The Buckeyes are unyielding on the ground.
They had the sixth-best run defense in the country a year ago, limiting opponents to a paltry 2.98 yards per carry. But Ohio State has had to replace eight starters from that defense, including arguably the best player in the country in defensive end Chase Young. With a Heisman candidate at quarterback in Justin Fields, teams will try to run the ball and control the clock against the Buckeyes in 2020, and they’ll look to test the remade defense early.
Easier said than done, of course. Ohio State doesn’t do lost production the same as everyone else. The Buckeyes see the Bosa brothers depart and replace them with Young. They see Jeff Okudah play his way into a top-five NFL Draft selection and then just simply turn to Shaun Wade as the new leader of the secondary. Because Ohio State recruits at levels only really consistently touched by a select few in the south, they get to bully everyone up north.
The Buckeyes have ended their season with one of the 15 best run defenses in the country six times in the last 10 years. The last time they weren’t? The 2018 season (79th). Coincidentally, that was one of the only times in recent memory Nebraska has played the Buckeyes tit for tat.
Nebraska ran the ball for 184 yards and three scores on that Ohio State defense. It wasn’t efficient in doing so, but NU ran to throw (49 carries against 33 pass attempts) and nearly pulled off an upset.
Heading into their Week 1 matchup with the Buckeyes, Nebraska doesn’t have much to go on. It doesn’t know if the defense will be strongest back to front or front to back. Opening up into Big Ten play means there’s no current tape to look at, and Ohio State’s new defensive coordinator might render last year’s tape useless.
“The biggest challenge in playing a team like this is you’ll have a gap, you’ll have a crease, you’ll have little bits of space and it gets erased really fast because of the talent they have on the field,” Frost said Monday.
So, you’ll have to hit what you see and hit it hard.
Nebraska sounds like a team that wants to commit to the ground game this season.
“I think they’re a strength of our football team,” said new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick of the Husker offensive line.
And the guy coaching up the offensive line just so happens to be the team’s newly minted run game coordinator.
Nebraska might be even more run heavy than it was last year, and last year it ran the ball on 63% of its plays. “I think we’ve been coming together as a unit well,” senior guard Matt Farniok said of the linemen. Nebraska has veterans on either side of the line in Farniok and Brenden Jaimes, and a center it feels can be great.
What kind of impact will Austin have on the run game?
“I think it’s going to be a lot more hard-hitting,” Farniok said. “Hit-the-hole-and-earn-your-yards type of runs. I think it’s just going to be a lot more of a physical game and we’re going to try to own the line of scrimmage and press it for as many yards as we can.”
The Huskers certainly have the kind of bruising runner necessary to pull off such a style.
Dedrick Mills, listed at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, has high expectations this season, potentially his last in Lincoln.
He’ll be the bell cow, coaches have said. For two years now, Nebraska hasn’t really had that for a full season. This year, it’ll hope Mills holds up, as the options behind him are unproven.
“Dedrick’s obviously got a lot of experience and anybody else we put in there, for the most part, is going to be pretty green,” Frost said. “I’m pleased with the progress of those guys and feel like we’ve got a number of guys we can use.”
The scholarship runners are a pair of redshirt freshmen, Ronald Thompkins and Rahmir Johnson, and a pair of intriguing but raw true freshmen, Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott III.
“They are exciting,” Farniok said. “They do a great job of reading the holes and where to hit it. I’m really impressed with them because at first I thought they were going to be a little squirrelly and try and out-run everyone, but they’ve done a phenomenal job of understanding where the holes are, where they need to hit it, and just take the yards when they can.
“They’ve done a great job, especially for young guys, of just understanding that 4 yards on a run is a great job.”
Expect the reps in practice have been whittled down to the top two or three runners. Nebraska needs to get the guys who are going to play ready to roll. It’s entirely unclear, though, who that will be.
The Huskers didn’t release a depth chart ahead of the game, the first time that’s happened in my time covering the team. Not that the piece of paper carried much weight in the first place—with injuries only addressed if they’re season-ending, it’s hard to tell who’s actually where they will be on game day—but the eyes might have scanned to see where a few key names were.
Thompkins would have probably been one of those names.
An ACL tear in high school cost him a senior season and a setback cost him a freshman season at Nebraska. There was a time, running backs coach Ryan Held said earlier in camp, where Nebraska didn’t know if he’d be able to come back at all.
Those fears have passed.
He might not even need to be on a snap restriction.
“We’re going to have to watch him a little bit and make sure we don’t overload him, but really no different than anybody else,” Frost said. “He hasn’t shown me any reason to believe he can’t carry the ball as much as we need him to.”
The question is, though, how much is that?
How many times will Nebraska run Mills, who averaged just under 13 carries a game last year?
How many times will Nebraska run quarterback Adrian Martinez? He’s averaged 12 for his career.
Will it feel like it has to test Ohio State on the ground? Or like its clearest path to an upset is via the ground game?
When the Huskers have the ball, it could be a game of strength on strength. If they can run the ball and keep Fields off the field, they might stand a chance at remaining competitive against a team still ranked fifth in the country.