Game Day: Nebraska vs. Ohio State

A sling and a prayer

No. 9 Nebraska is given scant chance to beat the No. 6 Buckeyes, who must win out to secure their second College Football Playoff berth in three years. If the Huskers score a direct hit and manage to slay Ohio State, it could serve as a slingshot of a different kind, altering the trajectory of NU football.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Ohio State rush defense

The Buckeyes' run defense is every bit as stingy as Wisconsin, which did a pretty good job of slowing down the Huskers' run game for most of the night in Madison. OSU is allowing just 3.39 yards per carry, and linebacker Raekwon McMillan is as good as any 'backer in the Big Ten. Nebraska counters with a still-beat up line, quarterback Tommy Armstrong and one truly healthy back — Terrell Newby, who's having a solid season despite the struggles on the line. This matchup doesn't look particularly favorable for Nebraska, although Wisconsin ran for 236 yards against the Buckeyes.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense

Opposing quarterbacks are completing 47.4 percent of their passes against the Buckeyes, who are giving up 5.5 yards per attempt. Safety Malik Hooker is an All-Big Ten caliber player, and Ohio State has four interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns. That won't be easy for Armstrong to handle, especially given Armstrong's struggles in recent weeks. OSU defensive coordinator Greg Schiano — a former college and NFL head coach — will try to confuse and bait Armstrong into mistakes. Armstrong's former quarterbacks coach, Tim Beck, now works for Ohio State. Beck will know what Armstrong struggles with most. No. 4 may be in for a long day.

Ohio State rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Buckeyes' run game is creative and explosive. Quarterback J.T. Barrett can run it, and he's got two backs — freshman Mike Weber and junior Curtis Samuel — that comprise the Big Ten's best 1-2 punch. Samuel averages 7.86 yards per carry. Barrett carries the ball 15 times per game. Although they go down in the book as passes, OSU uses a lot of quick throws — swing passes and pitch passes — as an extension of its traditional run game. Nebraska's linebackers and safeties struggled with this combo of scheme and athletes when Oregon racked up 336 rushing yards in September. OSU's better than Oregon. And OSU is at home.

Ohio State pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Aside from a few bad plays against Purdue, Nebraska's pass defense has been stingy for the last month, and it peaked in a 23-17 loss to Wisconsin, holding the Badgers to 5.0 yards per attempt. OSU's passing game is, at this point, unrefined; as good of a player as Barrett is, he's still left throwing a lot of short passes because his receivers don't get separation downfield. NU corners Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu are better than their Buckeye counterparts. The one guy to watch is Samuel, who often catches the ball on what amounts to extended handoffs. If NU can't tackle him, good night.

Special teams

Both teams take special teams seriously, and both teams have good specialists — returners and kickers. Perhaps there is just one area in which Ohio State has an advantage: punter Cameron Johnston averages 47.52 yards per punt. As a result, OSU is fourth nationally in net punting. Nebraska is 127th out of 128 teams in net punting. This probably won't be a week where Nebraska enjoys a massive field position battle like it did against Wisconsin.

Intangibles

Ohio State football has a pucker factor. That seems odd, given the program is 57-5 since the arrival of Urban Meyer in 2012, but the program plays its best when it's an underdog. OSU hasn't been that since the 2014 College Football Playoff, when it stunned Alabama and Oregon in back-to-back weeks for the national title. Encores to that magical fortnight have been hard to come by. Nebraska — like Northwestern last week — can trigger OSU's nerves if it gets this game into the fourth quarter. To do that, NU has to avoid Ohio State's occasional hot start, which put a fork in Oklahoma this season and Notre Dame last season before those teams knew what hit them.

Key matchup: Tommy Armstrong vs. J.T. Barrett

The edge, on paper, goes to Barrett. But these two Texas high school quarterbacks have a lot of games under their belt and miles under their cleats. Neither has a particularly good offensive line. If Armstrong, who struggled at Wisconsin, finds his place in the Horseshoe, it could be a legacy game moment. Armstrong already has undefeated Michigan State's pelt on the wall. How about Ohio State?

Our take

Nebraska is a 17-point underdog to Ohio State, but, to watch both teams over the last month, that spread seems too big. NU's defense — so long as it can slow down Ohio State's running backs — can carry the Huskers' offense to some degree. From there, it's on Armstrong, coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf to steer home the ship. Can they do it? If they do, it's Nebraska's biggest win since 2001 Oklahoma. It's been too long. It's time.

Our prediction: Nebraska 23, Ohio State 21

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