At the outset of its season, Nebraska football has an identity crisis.
At one point Saturday, Husker head coach Scott Frost had a smile stretch over his face almost immediately before dropping to his knees and pounding the turf inside Ohio Stadium. Two teams took the field against the fifth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, and they took turns at the controls.
The first marched down the field with ease. Flew down the field, really. Nebraska needed only four plays on its opening drive to find an end zone that began 75 yards away. There were stretches where Nebraska opened up holes that running backs could have driven the team equipment trailer through.
Good Nebraska had a success rate of 55.8%, a more-than-healthy 6.9 yards-per-carry average, and an incredible 9.3 yards-per-play clip on first down.
The second committed eight penalties, two of which cost two starters in the secondary, gave up eight conversions on 13 third-down attempts (and both attempted fourth downs) and fumbled the ball away twice.
Bad Nebraska won out in the end, which means the Buckeyes won out on the scoreboard. The margin was huge once again, a 52-17 drubbing, but the distance between the two teams was markedly closer than it was a season ago.
“I thought we did a lot of good things and, unfortunately, some of the things that led to the game getting out of hand were self-inflicted things that we can fix,” Frost said after.
Nebraska was heavily penalized. Ohio State wasn’t (three for 14 yards).
Nebraska had two turnovers. Ohio State had just one (and it did no damage).
Nebraska gave up third downs. Ohio State didn’t.
Nebraska followed positive plays with back-breakers. Ohio State was able to stack.
“We can fix a lot of those things as a group,” Frost said. “We hung in with them a lot better than we did last year physically and I give a ton of credit to them. That’s a really good team. But I was proud of how our kids fought.”
When the Buckeyes came to Lincoln in 2019, Frost called it a measuring stick kind of game. Nebraska would see how it stood up against the Goliath of the league. Nebraska was a David with no slingshot in sight that night.
To open the 2020 campaign, perhaps Ohio State would provide another measuring stick moment for the program. This test wasn’t as much of a failure. If the metaphor holds, Nebraska found its weapon this time, it just fired as many stones back into its own face as it did at the enemy across the field.
The Blackshirts stuffed Buckeye runner Trey Sermon up the gut on a third-and-1 from the 13-yard-line. It forced a field goal try following an 11-play drive that began at the OSU 12. Ohio State took a 17-14 lead with 3:12 remaining in the first half, but Good Nebraska had created some momentum on the visitor’s sideline.
Bad Nebraska erased it almost immediately. A delay of game on the opening play of the ensuing offensive possession led to a run for nothing, which led to a sack, which led to a run for a loss. Nebraska gave the ball right back after holding it for less than a minute. Ohio State scored again before the half, and it got the ball to start the second half. “That was the game,” Frost said after.
“When the defense makes a play, when the defense makes a stop, we have to take advantage of that and find a way to get points on the board and answer back to whatever they’ve done,” said senior right guard Matt Farniok.
Added senior outside linebacker JoJo Domann: “We’ve got a lot of things to correct. We’ve got to get off the field on third down. We can’t be making silly penalties. We fought hard, but we’ve got a lot of things to correct for next week.”
But Nebraska felt like it belonged on the field this time.
It couldn’t say the same a year ago.
Did they compete with the Buckeyes better? Senior inside linebacker Collin Miller said “1,000%.” They were ready to hit. They were ready for a physical affair. At the halftime break, the Buckeyes were averaging 3.8 yards a carry on 24 runs.
Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields killed the Husker secondary through the air—20-for-21 for 276 yards and two scores—but Fields is a superstar and he did what superstars do. What Nebraska did for stretches was limit the other stuff.
From the game’s opening kick until the 1:28 mark of the second quarter, Nebraska (a team that allowed 77 explosive runs in 12 games a season ago, one of the 25 worst marks in the country) gave up only one run of 10 yards or more.
“I thought they had a really good plan early on,” Buckeye coach Ryan Day said. “And I thought they kind of had us on the run a little bit early on.”
Nebraska? Really? That’s got to be music to Big Red ears.
But the defense only kept three of Ohio State’s 11 drives from putting points on the board. That’s got to be hard to square.
“At times I thought the defense played well and battled but we’ve got to get more stops than that,” Frost said. “Offense has to put the defense in better situations than that.”
But, then again, that’s been the case now for two years, hasn’t it? Perhaps the most excruciating part of the afternoon was when Good Nebraska ran the show, it looked like things may have turned the corner.
Ohio State is, after all, a national title-worthy football team. Its win marked 13 straight by double-digits over conference opponents, the longest streak in league history. Nebraska isn’t feeling discouraged as it boards the plane to leave Columbus, and Nebraska never let go of the rope when the score ballooned.
“We’re sticking to the script,” Domann said. “We know what this team is made of. We know what our goals are.”
But Bad Nebraska might still be lurking around, ready to take over at the worst possible moments.
That happened Saturday. Nebraska looked strong and it looked sloppy in the same 60-minute window.
So the question that still needs answering after Game No. 1: Who is Nebraska this time around, really?