Classic Big Ten Football: Ohio State at Nebraska, 2011
Every week, the Big Ten Blog will break down one classic game from the Big Ten's long, storied history. Today, we're going back to last season and the moment when the new kids in town figured out everything was going to be okay.
Nebraska was 4-1, ranked No. 14 in the AP, and it was having a terrible season.
Expectations in Lincoln weren't to Tom Osborne-era levels by any stretch—they may not get there again for decades, if ever—but certainly, the Bo Pelini regime had brought certain levels of stability and standards of success that were closer to the Osborne era than the horror wrought by Bill Callahan in years prior.
But the only thing buoying Nebraska early on in 2011 was a lofty preseason ranking (No. 10)—well, that, and the play of one Rex Burkhead. The defense looked ordinary in four non-conference wins against middling-at-best competition, so when Nebraska had to open up its inaugural Big Ten season with a trip to Wisconsin, few expected Nebraska to win.
As a matter of fact, the Huskers couldn't even keep it close, as Wisconsin rolled to a 48-17 victory and laid its claim to being the real "Big Red" in the Big Ten. All of Nebraska's weaknesses were laid bare: an underachieving front four, a vulnerable secondary, and a quarterback who had clearly cut his teeth in a conference where defense is an afterthought.
Put it this way: if Nebraska had started the year unranked, the pollsters wouldn't even be sniffing the Huskers after that start.
At the very least, though, Ohio State was coming to town, and though the Buckeyes would be getting a plethora of talented players back from suspension that week, they still weren't a very good team that year: 3-2 with two embarrassing losses against Miami and Michigan State, and even the win over Toledo was a four-quarter affair.
So Nebraska would roll in this one, yes?
Well, no. Ohio State used a nifty tight end screen to Jake Stoneburner, who whizzed past defenders for a 32-yard score for touchdown number one. Then a Carlos Hyde jaunt from 63 yards four minutes later pushed the score to 17-3 Ohio State. Nebraska tacked on a field goal with under three minutes left in the half to make it 17-6. eliciting polite applause from fans, but that goodwill was erased quickly when Braxton Miller drove the Buckeyes down the field in response, resulting in a field goal to end the half.
Not only was lowly Ohio State taking it to Nebraska, the Buckeyes weren't even done; they stuffed Nebraska deep in Husker territory to open the second half, then took advantage of a short field to drive 47 yards and punch the ball in for a 27-6 lead. This wasn't Top 10 Wisconsin doing this to the Huskers, this was Ohio State—and on Nebraska's home turf, no less.
So what was going on? Were the snarkiest criticisms of Nebraska actually correct? Were the Huskers seriously not ready for Big Ten play? Could—oh hell, Nebraska just went three-and-out again, this is a mess, blow it all up, go call Dan Beebe, time to go back to the Big 12.
So there's Braxton Miller, suddenly unstoppable, holding a 21-point lead and the ball, albeit back at the Ohio State 12-yard line after a booming Brett Maher punt. On the ensuing 3rd-and-5, Miller ran the ball on a keeper, got the first down, and immediately found out that Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David was through playing around.
Instead of merely making the tackle on Miller, David reached into Miller's arms and wrestled the ball clean away. It was less a forced fumble and more outright theft, an instantaneous change of possession. And all of a sudden, Nebraska was 24 yards away from making this thing a ballgame.
Two snaps later, Taylor Martinez broke free on an option keeper for an 18-yard score. Ballgame: on. The crowd was into the game for the first time since it was 3-3, and with 22 minutes and change left to play, a 14-point lead was far from safe for the Buckeyes.
Still, Nebraska was going to need some help in this one, and it got that help on the ensuing possession. On a quarterback keeper—Miller's 10th and last carry of the day—Miller tweaked his ankle making a cut, and went down in a heap. Fortunately, the injury wasn't serious (they usually are in non-contact incidents), but he was out for the day—and Joe Bauserman was in.
Bauserman was supposed to be the quarterback in 2011 with Terrelle Pryor unceremoniously booted from the program, since Miller was a true freshman and Bauserman was a 26-year-old former baseball prospect. Bauserman came into the game cold on a 3rd-and-9, and his throw to Jake Stoneburner was so far off that it was a powerful omen of what was to come.
In fact, what Bauserman was supposed to do for Ohio State to finish the game, Taylor Martinez actually did do for Nebraska. He guided Nebraska to two first downs after facing a 2nd-and-17 on the ensuing Husker drive, then hit Quincy Enunwa over the shoulder on a beautiful post route for an unchallenged 36-yard score later in the drive to make the score 27-20. There was still 1:44 left in the third quarter. All of a sudden, optimism was feverishly high in Lincoln.
Now, with a ground game that had been moderately successful all day long and an underwhelming quarterback coming on cold in relief, one would think that Ohio State would go straight back to a steady diet of Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall to close out the game—or at least put pressure on Nebraska's offense to score more quickly, which really was never Nebraska's modus operandi in 2011.
Instead, in the surest sign that the Jim Bollman era was ready to end, the Ohio State offensive coordinator kept calling Bauserman's name for passes over and over. Bauserman's final stat line: 1-10, 13 yards, 1 INT. Meanwhile, in almost three full effective quarters, Miller threw all of eight passes. So that wasn't very smart.
And yet, Ohio State went back to the ground game enough on the ensuing possession that the Buckeyes crossed Nebraska's 30-yard-line at the start of the fourth quarter and looked to be ready to tack on three more points. Instead, a 3-yard loss preceded two incomplete passes, and away went a punt. Ohio State had given up on a possession at Nebraska's 32-yard-line, and the Buckeyes would never cross their own 40 afterwards.
Buoyed by the defensive resurgence and the presence of a comically inept quarterback on the other side of the ball, Nebraska traded punts with the Buckeyes, then sent Rex Burkhead back to work. Burkhead gained first downs on consecutive demoralizing rushes of 8 and 14 yards, and then set the place on fire on this swing pass.
Tie game. Ohio State responded with two Carlos Hyde rushes for a total of 16 yards, but then Joe Bauserman had to go all JOE BAUSERMAN and threw a disastrous deep pass that was easily picked off by backup cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, and at that point everyone knew Rex Burkhead's boot was about to come down on the Buckeyes' throat one last time.
And sure enough, four plays later:
At this point, we know the rest of the story: Joe Bauserman fails miserably to lead a comeback drive, Nebraska parties hard, and Rex Burkhead as superhero is all of a sudden a very real thing the rest of the Big Ten needs to deal with.
Nebraska would eventually climb back into the Top 10 after a 24-3 shellacking of eventual division champ Michigan State, but late losses to Northwestern, Michigan and South Carolina—each stunning in their own ways—meant the Huskers would finish with the customary four losses that they've gotten under Bo Pelini every year. It's kind of odd and unsettling: four losses, no more, no less, every year. So if Nebraska starts out 9-0 next year, LOOK OUT BELOW.
Ohio State, meanwhile, would struggle with consistency all year long, defeating Wisconsin and giving Michigan a scare but dropping games to the likes of Purdue and Florida to finish at 6-7.
But what if Miller wraps up harder after his first down and Lavonte David can't make the strip? What if Miller's ankle doesn't betray him late in the third? What if, when Joe Bauserman's "only" 1-4 on the day, Luke Fickell tells Kenny Guiton to go out there and stick to the original run-heavy offense and use his feet if he has to? What if Nebraska starts its Big Ten era off 0-2 and its fans turn negative?
Oh, who are we kidding? If all that happened Nebraska would still go 9-4. This is Bo Pelini we're talking about. Four losses is his thing.
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