Keep Adrian Martinez under control, and you should be good.
Today at noon ET, the Ohio State Buckeye football team enters the final month of the 2021 regular season as they travel to Lincoln, Neb. to take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers in FOX’s Big Noon Saturday game of the week. Despite the Buckeyes being ranked fifth in the initial College Football Playoff rankings and entering the contest with a 7-1 record — including a 5-0 mark in the Big Ten — and the home team Huskers are 3-6 (1-5), the line has been hovering just over a two-touchdown margin since it was announced nearly a week ago.
While it opened at OSU -15.5, as of publication it is all the way down to -14 according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Does this indicate that the game will end up being closer than most Buckeye fans will be comfortable with? Well, not if the Buckeye coaching staff and players take care of the action items on my to-do list.
Keep the Quarterback Contained
Ohio State is a better, more talented team than Nebraska, we all know that. But, better teams can be beaten, and in OSU’s case, when underdogs challenge them, that often involves a dynamic, running quarterback, and the Huskers’ Adrian Martinez certainly qualifies.
In three career games against the Buckeyes, Martinez has rushed for an average of 79.33 yards per game and at times looked unstoppable; both on designed keepers and on scrambles.
Keeping the QB in the pocket will be a must for the Buckeye defense, because you shouldn’t expect Martinez to hurt you through the air. After putting up 266 passing yards against Ohio State’s embarrassingly bad 2018 defense, Martinez has been held to 47 and 105 yards through the air in the last two matchups against the Bucks.
Early in the 2021 season, OSU struggled to keep contain either on rushers or scrambling quarterbacks. Essentially opposing offenses could run at will around the outside of the defense. However, as the Buckeye coaches have begun to revamp the defense — both in terms of scheme and personnel — they have done a much better job of limiting explosive running plays to the outside.
Now, I know that Nebraska and Martinez are not the best offense in the country, but outside of Oregon, they very well might be the best offensive unit that OSU has faced thus far in 2021. And while I don’t foresee them being able to keep up the scoring output of the Buckeyes, if the QB is able to pick up yards on the ground, that will loosen the defense up, making everything else that they want to do much easier.
The OSU defense is much better than it was two months ago, but in the grand scheme of things, they are still just bordering on good, and as we’ve seen over the years, their kryptonite can be running quarterbacks. So, if the Buckeyes can keep Martinez contained, that will go a long way to making this afternoon’s contest far less stressful than it might otherwise be.
Establish the Run, but Take What’s Given
The game plan last week for the Nittany Lions was very clear, they were not going to let TreVeyon Henderson run between the tackles. And despite the fact that he ended up rushing for 152 yards (his second highest total of the season), it never really got easier for the true freshman phenom to run up the middle.
However, despite that aggravating fact, Ryan Day continued to call Henderson’s number and force him to run straight ahead into a waiting mass of Nittany Lion humanity. Of course, Henderson did get loose a few times, and there was much more room to the outside (though Day didn’t exploit that nearly enough, imo).
Over the years, we’ve seen that Day likes to wear down opposing defenses with the run, so that later in the game the Buckeyes can rely on their backs to ice games away, so that philosophy worked last week, but he’s never had a back as uniquely talented as Henderson, and he hasn’t yet had a quarterback who needs as much support as C.J. Stroud.
While the QB has been dynamic, he has also looked easily rattled at times, so a consistent running game is a huge help for the freshman signal-caller, and that needs to happen from the start of the game. So, I appreciate Day attempting to play the long game when it comes to Henderson, but you can’t just let him keep running into a brick wall while ignoring the opportunities to the outside — not to mention the fact that the back is a fantastic option receiving the ball out of the backfield.
The Huskers held Heisman Trophy contender Kenneth Walker III to just 61 yards on 19 carries earlier in the season, so their defense is able to shut down electric running backs, so Day can’t be afraid to use the full complement of Henderson’s skills, like he seemingly did against the Nits last week.
Win the Yardage Battle
If I were a Nebraska fan, I would be absolutely pulling out my figurative hair (because I don’t have any literal hair) at the results that I’ve watched my team go through this season. As I’ve said in my weekly Big Ten Power Rankings, the Huskers are a legitimately good team, but for reasons large and small, they have been frustrating horrible at closing out games.
They’ve lost heartbreakers to Oklahoma, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Purdue so far this season, all of which were very winnable. When you look at those games, you see incredibly balanced output; in all but the game against Sparty, the yardage difference between the teams was within a few first downs one way or the other.
Clearly, the Buckeyes have a far superior, well-rounded offense to anyone on this list — especially since the Sooners were led by Spencer Rattler at the time they played the Huskers. So, if OSU wants to avoid becoming another nail-biting entree on this list, they will need to impose their will on both sides of the ball. Obviously that is the goal every week, but against Nebraska it is very important.
Scott Frost’s team does not give up, and while they will make mistakes, I don’t think that this will end up being a game in which the Buckeyes ever feel especially comfortable making wholesale changes on both sides of the ball; sure, some starters might be pulled in the second half, but I think if that happens, it will be much later in the game than the records would make you think.
So, OSU can’t take empty possessions, and they can’t let the Huskers move the ball on every drive. Barring crazy short fields due to turnovers or returns, the yardage discrepancy will dictate whether or not the Huskers are able to make this game stressful for Buckeye Nation or not.
Ohio State 42 Nebraska 20