Game Day: Nebraska vs. Ohio State

Goliath returns

Nebraska's 25-point underdogs, the biggest margin in half a century. Ohio State's on top of its game and a powerhouse in college football. Can NU hang around?

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Ohio State rush defense

This matchup doesn’t bode well for the Huskers, whose running game has been so-so at best this season and typically inconsistent. Even the coaches are frustrated by the yo-yo of 12 yards here and zero yards over there. NU can’t set up its play-action pass very well if it isn’t hitting its bread-and-butter run plays. OSU’s defensive line, perhaps the nation’s best, stuffed the Huskers in Columbus last season, holding them to 78 yards. The Buckeyes have brutes like Dre’Mont Jones, Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa, who are one day bound for the NFL. OSU doesn’t get too fancy; it just lines up and wins the line of scrimmage. On the sunny side for Nebraska, it should have more than Devine Ozigbo available at running back.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense

Protection, protection, protection. Nebraska’s offensive line needs to build a force field around quarterback Tanner Lee, who, if given the time, has the arm to make some plays against a talented-but-beatable OSU secondary. The Buckeyes have a wicked pass rush — and usually only need four or five rushers to generate it — which helps Ohio State’s defensive backs take more risks and play more aggressively. If NU’s receivers can hold on to the ball for a whole night — no dropsies — Nebraska might make some noise here. OSU has played four straight games — Army, UNLV, Rutgers and Maryland — that are passing challenged, so Nebraska could catch the Buckeyes off guard.

Ohio State rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns and yards per carry, thanks to playing fairly lousy defenses, the deft read option skills of quarterback J.T. Barrett and a gifted true freshman, J.K. Dobbins, who has the quickness, size and ankle-breaking moves of former Buckeye Zeke Elliott. Nebraska’s run defense, largely exposed against Wisconsin, probably isn’t giving up three bills to Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have rushed for fewer than 150 yards just four times since Urban Meyer took over in 2012.

Ohio State pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Buckeye fans are every bit as fevered as Husker fans, and whole novels could be written about the last two-and-a-half years of Ohio State’s inconsistent pass game. Barrett, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in OSU and Big Ten history, bears the brunt of the criticism, but he gets mediocre protection from his line and inconsistent help from his receivers. Still, Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco isn’t likely to give OSU the deep pass, so look for Barrett to throw safe, quick passes to his receivers and for Nebraska to try and make the tackles.

Special teams

OSU has an elite kicking game. Punter Drue Chrisman hasn’t allowed a punt return yet this season and 14 of his 20 punts have been downed inside the 20. The Buckeyes choose to allow opponents to return kickoffs and have held foes to an 18.35-yard average, which is excellent for 40 kickoff returns. Nebraska needs to win this category against Ohio State, and returners De’Mornay Pierson-El (punts) and J.D. Spielman (kickoffs) have the ability to break one. OSU makes it unlikely.

Intangibles

Nebraska’s streak of home wins at night was snapped by Wisconsin last week. Now, big question marks hover over the program. OSU is a massive 24-point favorite, and the Husker crowd, having seen four pick-sixes, are wary of what might happen next with NU’s offense. The Buckeyes have the talent edge, but, once per season, they have a road game where they play down to their competition. Last season, OSU escaped 17-16 over a 3-9 Michigan State team. Nebraska is just as good as that squad was.

Key matchup: J.T. Barrett vs. NU's defensive backs and linebackers

The Huskers have to force a couple turnovers, and baiting Barrett into a few mistakes is the best way. Barrett has thrown just one interception this season, but OSU’s competition has been so deficient for weeks that, just maybe, Diaco and the Blackshirts can surprise him. Nebraska has to adjust to OSU’s fast tempo, too.

Our take

At every position, Ohio State is better. More talented players. Better execution from those players. So Nebraska is staring at an order taller than the Empire State Building. NU is a 24-point underdog for a reason, and, as the game wears on, it’ll become evident why. Still, Nebraska doesn’t easily toss in the towel, and there’s an outside chance, once per season, when OSU puckers so completely that it allows a lesser team to hang in there. Nebraska has to hope that, Saturday night, something strange is in the air.

Our prediction: OHIO STATE 35, NEBRASKA 17

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