Ohio State meets Nebraska on Saturday night for a key showdown in the Big Ten and one of college football’s must-see matchups for Week 5. The Buckeyes have dominated through the first four weeks of the season, but a trip to Lincoln will be a tough test for first-year coach Ryan Day’s squad. On the other sideline, this matchup is an opportunity for coach Scott Frost’s team to make a statement in conference play. Nebraska is a team on the rise under Frost, and an upset of Ohio State would certainly qualify as a marquee victory and a step forward in the rebuilding process for this program.
Nebraska opened the 2019 season with Big Ten West title aspirations, but this team is off to an uneven start. The Cornhuskers needed a special teams touchdown and two defensive scores to knock off South Alabama 35-21 in the opener. Nebraska held a 17-0 lead at halftime versus Colorado but eventually lost 34-31 in overtime. Frost’s team rebounded by beating Northern Illinois 44-8 and overcame four fumbles to win 42-38 at Illinois last Saturday. Quarterback Adrian Martinez is one of the best in the nation, but the Cornhuskers will need their best effort of the year out of their offensive line and defense to knock off Ohio State.
So far, so good for Ohio State under Ryan Day. After filling in as the interim head coach for a three-game stint last season, Day was hired for the full-time role after Urban Meyer retired following the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes cruised to a 45-21 win over FAU in Week 1, pounded Cincinnati 42-0 the following Saturday and knocked off Indiana 51-10 in the Big Ten opener. Day’s team continued their early-season dominance with a 76-5 victory against Miami (Ohio) last Saturday. Through the first four weeks of the season, Ohio State has outscored its opponents 214-36.
Ohio State holds a 6-1 series edge over Nebraska. The Buckeyes won 36-31 in Columbus last year. The only victory by the Cornhuskers over Ohio State came in 2011.
Ohio State at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Ohio State -17
When Ohio State Has the Ball
It’s early (and the defenses will get tougher), but Ohio State’s offense is on pace to exceed last year’s performance. In 2018, the Buckeyes averaged 42.4 points a game and 6.63 yards a play. Through four contests this year, Day’s offense is averaging 7.23 yards a snap and 53.5 points a game.
While the production is up, Ohio State’s offense is taking a different path than the 2018 group. The Buckeyes leaned on the pass last fall, but the 2019 unit is all about balance. Day’s group has rushed for 1,040 yards and compiled 1,058 through the air this season.
As expected, Georgia transfer Justin Fields has been a big-time pickup and filled the void left behind by Dwayne Haskins under center. Fields is completing 69.5 percent of his throws for 880 yards and 13 touchdowns to zero interceptions. The sophomore is also averaging 9.3 yards per attempt and has 150 rushing yards and six scores over 34 carries.
Helping to ease Fields’ transition into the starting role in Columbus was a deep cast of options at receiver. Binjimen Victor paces the Ohio State attack with 242 receiving yards, while Chris Olave (17.5 ypc), K.J. Hill (15), Garrett Wilson (seven) and Austin Mack (seven) will see plenty of targets or playing time on Saturday night. Nebraska’s secondary has been tough versus the pass this season, so this matchup will be a good test for Fields. The Cornhuskers rank seventh in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and have allowed just five passing scores through four contests. The tandem of Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle is one of the best in the Big Ten, but the secondary will be challenged to defend the depth in the Buckeyes’ receiving corps.
J.K. Dobbins had a productive (1,053 yards) last season, but the coaching staff pushed the junior to elevate his game to another level in 2019. That effort seems to have paid off. Dobbins has rushed for 477 yards and five scores over just 68 attempts and gashed Indiana for 193 yards in Week 3. Master Teague has emerged as a solid No. 2 option for Day, as he’s accumulated 249 yards and a score over 34 carries.
When you combine Ohio State’s skill talent with Fields’ ability to hurt a defense through the air on the ground, it’s easy to see how big of a challenge this will be for Nebraska’s defense. The Cornhuskers surrendered 31.3 points a game last season but that number has dropped to 25.3 this year. Additionally, Nebraska is holding teams to 4.8 yards per play. While those numbers are a clear improvement from last fall, the Cornhuskers have yet to face an offense like the one Ohio State will bring to Columbus on Saturday night. Nebraska has to do a good job of limiting the big plays and generate stops on third down and inside the red zone. The Buckeyes are going to score, but the Cornhuskers need to make this offense methodically work its way down the field.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Any formula for a Nebraska upset on Saturday night hinges on two factors: Turnovers and quarterback Adrian Martinez. The Cornhuskers struggled with turnovers in last week’s win over Illinois, which nearly cost this team a road victory in Big Ten play. Through four games, Nebraska has surrendered the most turnovers (11) of any team in the conference. A sloppy effort with a couple of giveaways is an easy formula for this game to get away from the Cornhuskers.
Assuming Nebraska can limit the turnovers, the second part of its upset formula will require a huge game from quarterback Adrian Martinez. The sophomore has 10 overall scores and leads the Big Ten by averaging 321.8 total yards a game this season. Martinez has not tossed an interception over the last two contests and has completed over 60 percent of his passes in both of Nebraska’s matchups against Power 5 teams in 2019. JD Spielman (18 grabs) and Wan’Dale Robinson (17) are Martinez’s favorite options in the passing game.
Martinez rushed for 118 yards in last week’s win over Illinois, and his mobility is going to be a key piece on Saturday night. Nebraska’s offensive line has allowed 10 sacks this season and will have its hands full against an Ohio State defensive front that features future first-round pick Chase Young. Additionally, the Buckeyes have been dealing with injuries in the trenches through the first three weeks but could have reinforcements for Saturday’s contest. Winning the battle up front will be critical for Nebraska’s ground game to find traction and prevent the defense from keying too much on Martinez. Maurice Washington (268 yards) and Dedrick Mills (229) provide a solid one-two punch for coach Scott Frost.
Ohio State’s defense underachieved last season but is off to a strong start in 2019. The Buckeyes are limiting teams to 3.4 yards a play and just nine points a game. Additionally, this unit leads the Big Ten with 20 sacks generated and has allowed just two plays of 40 yards or more.
Scoring touchdowns is always a good idea, but it’s even more important for Nebraska on Saturday night. The Cornhuskers have two kickers out due to injury and have connected on just two of seven field goals.
Conference play provides the best barometer test and way to gauge teams this early in the season. Ohio State has dominated en route to a 4-0 start against a favorable schedule. On the other sideline, Nebraska is 3-1 but lost a second-half lead against Colorado and nearly dropped a game at Illinois last week. The homefield environment and Martinez give the Cornhuskers a chance to hang around in this game. However, Nebraska’s defense will have to play its best game of the year to bottle up the Ohio State offense and contain Fields. The Cornhuskers will need a couple of takeaways to have a shot at the upset. The guess here is Nebraska plays inspired, but the Buckeyes are the best team in the Big Ten and it shows in the second half.