The Ohio State Buckeyes travel to Lincoln in search of their seventh straight win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday. For a Nebraska (3-6, 1-5 Big Ten) team that began the 2021 season with high hopes, the disappointments have piled up over the course of the season.
Cornhuskers head coach Scott Frost recognizes how frustrating the close losses have been for his team, the fans, and for himself. Following the 28-23 home loss to Purdue last Saturday, Frost said, "I think we know we've got to get the wins. The wins take care of everything. ... And despite all the improvement that I've seen, that hasn't improved. We've had a tough schedule and played some really good teams and we've been so close. Got to get them done."
Ohio State fans are especially leery of this trip, as they have horrific memories of highly-ranked Buckeyes teams hitting the road, only to be soundly defeated by other Big Ten West opponents in recent years (2017 at Iowa, 55-24; 2018 at Purdue, 49-20). Ohio State's coaches and players recognize that Nebraska is not to be taken lightly and realize that the Cornhuskers are better than their 2021 record.
Count Ohio State head coach Ryan Day as someone who is on alert about the challenge Nebraska presents. At his Nov. 2 press conference previewing the game, Day said, "This is a very good Nebraska team that we have to be ready for. I don't care what the record says."
No. 5 Ohio State at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 6 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Ohio State -15
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Ohio State (7-1, 5-1 Big Ten) is coming off a competitive matchup at home against Penn State, where the Buckeyes won 33-24 last Saturday night. One of the main stars of the Ohio State offense, freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson, had to earn his gains, finishing with 152 rushing yards on 28 carries (5.4 ypc). Henderson is a threat to go the distance whenever he touches the ball. Nebraska has been solid against the run, giving up 137.2 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry. The Cornhuskers will try and limit the amount of damage Henderson does on the ground.
But the bigger test for Nebraska's defense may be containing the Buckeyes' passing game, led by quarterback C.J. Stroud. The Huskers are giving up 211 passing yards per game with 11 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions but their secondary will have their hands full against receivers Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. There's also tight end Jeremy Ruckert, who is a mismatch for linebackers to cover, as well as for safeties to bring down. Stroud is averaging 10.4 yards per pass attempt and more than 15 yards per completion, so sure tackling is a must for Nebraska's defenders.
Another key to the Huskers' defensive success may lie in rattling Stroud, who is just a freshman. Outside linebacker Garrett Nelson leads the team with three sacks, but overall Nebraska has not been able to generate a lot of pressure wtih a total of 15 sacks in nine games.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Quite simply, this is the Adrian Martinez show. Martinez leads the Cornhuskers in passing and rushing and as a result, is second only to Stroud in the Big Ten in total offense (301.7 ypg). Martinez was dazzling as a true freshman against the Buckeyes in 2018, with more than 300 total yards and three total touchdowns (two rushing, one passing), helping his team nearly pull off the upset in Columbus before falling 36-31.
While Martinez has the knack for spectacular plays, he also has shown a tendency to turn the ball over at critical times. Many of the painful losses Nebraska fans have experienced over the previous seasons have been after a Martinez turnover. Martinez lost a fumble in last week's 28-23 home loss to Purdue. For the season, the Huskers are minus-three in turnover margin (including seven Martinez interceptions), ranking them 11th in the Big Ten.
Ohio State has been a work in progress on defense all season and Penn State gave the Buckeyes a stern test last week. The Nittany Lions put up 394 total yards, which is the most the Buckeyes have given up since surrendering 501 to Tulsa back on Sept. 18. Penn State couldn't run the ball (33 rushing yards), but Sean Clifford threw for 361 yards, completing 35 of 52 attempts to get there. Ohio State did a good job in limiting the overall damage, as Clifford had just one touchdown pass and an interception. The Buckeyes also sacked Clifford four times.
Nebraska would be wise to try and throw the ball against Ohio State rather than run it, but that's necessarily the Cornhuskers' m.o. The Buckeyes are only giving up 87 rushing yards per game in Big Ten play (second to Wisconsin), compared to 232 yards through the air in these same contests.
Frost will continue to try and run the ball with Martinez and running back Rahmir Johnson, who is second on the team with 433 rushing yards, but the game plan also needs to call for spreading the ball around to try and loosen up the Ohio State defense. Wide receivers Samori Toure and Omar Manning as well as tight end Austin Allen have been the top targets, combining for seven of Martinez's 12 touchdown passes. Johnson also has been effective out of the backfield as a receiver with two touchdown catches.
Ohio State has won six in a row over Nebraska and it hasn't been remotely close. The average score during this stretch is 53-18. But this Cornhuskers team is better than their 3-6 record indicates and their four Big Ten losses have been by a total of 24 points, including three to Michigan. That game was at home and so is this one, so don't be surprised if Nebraska hangs around, at least for a half. But the Buckeyes have too much speed and depth for the Huskers to keep pace, and the visitors will eventually pull away for a comfortable victory.
Prediction: Ohio State 38, Nebraska 17
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