Nebraska Football Faces Off Against Ohio State
Photo Credit: Ohio State Athletics

For Nebraska and the Rest of the Big Ten, It’s All About Chasing Ohio State

July 26, 2021

Nebraska opens fall camp soon, and as the clock ticks closer to the 2021 season, we’re giving brief looks at each opponent on the schedule for the Huskers. Already covered: IllinoisBuffaloOklahoma, Michigan StateNorthwesternMichigan, Minnesota, and Purdue. Ohio State is up next.

The Boring Info

Time: No kick time has been set for this Nov. 6 meeting. The weekend features a pretty heavy slate of interesting games, but Ohio State always seems to draw favorable TV spots.  

Line: FPI gives the Huskers a 13.2% chance to win this game. Ohio State would be an 11-point favorite on a neutral field in the SP+ model. Vegas has not yet set a line.

Record: Ohio State lost only once last season—in the National Championship game against Alabama. The Buckeyes were 7-1 on the year with a 6-0 record before the start of the College Football Playoff. They handled No. 2 Clemson in the CFP semi 49-28 but lost to the Tide 52-24 in the title game.

Series history: These two teams have met nine times and Ohio State has won eight of ‘em. The Huskers took a 34-27 win in Lincoln in 2011, their first year in the league, but have lost six in a row since while being outscored 317-110. 

What This One Means

Indiana head coach Tom Allen said it last week at Big Ten media days, Ohio State is the gold standard by which every other member of the conference is measured. 

The Hoosiers, along with the rest of the Big Ten, are chasing the Buckeyes in every way.

Ohio State is the measuring stick game on every team’s schedule. For Penn State and occasionally Michigan and sometimes Wisconsin or Northwestern or Iowa, it’s a matter of finding out whether your team is great or just pretty good. 

For everyone else, it’s a matter of finding out how far along you are. 

For Nebraska under head coach Scott Frost, the Huskers have looked good, bad, and everything in between against Ryan Day’s Buckeyes. The order has just been a little wonky. In Frost’s first year Nebraska lost 36-31, but it had opportunities late to stun the Buckeyes on the road. In 2019, Nebraska welcomed College GameDay and a national TV audience to Memorial Stadium to witness a massacre (48-7). In 2020, Nebraska opened as random a year as there will be by looking truly competitive at the line of scrimmage for stretches but too mistake-prone.

Ohio State, as good teams do, capitalized on the mistakes and put the game away.

This Buckeye team under Day has managed to maintain its status as one of college football’s elite thanks in part to its unmatched recruiting production in the Big Ten and its ability to win in a bunch of different ways. 

Ohio State was seventh in yards per play last season (7.3) and fifth in success rate (51.3%). They hit the big play through the air (12th in explosive pass play rate) and ran the ball well (6.0 yards per carry) and stayed out of passing downs (19th nationally at just 28.0% of snaps) and converted third downs at an elite rate (49.1%, 10th nationally) and killed you with elite wideout talent or a punishing ground game. 

Justin Fields—now battling to be the Chicago Bears’ starting quarterback—was the straw that stirred the drink, responsible for more than 300 yards of total offense each game. He stood in the pocket when protection was off and delivered downfield shots at the expense of his own safety. He made big plays when Ohio State needed big plays to be made. Only Mac Jones had a better QBR last season.

The Buckeyes have made a habit of replacing elite-level quarterbacks with elite-level quarterbacks over recent years, and a lot of 2021’s ceiling will come down to whether that trend can continue. 

The floor will be pretty high considering the talent on hand, specifically offensively but not exclusively; Ohio State’s blue-chip ratio of 79% is the third-best nationally and a full 12 percentage points ahead of fourth place. It’s just a different game in Columbus.

The running back spot is in good shape with Master Teague III (4.9 yards per carry last season) providing the most experience of the bunch and TreVeyon Henderson providing perhaps the most raw talent. The latter was a 5-star signee in the 2021 class and the No. 1 running back in the country by 247 Sports.

The offensive line needs to get better in a few spots—namely pass-protection on standard downs, Ohio State ranked 74th in sack rate on standard downs last year—but has the right mix of experience and promise. Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere will man the two tackle spots, forming one of the better tackle duos in football. Munford, at left tackle, will be in his fourth year starting. The unit was bulldozer-like on the ground. 

And the wide receiver corps has arguably the two best wideouts in the country at the top in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, and a darned good No. 3 option in the slot in Jaxon Smith-Njigba. They signed the No. 1 receiver in each of the 2020 and 2021 cycles and have one of the nation’s top tight ends in Jeremy Ruckert. In total, 93% of the receiving yardage last season returns. 

It’s a nice situation for a young quarterback to walk into. 

Ohio State has three vying for the job: CJ Stroud, Jack Miller, and Kyle McCord. All have freshmen eligibility in the eyes of the NCAA and none have ever thrown a collegiate pass. 

McCord is the newest, having been on campus for only a few months. Stroud is the favorite to win the job. From the class of 2020, Stroud has waited his turn. He might not replicate Fields’ 70% completion rate or his 9.3 yards per pass attempt clip from last season, but he’s got enough around him to eliminate any need to. 

A big, strong kid with a cannon for an arm, just get the ball to your weapons and limit the forced throws. Ohio State big weakness last season was scoring when the field shrank; it was 100th nationally in red zone conversions (scores on 77.3% of trips) and 57th in touchdown percentage (63.6% of trips found the end zone). Maybe just try to walk them down the field and hope to turn over a young quarterback when the windows get small? 

Defensively the Buckeyes were OK by their own elevated standards last season and might be just that again. SP+ projects the defense as the 38th-best unit in the country. They need to be better at taking away the deep ball through the air (84th in explosive pass play rate allowed) and be a little better at creating havoc (33rd nationally, not bad but the other three Playoff teams were all top-20). If the offense averages 40 points again it might be more nitpicky than anything. This team still has Playoff-or-bust motivations for the new year.

The Guy to Know

Find Chris Olave and pray to whoever you want that your coverage holds up. You can’t consistently send doubles because of the talent elsewhere and you have to constantly change your plan of attack because of how smart he is as a route-runner. He’s a deep threat with good athleticism and good hands who averaged 14.6 yards a catch last season and had seven touchdowns in seven games. The wideout would have been a first-round draft choice in this most recent NFL draft but he opted to stay in school. He’ll provide something of a measuring stick for each team’s top cover guy that draws the assignment.

The Number to Know

Does all of them work? They’re all pretty good offensively. Defensively is different. The two Big Ten sides who got close to toppling Ohio State last season did something similar—throw the ball around. Indiana threw it 51 times for nearly 500 yards and five scores and lost by a touchdown. Northwestern threw it 37 times in the Big Ten title game. Ohio State’s defensive success rate on passing plays last season (47.5%) ranked 116th nationally. With a 20-point cushion at all times that’s a different problem. The Buckeyes open 2021 with Minnesota on the road and then Oregon at home in back-to-back weeks; keep an eye on how those teams choose to attack.

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