Through the first three weeks of the season, run defense appeared to be one of Nebraska’s biggest strengths. Each of Nebraska’s first three opponents failed to crack the 90-yard barrier on the ground and the Huskers gave up three rushing touchdowns in three weeks. South Alabama, Colorado and Northern Illinois averaged 2.2 yards on 113 carries.
In week four, however, Nebraska’s defense showed some cracks as Illinois racked up 235 yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries (sacks excluded).
On the first play of the game, star running back Reggie Corbin picked up 5 yards. On the second, Corbin burst through the line and ran 66 yards to the end zone to give the Illini an early 7-0 lead. Corbin went on to finish with 135 yards on 20 carries.
The Illini ripped off six explosive runs for a total of 151 yards and three touchdowns. Their other 80 carries went for 84 yards (2.9 per carry). In total, Nebraska gave up 15 runs of 3 yards or fewer (including seven carries for loss) and 14 carries between 4 and 9 yards to go with those six explosive runs which also included a 36-yard touchdown run by back-up running back Dre Brown.
“We didn’t do a really good job of setting edges,” senior nose tackle Darrion Daniels said. “We went in for halftime, kind of figured out what the problem was and kind of fixed it. But they also had some great backs, they had some pretty good shifty backs with a lot of speed and they did a really good job of being patient and then the first time they see a hole, hitting it. That’s just us having to be more sound with our technique and trusting the play calls. If we don’t trust our calls, those running backs like that are going to make the best of everything.”
In the first half, Illinois ran the ball 21 times for 137 yards (6.5 yards per carry). On their first drive of the second half, the Illini had five carries of 4-plus yards for a total of 61 yards including a 36-yard touchdown run.
After that, Illinois had just 10 carries for 37 yards.
Up next for the Blackshirts is Ohio State, which is currently second in the Big Ten in yards per carry (5.8) and third in rushing yards per game (260). The Buckeyes have topped 225 yards on the ground in all four games and have 13 rushing touchdowns so far this season. If Nebraska has the same kind of defensive miscues in the run game as it did against Illinois, the Huskers are going to have a hard time hanging with the Buckeyes.
“We can’t afford breakdowns this week,” inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said. “I think we were able to overcome that and win in spite of those breakdowns, but you can’t give good teams explosive plays and you’ve got to make them earn every yard they get. It’s hard enough to stop really good offenses, and when you give them stuff it really gets hard. Hopefully they earn everything they get this game.”
Illinois couldn’t beat Nebraska through the air (finishing with 78 passing yards), but the Buckeyes are capable of winning in a lot of different ways. Star running back JK Dobbins (119.3 yards per game, 7 yards per carry, five touchdowns), but the Huskers can’t focus too much of their attention on him. As Ruud said, there won’t be any bad players on the field for Ohio State come Saturday.
“[Dobbins] is about as good as there’s going to be in the country,” Ruud said. “What they do a nice job of is they change up the look all the time on you. They’re going to give you stretch this play, they’ll go play-action next play, they’ll go bootlegs, they’ll go drop backs. They’ve got every play in the book, so it’s a good challenge for our guys. Our guys’ eyes have to be really good and then when it’s time to tackle a good running back, you’ve got to be able to tackle them.”
What makes Ohio State’s offense even more dangerous than any the Huskers have seen thus far — beyond the overall talent level — is the true dual-threat ability of quarterback Justin Fields, particularly in the red zone. He’s carried the ball 34 times for 150 yards and six touchdowns.
The previous four starting quarterbacks Nebraska has faced this season have combined for 129 yards and five touchdowns on 103 carries with 120 of the yards coming from South Alabama quarterback Cephus Johnson who is averaging 2.7 yards per carry.
“He is as advertised,” Ruud said about Fields, the former 5-star recruit. “You never know when somebody transfers, whatever the reason, but number one, it shows you that kid down in Georgia is a pretty good player because for the first few games this year, [Fields has] been outstanding for Ohio State. He can run it, he can throw it, he doesn’t turn the ball over. He’s been really solid this year.”
However, between Adrian Martinez in fall camp and Luke McCaffrey on the scout team in practice, the Blackshirts feel like they’ve gotten as good a look as one can get at what a dual-threat quarterback can do to a defense.
“That’s why we’re lucky to have Adrian at quarterback because we see that look every day,” Daniels said. “They had Luke, they had Vanilla Vick back there today, so he was giving us a good look as well running and making sure that we keep our rush lanes intact and making sure that we’ve got a good pursuit of the quarterback. It’s preparation, so we’re just repping it out. We’ve got the best guys back there to give us the best look to prepare for it.”
Ohio State’s offense is a little different with Fields at quarterback than it was with Dwayne Haskins last season, but Nebraska went toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes in Columbus last season before falling 36-31. Senior outside linebacker Alex Davis said the Huskers stuck with the game plan in that one as they were just starting to trust their new coaches and system.
“By the time that game came, you could start seeing our team chemistry changing,” Davis said. “You could see in that game, we all just bought in and started playing together. I think it made everybody just believe in the system even more.”
Haskins, a first-round NFL Draft pick last April, had arguably his worst game of the season against Nebraska’s defense, but Dobbins picked up the slack with 163 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries. Nebraska can’t allow an encore this season.
“It was good for our guys to see if you prepare the right way, good results happen,” Ruud said about last year’s meeting. “Now with that being said, we still did a lot of things that hurt ourselves that game too. The biggest thing when you play a good team is you can’t beat yourself.
“You’ve got to make good teams beat you and that’s one of the deals going in is we have to make sure we play our football and Ohio State, if they get anything, they’ve got to earn it.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.