Starting the second half of the season with a .500 record against an opponent favored by 24 points isn’t the scenario that Nebraska would have selected. But that’s the spot the Huskers find themselves with No. 9 Ohio State coming to town.
This was the meat of the schedule that everyone knew was coming. Nebraska was tied with No. 8 Wisconsin early in the third quarter Saturday before the Badgers rolled to three consecutive touchdowns for a dominating 38-17 victory.
The Buckeyes are a second-consecutive top-10 opponent visiting the Huskers but the home field doesn’t appear to be much of an advantage. Ohio State is favored by 24 points, the biggest point-spread deficit faced by Nebraska in 60 years. Plus, over the last 15 seasons, the Huskers have lost 20 of 23 meetings with top-10 teams.
The cold, hard fact is that Nebraska wants to be where Wisconsin and Ohio State are. But with a 3-3 overall record, the program that won its last national championship 20 years ago is far from that level.
“It’s both time in football growth and time in recruitment that will give us an opportunity to get it back,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said on this week’s Big Ten Conference call. “(Fans are) hungry for all of that, and it is absolutely something that you love. You love that caring and passion, but it’s really those factors you’ve got to have a real foundation of what you want to do football-wise and continue to grow.”
Riley believes the growth will become evident with the maturing of players in the 2017 class and the recruits in the 2018 class. However, Riley might not last beyond his third season and the short-term goal involves — at minimum — winning three more games to become bowl eligible.
Last season in Columbus, the Buckeyes embarrassed the Huskers 62-3. Ohio State has the potential to produce another lopsided result. Urban Meyer’s team ranks eighth nationally in rushing yards per play, 14th in passing yards per attempt, fifth in total yards per play and is averaging 45.8 points per game, which ranks fifth. Senior quarterback J.T. Barrett leads the Big Ten in total offense.
Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, whose 3-4 scheme was gashed for 353 rushing yards by Wisconsin, said this week that his scouting report about The Ohio State University referred to the spread offense.
“I did it purposefully,” Diaco said, “because coach [Urban] Meyer’s offense from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida to Ohio State has made people famous. It’s made players famous. It’s made coaches famous. His coaching tree is all around the country. They’re all basically running that offense. Whether they tweak it a little bit, most don’t. And it’s pretty awesome.”
According to the stat-based web site FootballStudyHall.com, Ohio State — even with its loss to Oklahoma in Week 2 — ranks as the top team in the country. While the Buckeyes offense has been awesome since that loss, its defense is also salty. Football Study Hall lists Ohio State’s defensive line No. 1 in Havoc Rate, which is how often a unit breaks up a pass, forces a fumble or tackles for a loss.
The Buckeyes had six sacks last week against Maryland, and Dre’Mont Jones, one of the team’s top D-linemen, is expected to return this week after missing the last two games with an injury.
That’s bad news for a Nebraska offensive line that has improved but has yet to play at an elite level. Junior quarterback Tanner Lee performs best in a clean pocket and the offense is at its best with a productive running game. Controlling Ohio State’s pass rush and opening running lanes will be major challenges.
One of the Huskers’ most consistent performers of late has been running back Devine Ozigbo. He has rushed for 100 or more yards in each of the last three games, taking over for injured teammates Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon. Ozigbo has the attention of Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.
“He’s very hard to get down,” Schiano said. “He has a lot of yards after contact. He’s a built guy. They have a scheme that’s designed for a back like him. They’re confident in what they’re doing. In those kinds of offenses, what might be a 1- or 2- or 3-yard gain in the first quarter, if the game’s close and they keep running and running, those turn into 5- or 6-yard gains if you don’t muster up. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Maybe controlling time of possession and game flow with a running game is a viable option for Nebraska. But the Big Red fan base apparently has little faith. An online poll conducted by the Omaha World-Herald asked if the 24-point point spread favoring Ohio State was too large.
As of Wednesday night, nearly 83 percent of the respondents had voted, “No, Ohio State should be favored by more.”
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