Nebraska vs. Ohio State: Game Preview, Prediction and Players to Watch
One college football team's playoff hopes are set to get a huge boost while the other's will collapse on Saturday night when No. 6 Ohio State hosts No. 9 Nebraska in a prime-time showdown in Ohio Stadium.
The Buckeyes (7-1) are coming off a sloppy 24-20 win over Northwestern last weekend. Head coach Urban Meyer was looking for a sharper focus after the stunning loss to Penn State in Week 8, but his team struggled to shake free from the drag-it-out contest the Wildcats made of it.
The Cornhuskers (7-1) will pose a stiffer challenge, and they should come in motivated after falling in a 24-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin.
Can Ohio State get past its recent struggles and get a signature win to kick off a tough November slate? Or will Nebraska come in to the 'Shoe and completely derail the Buckeyes' playoff run?
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Place: Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Spread: Ohio State (-17), per Odds Shark
Ohio State Keys to Victory
Stretch the Field
The Buckeyes don't have a deep threat, and defenses have figured out how to limit what started the season as an explosive offense.
Ohio State was red-hot to start the year, scoring an average of 57 points in its first four games. But since hanging 38 on Indiana in Week 6, the Buckeyes have posted an average of only 26 points over the last three weeks.
Granted, those three opponents accounted for three of the tougher defense Ohio State will face this year. But quarterback J.T. Barrett's production has dipped significantly because the Buckeyes can't stretch the field vertically with a deep threat.
One or more of Ohio State's wide receivers must find a way to get behind the secondary this weekend, or the Cornhuskers will do exactly what the Buckeyes' last two opponents have done: load the box and limit the short stuff.
Harass Tommy Armstrong
Nebraska's offense is heavily reliant on the play of Tommy Armstrong. The Buckeyes need to make things as hard as possible for the dual-threat quarterback.
The Badgers did that effectively in their 24-17 win over Nebraska last Saturday. An aggressive blitz package flustered Armstrong into his worst performance of the season. He completed just 38.7 percent of his passes for 153 yards and two interceptions. He had a subpar outing on the ground as well, averaging just three yards per carry to complement one score.
The Buckeyes boast a unique pass-rushing formation that features four defensive ends along the line. The team uses Nick Bosa as a defensive tackle in obvious passing situations. It might be a smart idea to feature that unit more against Armstrong this week.
Nebraska Keys to Victory
Get on the Board First
It's a key for any road team, especially in a prime-time slot such as the one this Saturday, but Nebraska would put a lot of pressure on Ohio State if it can get on the board first.
Going into last week's game against Wisconsin, the Cornhuskers had repeatedly won the first quarter, outscoring their first seven opponents 55-15. But on the road last weekend in Madison, Wisconsin, the Badgers struck first and put head coach Mike Riley's squad in a 7-0 hole. The Cornhuskers were playing catch-up the rest of the night.
A score early wouldn't just give Nebraska an important lead. It also would take the life out of an Ohio State crowd that has grown frustrated with the offensive inefficiency (OSU fans booed the Buckeyes at home against Northwestern last Saturday).
And if the Cornhuskers can carry a lead into the fourth quarter, few teams are better at closing time than Nebraska. It has outscored opponents by a combined 108-13 in fourth quarters this season.
Load the Box
Teams will do this until Ohio State can beat it.
Nebraska has been solid defensively this season, ranking 15th nationally in points allowed and 20th in yards allowed. Only the high-flying Oregon Ducks have managed to score more that 24 points on defensive coordinator Mark Banker's defense. The unit leads the nation with 15 interceptions through eight games.
With that ball-hawking secondary in place, the Cornhuskers should pack the box and dare Ohio State to beat them deep. Barrett hasn't completed a pass longer than 35 yards since the Wisconsin game on Oct. 15. Until the Buckeyes prove they have a burner who can beat a defense deep, Nebraska's only play is to thwart the running game.
Ohio State Players to Watch
It's become a weekly occurrence for Ohio State fans to wonder what Curtis Samuel has to do to get more touches.
The all-purpose back has proven to be the Buckeyes' most explosive playmaker, ranking second on the team with 558 rushing yards and five touchdowns to complement his team-leading 44 receptions and 539 receiving yards.
In the loss to Penn State, Samuel only notched two carries, one of which he broke for a 74-yard touchdown run. He was strangely absent the rest of the game, but the Buckeyes made him more of a focus last week against Northwestern. He had seven carries (for 31 yards and a touchdown) and seven catches for 68 yards.
Samuel's usage seems to be trending up, so it'll be something worth watching against the Cornhuskers.
Jerome Baker flashed his potential in Ohio State's spring game last April, when he made a leaping one-handed interception to prevent a red-zone touchdown. But Baker came into the season stuck behind Dante Booker, who looked like Ohio State's next great defender, at linebacker.
With Booker and Chris Worley in the fold, it looked as if Baker would have to wait at least a year before seeing significant playing time. But an untimely injury to Booker has forced Baker into the spotlight, and he's responded by being one of the breakout stars in the Big Ten.
Through eight games, Baker leads the linebacker unit with 6.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. His signature play came in Week 3 against Oklahoma when he picked off Baker Mayfield and returned it 68 yards for a touchdown. His play has been so good, in fact, that he was recently named to the Butkus Award watch list.
With Armstrong's running ability, Baker will be pivotal in keeping Armstrong coralled in spy situations.
Nebraska Players to Watch
Ohio State is having trouble with slot receivers.
Wisconsin wide receiver Jazz Peavy feasted on the Buckeyes defense three weeks ago, registering 70 rushing yards on six end-arounds to complement four catches for 76 yards and a touchdown. And last week against Ohio State, Northwestern wideout Austin Carr torched the secondary for 158 yards on eight receptions.
Saturday, Nebraska will attack the Buckeyes defense with one of the Big Ten's most consistent slot threats in Jordan Westerkamp.
The senior has done it all for the Cornhuskers throughout his decorated career. But he hit a different gear in 2015 when he hauled in a school-record 65 receptions while earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. And while he hasn't been as productive this year (a byproduct of a slumping passing attack), Westerkamp has proved the ability throughout his career to get open and hurt an opposing defense.
Nebraska is the epitome of an opportunistic defense. It features two players with four interceptions each (Kieron Williams and Nathan Gerry) and a pair of defenders with three (Aaron Williams and Chris Jones).
Gerry is particularly disruptive as the safety pairs his elite coverage skills with a fearless pursuit in run-support. He ranks second on the team with 50 tackles and has two games this year in which he's recorded two interceptions.
Barrett has been careful with the ball this season, throwing just four interceptions through eight games. That ranks 12th nationally among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts, according to cfbstats.com.
But the Buckeyes haven't faced a defense as opportunistic as Nebraska's or seen a safety with Gerry's ball-hawking skills.
What They're Saying
The initial College Football Playoff rankings for 2016 will be released this week, but Barrett isn't thinking about the Buckeyes' standing, according to Tim Shoemaker of Eleven Warriors.
I don’t care about it too much being that there’s still a lot of football left to be played. I understand that last year we were in it and then we lose a game in November and we’re not in it. The year before that, we weren’t in it, won a couple of games at the end of the year and then we are in it.
That’s the thing: We’re not playing the playoffs this Saturday so it’s not that much to me.
Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten since Meyer took over in 2012. But Nebraska wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El is focusing on the present, according to Sam McKewon of the World-Herald Bureau.
That’s fine, but you’re talking about the past right now. We’re in the present right now. We’ve got to go out there and play our best game. And nothing’s going to be given. You stated their past history. We’re talking about right now. They’re a good team — a bunch of good individuals — but we still have to come out and play. It’s still a game to be won. It’s still a game to be played. We’re going to focus on playing now.
Meyer talked about the ideal usage of Samuel, via Ben Axelrod of Land of 10.
“That’s what we want,” Meyer said of Samuel. “Fifty-fifty [catches and carries]. I wouldn’t mind eight each. Eight catches, eight handoffs.”
A late defensive score will be the difference in a close Ohio State victory Saturday.
Barrett will be efficient with the ball, completing 65 percent of his passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. But most of the Buckeyes damage will come from Mike Weber, Curtis Samuel and Barrett on the ground. They'll combine for 240 yards and two touchdowns.
Nebraska will benefit from a good start, scoring 10 points on its first two possessions to build a 10-0 lead. After the Buckeyes score 14 unanswered, Armstrong will scramble for a 40-yard touchdown run. A field goal at the end of the third quarter will put the Cornhuskers up 20-14.
That's when Barrett will throw his lone touchdown strike to Noah Brown. Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker will follow that with a 35-yard interception return of an Armstrong pass for a touchdown with seven minutes left.
Ohio State 28, Nebraska 20