Need a reason to feel encouraged following the clubbing in Columbus? Try this one: With six minutes left in the third quarter, this was still a football game. It was a two score game with only 21 minutes left to play despite the fact that Nebraska had given away 14 points on turnovers and the defense had given up a touchdown on five consecutive drives. Even after all of that, it was still an 11-point game.
Then Corey “Philly” Brown took a punt 76-yards for a touchdown and it was no longer a game. Unlike the previous week, Nebraska couldn’t overcome the mistakes this time.
Now here’s a reason to feel discouraged: After sitting down for our weekly film session it was apparent that Nebraska’s problems aren’t easily confined to one area. There’s no simple hole to fix, there are many. On some plays the Huskers’ talent deficit was deadly. On others it was mental mistakes or scheme breakdowns.
Here are five plays that best illustrate how the game got away on Saturday. (Annoying highlight clip music alert on the video below.)
1. 1st Quarter, 8:40 (YT: 0:17), Roby 41-yard INT return for a TD: Nebraska put itself in a bad spot with two unsuccessful running plays to set up third-and-10 from the Buckeyes’ 31. Quincy Enunwa ran a simple out at the marker and Bradley Roby – who Urban Meyer called a potential first-round pick this week and graded out at 95 on a scale of 100 – played it perfectly. Martinez was asked to make an NFL-caliber throw and he didn’t. There was no chance for a completion here but, because the ball was thrown slightly behind Enunwa, Roby was able to pounce on it and take it all the way back.
Should Martinez be asked to make this throw? That’s an emphatic “no.” Should he be able to recognize it’s well covered, pull it down, and live to fight another day? That’s an emphatic “yes.”
2. 1st Quarter, 7:31, Burkhead 73-yard run: Nebraska has just picked up the first 1st down of the game, for either team, and the call is a simple zone running play to the right out of the shotgun. Rex Burkhead, savvy veteran that he is, does what he’s supposed to do on this play – read the defense. Seeing that Ohio State pursued quickly on the action to the right, Burkhead takes a quick hop back to the left and finds a seam thanks to Kyler Reed, out of the h-back spot, coming back across the formation to get a cut block on the backside defensive end.
From there, Burkhead just makes a play. After finding an opening on the weak side, he bounces it back to the strong side – the defense has now had to stop and change direction twice in the span of about three seconds – and takes it for a career-long 73-yards.
Nebraska has talented backs behind Burkhead. Maybe good enough to survive, even, if Burkhead’s injury is serious. But if you want to know what you miss with him out of the game, this run is it. Extraordinary vision and smarts. Of the many amazing runs Burkhead has had at Nebraska, this one deserves to rank near the top.
3. 2nd Quarter, 11:59 (YT: 0:41), Miller 72-yard run: This one changed the momentum in a hurry. Braxton Miller is very, very dangerous. Nobody disputes that, but here’s how a simple zone read play turns into a game-changing chunk play. Miller rides running back Carlos Hyde for a while on this one, before keeping it and taking it through the middle of the defense. P.J. Smith is in position to stop this and make it an 8-yard gain. Keeping in mind that it’s very, very hard to tackle Miller in the open field, Smith doesn’t make it any easier on himself. He waits for Miller to get to him rather than attacking. When he breaks down for the tackle, his feet are wider than his shoulders meaning he’s essentially stuck in the mud. Miller can go either way.
He actually chooses to go back towards Nebraska’s help but both Alonzo Whaley and Daimion Stafford overrun Miller’s outside hip – some coaches use the ear hole as the target – and it’s off to the races from there. This wasn’t a scheme breakdown, it was technique. The Huskers had three chances to stop this play and didn’t convert any of them.
4. 2nd Quarter, 9:51 (YT: 1:02), Roby INT: Nebraska still had the lead at this point, but Martinez’s second interception really got the freight train rolling for Ohio State. This was a third-and-5 from the Ohio State 21 and Nebraska again was looking for a simple route – this time a curl – at the marker.
After the game Martinez would say that Kenny Bell was bumped off his route by Roby, which is true, but the bigger issue here is the read. Ohio State’s safety on that side is lined up 14-yards off the ball and is clearly providing deep help. Before the snap, a quarterback needs to recognize what that means for his planned curl route on that side. With a deep safety behind him, Roby can be very aggressive on any routes in front of him and he was. The result was an interception and, three plays later, the Buckeyes had the lead. Again the blame is shared. Martinez could have recognized what he was throwing into and chose to go somewhere else. He also could have been put in a better position for success.
5. 2nd Quarter, 0:31 (YT: 2:11), Miller 31-yard TD run: This one was simply a numbers game. Facing fourth-and-1 from Nebraska’s 31, Ohio State comes out in trips left and Nebraska puts four guys to that side in a box formation to cover the receivers and the flat. If you draw a horizontal line straight through the center at that point, the Huskers have four players on the bottom half of the field: a defensive tackle and end, a cornerback, and P.J. Smith cheated all the way down to offer run support.
Ohio State uses its right tackle and pulling left guard on that side as well as a wide receiver, to block the quarterback counter to the short side. Miller fakes to Hyde who comes across as the Buckeye’s fourth blocker. Do the math now and it’s four-on-four but Miller still has the ball and he runs right between Jason Ankrah, who crashed down making the tackle’s seal block easy, and Smith who was handled with ease by Hyde. Miller’s too fast for any help to come and the Buckeyes have a two-score lead headed into halftime.
You’ll notice that all of the above plays happened in the first half. The second half offered much of the same for Nebraska – bits of success overwhelmed by larger chunks of busts and misses.
If the goal here is to understand how last Saturday happened, just catalogue the mistakes above. On play No. 1, a bad read by Martinez combined with a route that offered no margin for error resulted in a touchdown. On play No. 3, technique breakdowns, and perhaps talent, resulted in a momentum-shifting run for Miller. On play No. 4, there’s another questionable read by Martinez, a questionable decision to ask Martinez to make that read, and, frankly, Bell getting outmuscled by Roby. On play No. 5, Ohio State simply outschemes Nebraska, putting more people on the short side of the field than the Huskers have tacklers.
So what does Nebraska need to fix? I’m not sure anyone has a great answer to that right now, but there are plenty of holes to fill. The talent level isn’t going to get better mid-season. The technique can but there are still times where players won’t make plays they’re physically incapable of making. On a play-by-play basis, teams are going to get outschemed too. Every team does at least a couple of times. The coach on the other sidelines is a millionaire as well.
The one certainty here is turnovers. Nebraska is capable of outscoring a lot of teams – maybe every team left on the schedule – but only if the Huskers avoid giving up cheap points. The fumbling issue isn’t new, but Nebraska might seriously need to look at limiting the passing game.
The Huskers did that in 2009. After throwing seven interceptions over the first half of the season that year, and four in back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and Iowa State, Nebraska won the next five straight relying on the run. Over that stretch, the Huskers had one interception before reaching the Big 12 title game.
A run to Indianapolis could require a similar back to basics approach.