2020 Game Preview: Ohio State vs Nebraska
It’s OK to smile now. Big Ten football will kick off, and the men of the scarlet and gray will drive down the field, hopefully multiple times. Ohio State and the Big Ten had one of the longest offseason in history, and the last memory Buckeye fans remember is Justin Fields with his hands on his helmet in the “surrender cobra” pose, and the confetti dropping in Glendale, AZ as the Clemson Tigers got their 4th win against the Buckeyes en route to face LSU for the National Championship. Clemson would latter be beat like every other team LSU faced, as Joe Burrow, Ohio State transfer, completed the dream season for any college football player, but the feeling of joy for Burrow could only go so far. It was a season that ended with more “What if’s” than “what could have been” as mental replays of moments of the game lasted for 10 months. It was a catch and fumble that was returned for a touchdown and was incorrectly overturned. Trevor Lawrence lowered his head prior to Shaun Wade’s tackle, but the refs missed Chase Young getting illegally blocked as he attempted to make the sack. But we cannot change the past, we can only look forward.
That looking forward has been difficult with the COVID-19 Pandemic, which was the reason why the Big Ten pulled the plug on a fall season initially in August because they did not feel it was safe for the players and personal to cleanly play the game of football. The PAC-12 followed as well, and the MAC and Mountain West also delayed their season. But the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 kept going, and found a way to successfully play games. Now, there has been cancellations this season and several postponed games, so it is still up in the air how many games these teams will ultimately end up playing. The Big Ten came back in September, and laid out a plan to begin the fall season on October 23rd (Wisconsin will play Illinois) and have daily testing for ensure the players do not have COVID, and if so, they will have to quarantine for 21 days, longer than the CDC guideline. They also put themselves in a tough spot because they plan on playing a 8 straight week schedule, and on December 19 have a plus 1 game to where each division will play its cross divisional seeded team, with the 1 vs 1 match up playing for the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis. There are no bye weeks, and as of now, the CFP Committee is committed to the dates for the Semi-Finals and Finals game. If Ohio State wants to win a National Championship, it will have to win all of its games, and do so convincingly because they will be compared to the other conference champions, as well as the second place teams if they have played more games. A 9-0 Ohio State team should make it into the playoff, but might be seeded as a 3 or 4 seed team.
Before we get to that point, and thinking more “What-ifs” we need to get through the first game, and that will be against Nebraska this weekend. This game is a little bittersweet as the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers formed as allies this offseason to try and get the Big Ten back this fall season so they can compete for a National Title. If anyone followed the teams social media accounts, they have done a fantastic job of support for one another. When the schedules were announced, and Ohio State opened up against Nebraska, there were several clips from “Stepbrothers” being shared amongst the two groups. Scott Frost said it best though when he indicated that there probably would not be a football season without the efforts of Ryan Day and Gene Smith, and that he is rooting for us in every game…except this one.
I also want to give a thank you to the parents and families and players who rallied in Chicago, and the Horseshoe and their respective campuses to make their voice heard. We might never know how much that impacted the decision for the return to play, but the fact they did it, and represented the conference in a positive way is what makes sports great.
That being said, let’s get to it. Saturday is almost here. Smile.
Head Coach: Scott Frost
2020 Record: 0-0
Location: Lincoln, NE
Conference: Big Ten
Ohio State Preview: Ohio State enters this season after a disappointing finish to last season. Just hearing the comments and quotes from the team, you can tell they have that loss to Clemson on the top of the minds, and even have a screen displaying that final score. They were close to having the chance to compete for a National Championship, and had one of the best teams ever to come through. Chase Young and Jeff Okudah were top 3 NFL Draft Picks, Damon Arnette also was selected in the first round. JK Dobbins was picked up in the second round, and several more Buckeyes fulfilled their dream of becoming an NFL player. There is a lot of talent lost from last years team. but coming back is Justin Fields, Wyatt Davis, and Shaun Wade. Ryan Day has been very vocal that this years team though is one of the best he is been around, and that includes at the NFL level. There is reason to believe the optimism and that is why the Buckeyes are in the National Title conversation.
Justin Fields returns after a record setting first year as the Buckeye quarterback. He passed for 3273 yards with a 67% completion percentage, and 41 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. As a passer it will be up to the offensive line, who could be the best unit in the country, to keep him from getting sacked, which happened 31 times last year. He was a threat on the ground as well, second to JK Dobbins in rushing touchdowns with 10, but had 484 yards on 137 carries. The game plan should focus on him being more of a passer this year, and less reliant on the run with the depth at running back.
And that depth starts with Master Teague, who is coming off an injury from last season, and was doubtful to play, but with the delayed start and the progress he made with rehab, he is looking to be ready to carry the load, after rushing for 789 yards and 4 touchdowns last year. Despite being the back up, he was one of the top 10 rushers in the league last season. Trey Sermon is the big name that transferred in from Oklahoma. He is also coming back from an injury in 2019, but looks to be primed and ready to go. He was one of the first players this offseason to lose his black stripe. Running back coach Tony Alford indicated that we could see a 50/50 split for 1st team carries between the two, and depending on how they perform could see someone emerge as the top back.
At wide receiver, there was some talent lost with the graduation of KJ Hill, Ben Victor, and Austin Mack, but there is a lot of optimism with this group. Chris Olave comes back as the top returning receiver with 849 year and 12 touchdowns from last year. Garrett Wilson and Jameson Williams will be in the starting line up as well, with Wilson moving to the H-back position to fill in the KJ Hill tole, and Williams should bring back a deep threat to the passing game which has been void since Devin Smith in 2014. But behind them is a slew of talented freshman who should see the field often, and names that will be mentioned nationally if they can play up to their potential. Jaxson Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming, and Gee Scott should all be household names by the end of the season, and lead that talented freshman group. Ohio State needs to hold on to Brian Hartline as long as they can.
Replacing three first rounders on the defensive side of the ball wont be easy, but with the hiring of Kerry Coombs and, and the return of Shaun Wade, that should give the secondary some boost of confidence. The linebackers are the strength of the defense this year, and Al Washington moved players around to where they can best be utilized. The biggest question will be the defensive line, and figuring out who can fill in the role that Chase Young, and Nick Bosa the year before, to make an impact. Zach Harrison, Jonathan Cooper and Tyreke Smith are all poised to have a break out year, and should be able to get to the quarterback on a consistent level. Put your trust in the best defensive line coach in the country with Larry Johnson, because he will have them ready come Saturday.
Nebraska Preview: Since taking over, Scot Frost has still not matched the success that he was able to have at UCF, going 5-7 last year, and 4-8 the year before that. He was able to install a spread offense since taking over, and even though it has not translated well on the field, he has the pieces and talent to compete, they are just looking to take that next step forward to contend for a Big 10 West title. With Wisconsin looking to have a down year, and Minnesota losing talent from its big season last year, Nebraska has a chance if they can stay healthy.
Adrian Martinez is the key for the success of this program. he was injured last year and was not able to play a full season. He was still able to pass for about 60% completion rate for 1956 yards and 10 touchdowns along with 9 interceptions. He did most of his damage on the ground though with 626 yards and 7 touchdowns on 144 carries. The Cornhuskers have increased they rushing attack to 63% of their offensive plays, and will hope to use that to open up the passing game with a group of young receivers.
Dedrick Mills returns as the main running back and is hoping to break the 100 yard mark this year, depsite it being a shortened season. He had 745 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, and was used sparingly in the passing game. Rahmir Johnson is the back behind him who only had 64 yards last season, but will be looking to open up his role more this season.
Wan’dale Robinson is the electric playmaker for the receivers and will have to bring up the level of play from the other receivers around him. He had 453 yards last year with 2 touchdowns. Omar Manning and Chris Hickman look to be the other starting receivers, and hope to have an impact. There is a lot of optimism for this receiver group.
Defensively, Nebraska allowed 28.5 points per game, and return 5 of their top 6 tacklers from last year. The biggest concern will be the defensive line, who bring back 2 starters from last year. There is a lot of experience though in the back 7 with upperclassman filling in the spots at linebacker and defensive back.
Buckeye Spotlight: Justin Fields. This should not come as a surprise that the key to this game will be Justin Fields. There have been a lot of reports about his development this offseason, and how he has become more vocal. He was named one of the captains this season, and Ryan Day has spoken very highly of how much Fields has improved. There are multiple sources indicating he is the fastest player on the team. Combine his speed, and a great thrower to the likes of Dwayne Haskins? The nation should be on alert.
Cornhusker Spotlight: Adrian Martinez. There was a small quarterback competition between Martinez and Luke McCaffrey, but Martinez is one of the best running threat quarterbacks in the country. Last year, the Cornhuskers were able to put up 184 yards rushing, second to only Wisconsin’s 200 yard mark in the Big Ten Championship Game. For the Cornhuskers to have a shot, Martinez needs to make plays with the potential from the young receiving corp.
Water Cooler Stat of the Game: 1970. The last time Ohio State played a 9 game regular season (I am including the 8+1 as 9 games) was in 1970. Ohio State lost in the Rose Bowl to Stanford that season, however they were still named National Champions by the National Football Foundation.
Prediction: Scott Forst has been praising the Buckeyes all week and even indicated that they were able to keep in the game last year…for all of 5 minutes. They Buckeyes left Nebraska with a 48-7 win, despite what guest picker Gabrielle Union had predicted, and the Buckeyes proved they are not playing down to their opponents under Ryan Day. Combine the disappointment with last years finish, and the new optimism with getting a football season back after being on the brink of being postponed until the Spring, the Buckeyes should look mid-season ready for its week 1. On top of that, there is not anyone talent wise that compete with the Buckeyes in the Big Ten, and Nebraska is just the first team in the way of the hopeful National Championship run. Justin Fields should open up the passing game even more with his second season under Ryan Day, and there are just too many weapons on offense to be slowed down. The two headed monster of Trey Sermon and Master Teague should open up the passing game to the young talented receivers, which is the deepest talent group on the team. The only key will be how will the defense look after needing to replace 3 first round defensive players, and playing a high safety look with Marcus Hooker playing the centerfield role. Nebraska might be able to make a few big plays, but expect the Silver Bullets to be able to force more turnovers, and win this one before it even gets started.
Ohio State 56 – Nebraska 10
Photo Credit to OhioStateBuckeyes.com