Nebraska got a glimpse of what it had hoped to see.
On a second-and-10 run from Dedrick Mills in the second quarter of Saturday’s game, Nebraska opened up a kind of hole on the right side of its offensive line you don’t normally see teams create against Ohio State.
Here you can see redshirt freshman right tackle Bryce Benhart clear out Ohio State defensive end Jonathan Cooper and senior right guard Matt Farniok seal off the inside on Buckeye linebacker Pete Werner.
This had to be the kind of image Nebraska coaches envisioned this offseason when making the decision to move Farniok inside in order to make room for Benhart. It certainly wasn’t an easy decision. In 31 career appearances for Nebraska, Farniok had made 26 starts at right tackle, including 24 consecutive ones.
But Benhart, a 6-foot-9, 330-pounder blue-chip prospect, was viewed as the future at right tackle. Privately, too, Nebraska wondered last season if Farniok’s strength wasn’t better suited for guard, where he’d play in more of a phone booth rather than in space. Benhart’s athleticism would help out on the perimeter.
True freshmen, though… those guys rarely start on a Big Ten offensive line. On even fewer occasions are they ready-made for it. The last one to do it at Nebraska, Brenden Jaimes in 2017, became just the fifth true freshman offensive lineman to start a game in program history. At the time, he was only the 11th true freshman to play, period.
More: Disappointing Details | Identity Crisis | They Said It, Frost and Players | Play of the Game
Benhart appeared in three games in 2019 and he maintained his redshirt. Nebraska intended from the offing this preseason to throw him into the deep end and see if he could swim.
The Buckeyes were replacing three of four starters from last year’s defensive line, but that doesn’t mean the same thing in Columbus as it does other places. Junior defensive end Tyler Friday was Benhart’s primary match-up for most of the day. He had just 11 career tackles in two seasons coming into the game, but over the last nine recruiting cycles, Nebraska’s only signed four recruits who were rated higher coming out of high school than Friday.
Benhart was facing a former blue-chip guy all afternoon.
And he looked like he was ready for it.
“(He played) really well,” Farniok said of Benhart. “He showed a lot more confidence and he became a lot more comfortable as the game went on. That’s a huge step forward, and he’s only going to get better from there as he gets more comfortable with the game, more comfortable with the scheme.
“He’s going to be a really good right tackle and it’s going to very beneficial to be playing next to (him).”
Benhart had some moments where he got beat with a swim move or knocked back toward his quarterback, but he also had plays that flashed what makes him so intriguing. He’s quick with his feet but sturdy in his base. At times, Friday was swallowed up by Benhart in pass-rushing situations.
He was just like everyone else in that regard—a little good with a little bad sprinkled in.
“We played OK,” Farniok said. “Obviously, we had some plays we want back. We had some mistakes we need to clean up that can’t happen when you play a good team like that. We absolutely left points on the field. If you get penalties on a drive, it’s gonna kill your drive, it’s gonna kill your momentum, and we gotta fix that.
“I think the run game went decent, we just need to do a better job of hanging onto the ball. If you lose the turnover battle it’s going to be a hard game to win. I think we created the right type of movement and got the leverages done, we just need to be better at holding onto the ball and making sure we can keep driving the guys downfield.”
Following that second-quarter run, the FOX broadcast picked up someone for Nebraska yell out “Keep running the football!” Maybe it was run game coordinator and offensive line coach Greg Austin, who all offseason long has stressed his desire to stick with what’s working when it’s rolling.
Nebraska ran the ball on five of the next six plays following the plea. Five yards, then 3, which served to set up a play-action pass to tight end Austin Allen as he slipped between two Buckeyes leaking out into his route. Quarterback Adrian Martinez found him for 26 yards. Nebraska then had runs of 8, 3, and 3 again to cap the drive with a touchdown and tie the game at 14-all.
Considering the Buckeyes closed the final 38 minutes of game clock on a 38-3 run, Nebraska will be focused on some stuff that needs fixing.
But it’ll probably feel relieved to know that its decision with Benhart seems to have been the right one. In the young man’s first career start, he showed plenty of promise for what’s the come.