Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong
Armstrong is the x-factor in this game. Just how important is Armstrong? The splits on his 2015 totals paint an interesting picture. In six wins, Armstrong completed 65.1 percent of his throws for 1,614 yards and 14 scores. In seven losses, his completion percentage dropped to 50.3 and tossed 14 interceptions to 13 touchdowns. Against Wisconsin last Saturday, Armstrong completed only 12 of 31 throws for 153 yards and tossed two interceptions. In contrast, Armstrong has passed for 1,611 yards and 11 scores through seven wins this year. It’s no secret Nebraska needs Armstrong to have a standout game on Saturday night. The senior has to play better than he did against Wisconsin, take care of the ball and eliminate the turnovers, while utilizing his legs to make plays. Ohio State’s defense has been stingy all year, limiting opponents to just 15.1 points per game. In addition to the standout group in the trenches, the Buckeyes have one of the nation’s top defensive backfields in place, as this unit has allowed only seven passing scores in 2016.
How much will Nebraska lean on Armstrong on Saturday night? Could the senior record his first game of 20 carries? And can Armstrong avoid any costly turnovers, while testing the Ohio State secondary with key targets like Jordan Westerkamp, Stanley Morgan and Alonzo Moore?
If the Cornhuskers are to have any shot at the upset, a lot is riding on No. 4 and his performance.
Ohio State doesn’t have any margin for error after the loss to Penn State. If the Buckeyes want to earn a spot in the playoff, every week is a must-win situation the rest of the way. Nebraska is clearly better in coach Mike Riley’s second season, but the Cornhuskers face an uphill battle to pull off the upset on Saturday night. In order to knock off Ohio State, Nebraska needs a clean game from Tommy Armstrong, while the offensive line has to open up a few holes on the ground. The defense needs to force the Buckeyes to take to the air and contain Barrett in the pocket. The Cornhuskers will hang tough into the fourth quarter, but Ohio State pulls away in the final 10 minutes.