Nebraska will face Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio this Saturday, in a rematch of Nebraska's 34-27 victory last year that produced the biggest comeback in the history of Nebraska football.
Ohio State has started the 2012 season 5-0, and is coming off a narrow 17-16 victory over Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan the week before. Nebraska is 4-1, and is coming off an emotional comeback victory over Wisconsin, 30-27, in Lincoln, Neb.
So what will be the keys for Nebraska to knock off the Buckeyes for a second straight year? Here are five to consider.
OK, I know, this key could be included in every football game ever played. But it is particularly important for Nebraska against Ohio State. Turnovers accounted for the majority of Wisconsin’s points last week, requiring another heroic comeback to salvage a win in the B1G conference opener. Nebraska must avoid putting the ball on the Ohio Stadium carpet to win.
Further, Nebraska must squeeze a couple of turnovers out of Ohio State’s offense. In five games, Ohio State only has three interceptions and four lost fumbles. But Braxton Miller has a history of making dangerous throws, and it will be important for the Blackshirts to convert those dangerous throws to pull off a win in the Horseshoe.
The bottom line is that, if Nebraska doesn’t win the turnover battle, it will be exceedingly difficult to win the game against Ohio State.
If there is one position to watch if you want a good idea of how the game will go, keep an eye on Nebraska’s defensive ends.
If they are able to control the edges, keeping Braxton Miller from turning the corner while simultaneously not rushing too far upfield and permitting Miller to slide underneath on either designed runs or scrambles, then Nebraska will go a long way towards bottling up Ohio State’s prolific offense.
If the Buckeyes are forced to make a living between the tackles or throwing the ball, Nebraska’s chance to win the game increases dramatically.
At the start of the 2012 season, Nebraska had one preseason All-American on its roster. It wasn’t Taylor Martinez, or Rex Burkhead, or Baker Steinkuhler.
Nope. It was Brett Maher, Nebraska’s returning placekicker.
When the selection was made, it made sense. Maher finished the 2011 season hitting 19-of-23 field goals, being perfect from inside 50 yards, and hitting three field goals longer than 50 yards. Coupled with his prowess as a punter, it seemed Nebraska should have confidence in the strength of its kicking game.
Maher’s 2012 campaign, though, has been far from all-American caliber. He is only 7-of-12 in field goals, including misses of 44, 41 and 37 yards. He is only averaging 41.33 yards per punt, down from his 2011 average of 44.51. And he has put a kickoff out of bounds already, something he did not do throughout the 2011 season.
At the end of the Wisconsin game, it appeared that Maher had regained some of his form, hitting punts that helped keep Wisconsin pinned back and helping Nebraska to win a field position battle. For Nebraska to be successful in Columbus, it will need Maher to continue finding that All-American form.
Nebraska’s average starting field position has been at its own 27-yard line for the 2012 season, according to FBSDriveStats.com (my new favorite website, with thanks to HailVarsity.com for pointing it out). That’s 101st in the country, and has been a quiet hindrance on NU’s ability on offense.
In Nebraska’s one loss (and only road game), NU’s average starting field position was at its own 22-yard line, as opposed to UCLA’s average field position starting at its own 37-yard line. That 15-yard differential, coupled with the safety that was directly related to poor field position, was enough to tilt an otherwise-close contest in UCLA’s favor in Pasadena.
Ohio State’s numbers aren’t dramatically better, with an average starting field position at its own 29-yard line, ranking 77th in the county. And Nebraska is averaging 39.6 yards per drive, which is 20th in the country. So if Nebraska can dig itself out of the holes the offense has found itself in to start drives, chances are more of those drives will end in touchdowns.
Nebraska has an unfortunate history of unraveling in the second half of games against strong opponents away from Lincoln (Wisconsin, Michigan and South Carolina from last season; UCLA from this season).
A common thread in all of those losses is that Nebraska, offensively, has gotten away from a run-focused offense and put the ball in the air more frequently. The clearest example was against Wisconsin in Madison, WI last year, where Taylor Martinez’s three interceptions put the game out of reach for Nebraska.
But against UCLA, once Nebraska fell behind in the fourth quarter, Nebraska ran eight plays. Six were passes (one of which was an interception), two were quarterback scrambles and none went to a running back.
In the comeback against Wisconsin, like against Ohio State last season, Martinez was the key that got Nebraska’s offense moving. But he wasn’t the entire offense. If Nebraska faces adversity in Columbus—which it almost certainly will at some point—it will be important for NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck to not panic and stick with the game plan to right the ship.
If you’d like to contact Patrick to schedule an interview, provide feedback or get advice on which type of chocolate goes best with fresh fruit (spoiler alert: dark), then e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or, you could always...Follow @patrickrunge