No. 14/15 Nebraska (4-1) and Ohio State (3-2) will be meeting for just the third time ever on Saturday. The Buckeyes own a 2-0 record in the series, but this will be their first ever trip to Lincoln.
These two teams last met in 1955 and 1956 with Ohio State coming away 28-20 and 34-7 winners respectively.
Both teams are coming off of losses in their conference openers. Nebraska hasn't started 0-2 in conference play since 1968. The Buckeyes haven't done it since 2004.
This game will feature two of the five winningest programs of all time. Ohio State's all-time record is 822-310-53, while the Huskers boast an 841-346-40 record.
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has faced Ohio State twice before as a coach. In 1991 he was a graduate assistant at Iowa and took part in a 16-9 victory over the Buckeyes. He was also the LSU defensive coordinator in the Tigers 38-24 BCS National Championship win following the 2007 season.
Saturday will mark the 315th consecutive sellout for Nebraska. Ohio State will serve as their Homecoming opponent.
When Nebraska Has The Ball
Last season as a freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez rushed for 965 yards. This season after five games he's already halfway to that number. There are few more dynamic players on the ground than Martinez in the Big Ten.
However, things have started to slow down a bit for Martinez's production. After three games he was averaging 128 yards rushing. In his last two—against Wyoming and Wisconsin—he is averaged just 49 yards rushing per game. Despite being a big-play threat, his longest carry over those two games has been eleven yards.
Fortunately for the Huskers, just as Martinez started to wind down, running back Rex Burkhead began winding up. Over the last three games, he has rushed for an average 128.7 yards per game.
Burkhead provides the Huskers with a level of reliability that Martinez decidedly doesn't. There are times when Martinez is as miss as he is hit, and lately Burkhead has been there to steady the ship.
The Huskers are once again a read option team, but there are now elements of the speed option as well as triple option capabilities. Nebraska likes to get their ball carries out wide and let them use their speed to make things happen. It will be imperative for the Ohio State linebackers to mind their gaps.
The Buckeyes have had issues with missed tackles this season. If those problems continue, they will have no shot in this game. Because of the Ohio State offense's ineptness, the Buckeye defense can't afford any mistakes. They must force Nebraska to drive the length of the field and then focus on forcing turnovers.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that Nebraska turns the ball over like it's part of their system. They have the worst turnover ratio (-0.40) in the conference. The Huskers have fumbled the ball 15 times, but have only lost four of them. For the Buckeyes to win on Saturday, they can't let those fumbles go back to Nebraska.
The other area where there will be turnovers available is in the passing game. Martinez has thrown five interceptions already this season. He has completed over 50% of his passes in just one game. His accuracy comes and goes and he is perfectly comfortable throwing the ball up for grabs or back across his body, or both.
His favorite receiver is freshman Jamal Turner who has 13 receptions for 223 yards. For the most part the receivers are untested, but where the Buckeyes could be extremely vulnerable is with tight end Kyler Reed. Reed has only five receptions on the season, but he is averaging 27.4 yards per catch.
Last week the Buckeyes dropped two sure interceptions that would have been returned for touchdowns. To get the win on Saturday night they will have to capitalize on those opportunities and score at least one touchdown. Ohio State has the defensive backs to make things happen, but the linebackers will also have to be ready. Don't be surprised when weakside linebacker Andrew Sweat comes up with an interception this week.
The Buckeyes haven't blitzed much this season because they can't afford to give up big plays, and they likely won't blitz much on Saturday either. They will want to keep Martinez in front of them and let his inaccuracy work in their favor.
They will, however, need to be aggressive in order to stop this Nebraska running game. The Buckeyes remarked during the week that the Badgers had success against the Huskers last week because they played downhill and got them stopped before they could get started. They will try to do what Wisconsin did and stifle Martinez and company before they get unwound.
Nebraska doesn't pass the ball much—they are only throwing for 168.4 yards per game, so the Buckeyes can play the run more aggressively than they normally would.
One area where Ohio State has enjoyed some advantage over their opponents is on special teams, but Nebraska is fantastic in this area. Freshman running back Ameer Abdullah is averaging 12.0 yards per punt return and an impressive 35.1 yards per kickoff return, including a 100-yard touchdown return. The Buckeyes will have to have their best coverage game of the year.
Brett Maher is averaging 47.9 yards per punt and has put seven of his 19 punts inside the 20-yard line. He is also the placekicker, and has made 9-11 field goals and all 23 of his extra point attempts.
When Ohio State Has The Ball
Because the Buckeyes will be out-schemed when they have the ball, they will need to have moments of absolutely perfect execution. They don't need to play a perfect game, but they will absolutely need to make a handful of big plays.
Last week Michigan State showed everybody in the Big Ten how to eliminate the Ohio State offense. They blitzed from every angle and preyed on both the offensive inexperience and its basic easy-to-distinguish nature.
The Spartans not only blitzed the Buckeyes relentlessly, but they knew what was coming and they knew the snap counts. Some of that should be expected to change this week, but will it be enough to actually score a meaningful point?
Ohio State does get its starting left tackle Mike Adams back from suspension, and while that is good news, the Buckeyes are now fielding an offensive line with a left tackle that hasn't played yet, a left guard (Andrew Norwell) that had been starting at left tackle this season, and a right guard (Jack Mewhort) that had been starting at left guard.
The Buckeyes have had ridiculous amounts of offensive line penalties which kill drives before they can even get started. Will having three starters playing in spots that they haven't been in yet this season be a good thing or a bad thing? They are all talented linemen, but there is a certain amount of jelling that has to take place before an offensive line is ready to go. Considering the amount of blitzing that this line is going to face, how prepared are they for who should pick up what?
If the offense can somehow get the blitzing Huskers to back off—which they'll need to do by completing passes—they should also be able to run the ball. Nebraska is allowing 152.8 yards rushing per game, which is eighth in the conference.
Running backs Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will get the bulk of the carries, and Hall will need to step his game back up if Ohio State is going to have a shot. His first action came against the Miami Hurricanes and he rushed for over 80 yards in the first half in that game. Since then he has been pretty quiet, including last week's 18 carry 45-yard performance.
The offensive coaches have also said that they need to find a way to get tailback Jaamal Berry involved, which means they will again put him in split back sets and flare him out into the flats and then ignore him.
No matter who has the ball, weakside linebacker Lavonte David will be right there with them. He has 45 tackles on the season, including 5.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. He is an aggressive player and don't be surprised if he and freshman quarterback Braxton Miller are on a first-name basis by the time the fourth quarter rolls around.
The Buckeyes were sacked nine times last week. Much of that is because of a freshman quarterback, but there were times when Miller never even had a chance to get out of the way. His offensive line did him zero favors. They will have to improve greatly this week—or at least change a snap count for a change.
This was reportedly Miller's best week of practice, but will that even matter when the gameplan is going to be the same and the defense won't be baffled by any of it? We should see better passing than last week's 5-10 for 56 yards from Miller, but that will require that plays actually get made when they present themselves.
The Buckeyes lost receiver Verlon Reed for the season with a torn ACL, but they should be returning sophomore receiver Philly Brown to take his place. Brown is one of the most explosive players on the offense. He might be targeted a whopping two times on Saturday.
The Buckeyes will have to test the Huskers deep on Saturday because Nebraska has given up touchdown passes of at least 46 yards in each of their last three games. Alfonzo Dennard is an All-American candidate at cornerback, but Ciante Evans at the other corner spot has had some issues.
Ohio State will be looking to make some noise in the special teams, because they'll need every yard that they can get. Jordan Hall can take it the distance at any time. The Huskers do fairly well in kickoff coverage, but they have given up a 67-yard punt return touchdown.
Punter Ben Buchanan has put 13 of his 29 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. That is six more than any other Big Ten punter. Placekicker Drew Basil is 5-7 on field goals.
How It Will End Up
The Huskers are going to unleash hell on defense and the Buckeyes are going to have to make them pay for being so brazen, and they will have to do it early.
The Ohio State coaches will dial up some quick passes for Braxton Miller early, but Nebraska will be ready for it. It will come down to execution early on because the Buckeyes will have surely worked on what they were going to do on their first drive or two.
They will find success early and put a touchdown on the board in the first quarter. However, things will slow way down from there.
Nebraska will grind it out on offense. Success will be fleeting, but they will have a few drives where they are buoyed by a big play on the ground from Martinez or Burkhead.
Despite their struggles on offense, the Cornhuskers will gradually fall into a tremendous sense of comfort on defense and be perfectly content with trading punts while up by two scores.
When it's over, and the Buckeyes have lost, the Ohio State offensive coaches will make it known that they put their players in a position to succeed, but the level of execution to get the win just wasn't there.
Of course, it's hard to execute when there are eight or nine in the box and the defense knows both the direction of the play and the snap count.
Nebraska 20 – Ohio State 7
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