When looking at the 2018 Nebraska football schedule this past offseason, the Cornhuskers’ trip to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes seemed like a sure loss. The kind of game that you’d have to be drunk, stupid or maybe both to think was going to go the Big Red’s way. Then the season began and continues to make fools of us all as it always does.
It’s now Week 10 of the college football season and a 2-6 Nebraska team seems to have more momentum than a 7-1 Ohio State squad. That would make sense as the Huskers have absolutely nothing to lose and finally know they can win. More than likely, they’re playing the role of spoiler for the remainder of the season with no bowl game or extra practices to enjoy. If you can’t go to a bowl game, then every contest becomes one.
The Buckeyes’ bye week does help as facing Nebraska immediately after getting knocked out by Purdue in West Lafayette would’ve been fantastic for a Husker team firing on all cylinders. Instead, Ohio State had a chance to get their wits about them, heal up and relax a bit, but a major x-factor now looms over their heads. News of Urban Meyer’s health and surgery to work around a brain cyst he’s been battling for 20 years still reverberates throughout the sport’s landscape and will continue long after the 2018 season is done. We have absolutely no idea if that bombshell will be a galvanizing force or an incredible distraction for a Buckeye team whose playoff hopes are shaky as of right now.
Meyer’s health aside, we can look at his team’s play and there are enough chinks in the armor for the Buckeyes to be on a two-game skid come Sunday. Yes, it seems laughable to suggest that a two-win Nebraska team — one of those victories coming at the expense of a lowly FCS squad — has any chance of knocking off the Buckeyes, let alone in Columbus. The Huskers haven’t made Ohio State punt since 2012.
The thing is, Nebraska can do what Purdue did in similar fashion. Here’s how:
* Adrian Martinez is arguably already a superior quarterback to David Blough. He’s matured as the season has gone on and is the running threat Blough dreams of being. Martinez has targets much like the amazingly-talented Rondale Moore in JD Spielman, and secondary receivers not unlike Issac Zico and Jared Sparks in Stanley Morgan Jr. and Kade Warner, respectively. Much as they’ve done recently and as Purdue did effectively against Ohio State, the Huskers must stretch the field using these three and tire out an unimpressive Buckeyes’ linebacking corps.
Ohio State’s front four will be an incredibly stiff challenge for Nebraska’s offensive line. However, if Martinez can get time often enough, he’ll be able to find a wide-open receiver more often than not. That said, there will be penetration on the Buckeyes’ part and Martinez needs to be smart about living to play another down as opposed to attempting high-risk throws. Naturally, Ohio State will spy him, but the Huskers’ offense has enough speed to force the Buckeyes into one-on-one situations and these can be won by the Big Red.
* We saw Purdue throw screens to running back D.J. Knox and it wouldn’t be a shock to see both Devine Ozigbo and Maurice Washington be part of a comparable game plan. Washington is a better comparison to Knox, but Ozigbo has added an extra gear and provides a deceptively fast battering ram.
* To switch things up, plugging tight ends into the passing game more often is extremely advisable. Jack Stoll, Austin Allen and even Kurt Rafdal are serviceable targets. In fact, this might be a game where we see more from the position than we have all year.
* On defense, tackling has to be at a level we’ve yet to see the Blackshirts play at. Yes, they’ve been good, but against Ohio State, they need to be great. Gang tackling is the name of the game.
* Obviously, someone needs to spy Dwayne Haskins and that sounds like a job for Mohamed Barry. Barry is quick and delivers the kind of punch that can stop Haskins in his tracks or at least slow him down for teammates to help clean up.
* Ohio State made an odd choice in repeatedly picking on Purdue’s Antonio Blackmon. The senior cornerback played the ball perfectly, knocking what looked like sure catches away time and time again. If the Buckeyes choose to do this with Dicaprio Bootle, they do so at their own risk as he leads the Big Ten in pass breakups. On the other side, Lamar Jackson is the biggest question mark in Nebraska’s secondary. If he can continue the level of play he’s shown in the Huskers’ last two games, the Blackshirts have a pair of cornerbacks that can run with Ohio State’s receivers.
* Finally, we come to special teams. Since taking over punting duties four games ago, Issac Armstrong has averaged 48.7 yards on his 13 punts. He has a long of 73 yards and five have been inside the 20-yard line. Nebraska will need to flip the field if and when the offense stalls as the Huskers will no doubt happily let Ohio State eat up all the yardage it wants as long as quick-strike touchdowns are held to a minimum. Purdue was willing to give the Buckeyes some cushion and Ohio State can create that space on its own with its playmakers. However, Armstrong gives the Huskers the ability to make the Buckeyes have to drive the length of the field to get their points.
* Kick and punt return blocking versus Bethune-Cookman was the best yet this year. Yes, that was against Bethune-Cookman, but sloppy play has been a trademark of the 2018 Cornhuskers. However, it appears that’s getting shored up. If the trend continues, Spielman has the speed of Moore and can take it to the house if afforded the blocks.
There it is. A laundry list of ifs and buts and you know what they say about those. However, the spread opened at 21 points in Ohio State’s favor. As of this writing, that’s down to 17.5. Will this be another Buckeye blowout of Nebraska? Maybe. It wouldn’t surprise and having home-field advantage is major for the No. 8 team in the country. A friendly crowd may actually be the difference between victory and defeat.
Then again, this is 2018 college football and at this point in the year, chaos is to be expected. This week, the breaks may go the way of the team that practices in black jerseys rather than the one wearing them.
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces).