The No. 9 Ohio State football team (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) makes the trek for its farthest road game of the season when it travels west to Lincoln, Nebraska, to play the Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-3, 2-1 Big Ten). Here is what to expect out of the two teams in Saturday’s game.
Ohio State offense vs. Nebraska defense
The Buckeyes will take on a team coming off a 38-17 loss to now-No. 7 Wisconsin. The Cornhusker defense gave up 466 total yards, 113 coming through the air and 353 on the ground, with 249 of them coming from freshman running back Jonathan Taylor.
The rushing defense as a whole has been the biggest concern for a defense that has otherwise been solid this year. Nebraska ranks 43rd in fewest total yards allowed per game (355.8), but an average of 147 yards per game allowed have been rushing, 61st fewest in the nation. Eight of Nebraska’s 15 touchdowns allowed this season have come on the ground.
Nebraska has found more success against the pass. The Cornhuskers have limited opponents to only 208.8 yards per game through the air. Over the past four games, their defense has allowed only one passing touchdown and has not allowed opponents to pass for more than 130 yards in any of those games.
Safety Aaron Williams is the leader of the Nebraska defense. The junior anchors the Cornhuskers’ defensive backfield, and leads the team in total tackles (40), interceptions (two) and fumbles recovered (one). He returned an interception for a touchdown in the team’s loss to Wisconsin.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said Nebraska has a two-gap, drop-eight defense, which means the defensive linemen each have to cover two gaps on the offensive line and the linebackers have to drop back and cover on most plays.
“It’s a type of defense that you’re going to have to work for everything. You’re not going to have many shots down the field on the way they play,” Meyer said. “They’re very sound in what they do. Their secondary, they keep everything in front of them and they rally up and run to the ball very, very well and they kind of give you the short stuff.”
Unfortunately for the Cornhuskers, they will be tested against the best offense they have faced all season, and one that has picked up a lot of momentum playing against weaker opponents. Ohio State has surpassed 300 passing yards and 190 rushing yards in each of its last four games, with 28 touchdowns in that span (16 passing, 12 rushing). Quarterback J.T. Barrett seems to be more in touch with his receivers now than he has all season long, and a pair of healthy running backs in Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins have the potential to a dominant tandem in the backfield.
Ohio State defense vs. Nebraska offense
In the Cornhuskers, Ohio State will be taking on an offense that has been near the middle of the road all season. Nebraska averages just 27.8 points (77th in the nation) and 384.3 yards per game (85th), and it hasn’t scored more than 28 points since its 42-35 loss to Oregon in Week 2.
Coming into the year, the expectation was that redshirt junior quarterback Tanner Lee was going to fill the void left by Tommy Armstrong. The pro-style quarterback instead has been ineffective for Nebraska as he has completed only 109-of-202 passing attempts with 11 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions. Though his 234.3 passing yards per game rank 48th in the country, Lee’s numbers are more a product of the number of chances he has had, rather than effectiveness from under center.
Nebraska has leaned on its passing offense this season, and it has been the primary reason the team’s offense has struggled. It won’t get any easier Saturday. Ohio State’s defense has stepped up lately, holding opponents to fewer than 100 passing yards in every game since the loss to Oklahoma.
Ohio State has only faced one real pocket-passer this season in Indiana’s Richard Lagow, and the Buckeyes allowed him to pass for 420 yards and three touchdowns. But Lee is no Lagow, and Nebraska lacks a true top wideout like Indiana has in Simmie Cobbs.
Unfortunately for the Cornhuskers, the rushing attack shouldn’t be expected to provide extra assistance to the team’s success, or lack thereof.
Sophomore Tre Bryant began the season with 299 rushing yards on 51 carries in two games, but a knee injury kept him out of the next four games and he is doubtful for Saturday’s matchup. Since his injury, juniors Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon have failed to provide the same spark out of the backfield as neither average more than five yards per carry.
As a unit, Nebraska rushers rank 79th with only an average of 148.5 rushing yards per game. The running backs have scored only eight touchdowns on the ground.
Ohio State has not been nearly as effective defending against the run as much as it has against the pass lately, but the talent is there for the Buckeyes to completely shut down the running attack of the Cornhuskers. Defensive tackles Dre’Mont Jones (injury) and Michael Hill (suspension) will both return for the game, the defensive ends continue to be by far the deepest, most productive unit the Buckeyes have and Chris Worley could be back at middle linebacker to help plug the gaps.
The defense has progressively improved against the run. After giving up 259 and 176 yards against two of the NCAA’s most productive rushing offenses in Army and UNLV, respectively, the Buckeyes have allowed only 167 rushing yards over their past two games and allowed just one touchdown on the ground. Matched up now against a running back committee without the pedigree of Ty Johnson from Maryland or Army’s triple-option style, Ohio State should not have much trouble keeping the Cornhusker rushing offense down.
Edward Sutelan: Ohio State wins 42-10
Colin Hass-Hill: Ohio State wins 45-21