COLUMBUS, Ohio — Eye-black smeared on both cheeks, Adrian Martinez wasn’t about to smile and gush. Not over another close loss. Not even if Nebraska’s quarterback had outdueled a Heisman Trophy candidate and, for a good long while, put a giant, chilly crowd on edge.
It didn’t matter to Martinez that Nebraska had taken No. 8 Ohio State to the wire before losing 36-31. That — after back-to-back woodshed beatings from the Buckeyes in 2016 and 2017 — NU had packed so much of a punch that OSU coach Urban Meyer left impressed.
The future of Husker football has grown impatient with moral victories in the present.
“We came into this game expecting to win, and we didn’t,” Martinez said. “At no point is losing acceptable.”
Scott Frost can live with that attitude. Six weeks after walking out of a 56-10 loss at Michigan “with our tails between our legs,” Frost said, NU went “toe-to-toe with a top 10 team.” Player after player — Martinez and inside linebacker Mohamed Barry among them — said they were upset at the loss.
“That is a big step forward,” NU’s coach said.
Yet he, too, lamented the missed opportunity. It’s one thing to raise hell in the Horseshoe. It’s another to pull off a program-changing upset of the Big Ten’s resident bully.
For the many things Nebraska did right — forcing three turnovers, racking up 450 yards with an impressive variety of plays, possessing the ball for more than 33 minutes — it may spend a few sleepless nights chewing on the mistakes, large and small, that tend to afflict a 2-7 football team.
The botched onside kick. The blocked punt. Martinez’s disastrous option play from OSU’s 10-yard line. And, most of all, the lights going out on Nebraska’s offense for a whole quarter, the 15 minutes that shifted the entire tide of the game.
NU came out of halftime leading 21-16. It entered the fourth quarter trailing 30-21. Nebraska never regained the lead.
“For whatever reason, we just didn’t play well in the third quarter,” Frost said.
“Second half, we stalled at times,” said Martinez, who threw for 266 yards and ran for 72. “Couple throws I’d like to have back.”
The quarterback was asked directly about a third-quarter seam pass to receiver JD Spielman — well into OSU territory — that looked likely to produce a long gain. Spielman didn’t fully extend to catch the slightly overthrown pass, though, which led to speculation that he’d lost the ball in the bright sun that peered in, like an irritating, heavenly spectator, from a corner of Ohio Stadium.
“Not sure if it was my fault, not sure if it was JD’s fault,” Martinez said. “We’ll communicate and move on from there.”
Frost said he wasn’t sure what happened. Spielman, who had six catches for 61 yards and a touchdown, hasn’t talked to reporters in a month.
NU (2-7 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten) punted on all four third-quarter possessions.
OSU (8-1, 5-1) — despite a shaky performance from quarterback Dwayne Haskins — put together touchdown drives of 80 and 47 yards, largely with running plays. The 47-yard drive came after Frost chose not to attempt a fourth-and-inches at his own 14-yard line.
In the fourth quarter, Nebraska’s defense forced two quick OSU punts before Martinez hit Stanley Morgan for a 46-yard pass. Nebraska eventually settled for a field goal, cutting OSU’s lead to 30-24.
The Buckeyes answered with their best drive — seven plays, 82 yards — that culminated in running back J.K. Dobbins’ 42-yard touchdown run. After Martinez and Co. countered with a touchdown drive of their own, Ohio State ran out the clock with Dobbins.
“In crunch time, they executed and we didn’t,” NU safety Tre Neal said.
The Huskers’ first-half performance — in which they held the ball for nearly 20 minutes of game clock , forced two fumbles and kept OSU’s defense on its toes with a dizzying array of option plays — had most of the 104,245 fans at Ohio Stadium either disengaged or displeased.
Nebraska got the ball to start the game and scored immediately on a 12-play, 75-yard march that included a fourth-down conversion and ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Devine Ozigbo. Frost, sensing an opportunity to get aggressive, went for the sneaky onside kick.
Kicker Caleb Lightbourn nearly whiffed on it. The ball dribbled off to his left and OSU took over at NU’s 31.
“We had a great look to get the onside,” Frost said. “We didn’t execute it.”
Nebraska’s defense stopped Ohio State on downs, but that led to NU’s next special teams mistake when OSU’s Keandre Jones blocked Isaac Armstrong’s punt for a safety. Jones raced unblocked past Wyatt Mazour and Jack Stoll.
OSU scored on its ensuing possession after the safety. Ohio State increased its lead to 16-7 — and seemed headed for more — until Nebraska outside linebacker JoJo Domann sacked Haskins and stripped him of the ball. NU nose tackle Carlos Davis recovered at the NU 36. Martinez led two touchdown drives in the last nine minutes of the second quarter, which offset a strange, costly fumble when Martinez, trapped by OSU’s defenders, pitched the ball to an unsuspecting Spielman.
Frost called that mistake a “bonehead play,” but otherwise praised the 18-year-old.
“I’m going to get tired of talking in superlatives about Adrian,” Frost said. “You guys see what he is. There’s been some freshman mistakes, but not very many.”
Yes, so many good things from Nebraska on Saturday. So many positives that stood alongside the mistakes. So many explosive plays from both sides of the ball that Meyer paid the Huskers, well ... the best compliment he could.
“I get that that was a two-win team, but that’s a two-win team that people don’t want to play right now,” he said.
Yet close doesn’t count in the Horseshoe. The way Frost described it, Nebraska is more often six inches short of first downs than it is six inches ahead of the chains. When that changes — and Frost said it’s in the process of changing — so will the results against some of the Big Ten’s best.
For now — a week at least — the Huskers have to live with mere encouragement. The idea that they’ve closed the gap on the league’s top program — Saturday was a far cry from last year’s 56-14 embarrassment — while trying, again and again, to stop beating themselves.
It’s coming, Frost said. It’s almost here.
Nebraska’s just not happy with almost anymore.
“That’s why it hurt,” Barry said. “Not because we lost. Because we know we should have beaten them.”
|Yards per carry||5.7||3.8|
Nebraska is 1-7 all-time against Ohio State.
|Troy (formerly Troy State)||Sept. 15|
|Ohio State||Nov. 3|
|Michigan State||Nov. 17|
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