COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nebraska is leaving Ohio Stadium with a moral victory it doesn’t want because an actual victory it nearly had was a maybe a couple inches, a couple plays or a couple months away from materializing. Nebraska took a top-10 Ohio State team to the brink and left pissed off. That, more than anything, shows how far this Husker team has come.
Before the game, the senior class had a message for the Huskers. The guys that have been around for a while, the guys that went through the 62-3 debacle the last time Nebraska visited the Shoe, the guys that suffered through last year’s 56-14 drubbing, they felt disrespected.
“The lack of respect they had for us as a team the past couple years, that was a big emphasis for us,” defensive end Ben Stille said.
Nebraska opened the game with a 12-play waltz down the field for a 7-0 lead. It then stone-walled the Buckeyes four straight plays after a special teams gaffe started Ohio State at the Nebraska 22-yard-line.
“I think after those first couple drives they realized it wasn’t going to be the same type of game it was the last couple years,” linebacker Luke Gifford said.
Nebraska knew it would be close late. When Ohio State took a 16-7 lead in the first half, that faith didn’t waiver. When the Buckeyes went up 31-21, Nebraska fought through. Where they would “curl up in a ball” a year ago, tight end Austin Allen says, this time Nebraska pushed back. He said teams are underestimating the Huskers.
Listening to the Buckeye fanbase talk before the game, there was no expectation of a close contest. Ohio State writers didn’t expect “anything other than a four-touchdown L” for the Huskers. They saw the 0-6 record and looked at the last two years of history in this game and expected more of the same. A tune-up before next week.
Nebraska wanted this one because of that. There was also a piece of the team that wanted it for the senior class, for a little redemption after getting embarrassed by Ohio State.
“I played in those two games and we had talented players, but we didn’t have players that cared and wanted to win,” linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “Our team wanted to win this game.”
When Scott Frost came to the podium for his postgame press conference, it could have gone two ways: Frost could have been upbeat because trip No. 2 to a Big Ten power was about 10 times better than trip No. 1, or he could have been frustrated that a win was once again within Nebraska’s grasp.
“We had every chance in the world to win that game,” he said in his opening statement. “A couple breaks here and there, a couple chances we didn’t take advantage of.
“The great thing coming out of the locker room is that our guys are mad. They are upset they didn’t win the football game. The coaches are upset we didn’t win the football game because they came here expecting to win.”
Nebraska had more first downs than Ohio State; it was 27 to 23. Nebraska held Ohio State to 3-of-9 on third down. Nebraska won the turnover battle 3-1. It held a 21-16 halftime lead. Quarterback Adrian Martinez outplayed Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins in almost every way. The freshman went for 266 yards passing (22-for-33), 72 yards rushing and three total scores; Haskins, the league leader in completion percentage (71) and yards per game (350), went 18-for-32 for 252 yards, two scores and a pick.
There’s plenty to feel good about. If the Huskers had put those numbers up a year ago they would have been happy with a moral victory. But this team is tired of moral victories. It took them against Colorado and Troy early in the year because it hadn’t tasted winning in a while. They’re fighting like hell for the wins that mean something now.
“We feel like we should be 6-2, 7-1. We’ve been in all these ball games, it’s just little things that have been beating us,” safety Tre Neal said. “There’s not a lot of things to correct.”
Correct the JD Spielman drop on a third-and-12 third-quarter pass from Adrian Martinez that could have been a touchdown.
Correct the missed protection on a first-quarter blocked punt. (Frost said 10 guys did their job; the one who didn’t cost a safety.)
Correct the whiffed onside kick attempt after the opening drive.
Don’t end five straight possessions to begin the second half with punts.
Turn a Lamar Jackson interception into points.
Correct any number of those and Nebraska is right there.
“I think a lot of the fans, their mentality is going to be, ‘Oh, you guys played a top-10 team close.’ None of the guys on this team came here to do that,” Stille said. “When you come up short of your goal there’s definitely just anger, disappointment in failure. Nobody’s okay with that result.”
Nebraska plays Ohio State at home in Week 5 next season. Things could look drastically different. But this group of seniors won’t get to experience that. “Some of the guy that are helping us build it… Luke Gifford, [Mick] Stoltenberg, Stanley [Morgan], Tanner [Farmer], Jerald [Foster] and a bunch of these guys that are helping us get things right aren’t going to get to see where it goes,” Frost said.
They won’t get a win against Ohio State either, just an 0-3 record. The goal now is to close the season the right way for the seniors; there are three games left, beginning next Saturday with Illinois at home, and Nebraska feels all three are winnable. But at some point Frost’s Nebraska teams won’t be content setting new goals after failing to hit previous ones. At some point, there’s going to just be frustration without a moral victory.
That was the case Saturday against the 10th-ranked team in college football.
“We know we could’ve beaten them. We knew that entire game. We just knew we were better than them,” Barry said. “That’s why it hurts. Not because we lost, but because we know we should’ve beaten them. And that’s a great feeling. That’s how it should be at Nebraska. You shouldn’t say, ‘oh, the No. 10 team . . .’ We should beat them in The Horseshoe. We should beat Ohio State in The Horseshoe and we were this close.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.