What was supposed to be one of the marquee matchups in 2011 Big Ten conference play has lost some of its luster over the past two weeks.
Ohio State will travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to face the 14th-ranked Cornhuskers Saturday night in a meeting of powerhouse programs desperate for a conference win.
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Nebraska is coming off a disappointing trip to Wisconsin in which they were throttled 48-17 by the Badgers. The Cornhuskers’ star dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez threw three interceptions and their defense couldn’t find any answers for Wisconsin’s pummeling rushing attack.
Ohio State is coming off a 10-7 home loss to Michigan State, in which their offense sputtered feebly until the final minute. A Joe Bauserman 34-yard touchdown pass narrowly spared them the embarrassment of a home shutout loss. That touchdown avoided a home shutout loss for the first time in 29 years for the Buckeyes.
The Buckeyes won’t be able to get help from suspended running back Dan Herron and wide receiver Devier Posey. Both players’ suspensions were scheduled for 5 games but have been extended for at least this weekend due to the receipt of improper benefits, another in what seems like an endless slew of infractions afflicting the Buckeyes from this past offseason.
Before the season began, most ranked Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State as the favorites to win the Big Ten. Wisconsin has clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack with their dominating start.
For Nebraska and Ohio State this game is crucial.
The loser will likely have no chance at the Big Ten Championship Game, as Ohio State, with two losses, would be chasing Wisconsin in the Leaders Division, and Nebraska would have to hope for Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa to beat up on each other to sneak back into first place in the Legends Division.
Important things to consider for Saturday
For the visiting Buckeyes the challenge will be on getting something out of their offense. Before the season started I wrote that Buckeyes’ coach Luke Fickell was wrong to start 5th-year senior Joe Bauserman at quarterback instead of freshman phenom Braxton Miller. Miller finally started two weeks ago against Colorado, and while his passing numbers weren’t great (5-13, 83 yards and 2 touchdowns), he ran well, made sound decisions, and seemed to provide a spark to the Buckeyes offense.
Last week against Michigan State, though, Miller looked woefully unprepared for Big Ten competition. I still think that if Fickell had started Miller from day one he would have been able to take his lumps against the lesser non-conference competition (Akron and Toledo, although the Rockets did provide a scare for Ohio State) and been able to perform a little better by this time in the season.
That is all irrelevant now, as the Buckeyes are still searching for answers under center.
Fickell hasn’t given any indication as to who will start at quarterback Saturday night in Lincoln. Whichever player it is will need to improve on the Buckeyes’ 23.8 points scored per game (91st in the FBS) and 154 passing yards per game (111th in the FBS). Running backs Carlos Hyde (296 yards, 4 TD) and Jordan Hall (216 yards, 1TD) have played fairly well, but without a passing game to balance the offense, their effectiveness can be limited.
Defensively, the Ohio State has played sound football. They are allowing just 14.6 points per game, including just 10 to the Spartans a week ago. They have forced 7 turnovers in their last 3 games.
Nebraska, conversely, boasts a 9th-ranked rushing attack and comes in averaging 37.6 points per game. Against Wisconsin, the Huskers ran for 159 yards – a very respectable total against a tough defense and despite trailing most of the game – including 96 on 18 carries by running back Rex Burkhead.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez, despite his troubles both throwing and running last week, is still in the top-25 in the FBS in rushing yards with 482. He is still completing only 50% of his throws, which allows defenses to stack the line and limit his running ability. Against Wisconsin, Martinez was held to just 3.1 yards per carry as the Badgers had effectively taken away his ability to throw and could key on his running.
Nebraska’s defense, which I predicted would struggle last week after failing to shut down lesser competition, did just that. The Cornhuskers were gutted by the run last week to the tune of 231 yards and 5 touchdowns. Coach Bo Pelini has to be discouraged by the effort put forth through 5 games by the Blackshirts, who came away with proverbial black eyes after the beating in Madison last week.
What Ohio State must do to win
Going into Lincoln and coming out victorious will be a tall task for Ohio State, but they are capable of doing it.
First, whoever is playing quarterback simply cannot turn the ball over. As boring as Tressel-ball was, the punt was always considered a valuable play, and the Buckeyes used it to control field position and eventually create short fields and more scoring opportunities. This must be the primary focus Saturday night, particularly in the hostile environment of Memorial Stadium.
In addition, the quarterback must create opportunities in the passing game. It sounds elementary, but after seeing the struggles the Buckeyes have had throwing this year it cannot be overstated. They must balance the offense to give Hyde and Hall a chance to run the ball.
Defensively, Ohio State must continue to do what it has done so far this season – create a turnover or two and play strong against the run. They cannot allow Martinez to run wild and come up with any big plays with his feet. They need to force him to throw to beat them, and they need to come up with the ball when Martinez fails to do so.
What Nebraska must do to win
Nebraska must protect the ball. If they turn it over, they will allow a wounded Buckeyes team to score cheap points. This is especially true for Martinez, who needs to shake off the poor performance last week and make smart decisions with the football this week.
Nebraska must continue to run the ball well. Ohio State has been strong against the run, so Nebraska must win the battle at the line of scrimmage. If Burkhead can have another great game, the Huskers should find themselves on the winning side.
Lastly, the Cornhuskers must be able to get to whichever quarterback Ohio State sends onto the field. They will need to apply pressure and force bad throws that can be turned into picks or, at the very least, good field position following punts.
Ohio State – Nebraska Prediction
I look for the Buckeyes to play better than most expect. I think Bauserman will start, based off his touchdown pass at the end of last week’s game, but I also see Miller being used to keep the Nebraska defense off-balance.
I think Nebraska will be able to move the ball fairly easily, though. I expect Martinez to have a big night in front of the home crowd, and I think that his turnover issues from last week won’t be repeated. That will be enough to keep Ohio State at bay and keep the Huskers in the hunt for a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Final Score Prediction: Nebraska 27, Ohio State 23.
What do you think?
Ohio State Nebraska Game Info
- Ohio State-Nebraska Date: Saturday, October 8
- Ohio State-Nebraska Kickoff Time: 8:00 ET
- Ohio State-Nebraska TV: ABC
- Ohio State Nebraska Point Spread: Nebraska -11
- Ohio State-Nebraska Over/Under: 44