COLUMBUS, Ohio — You thought that maybe these days were over. Maybe Nebraska had made enough progress in year two under Mike Riley that it could go into Ohio Stadium and look like it belonged. Maybe the bookmakers and betting public were wrong and Nebraska wasn’t three scores worse than Ohio State. The Huskers’ worst loss under Riley coming was by 10 points, and that, at this still early age, was maybe the best thing about this new era of Nebraska football – the Huskers didn’t get blown out.
On Saturday they did. Ohio State had seven points before its offense even took the field, courtesy of a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown, and what initially may have felt like as painful a touchdown as Husker fans could’ve imagined given all that it dredged up about big games and quarterback play and everything else, may have actually been the gentlest. When the Buckeyes’ offense finally did take the field, it proceeded to score on its next eight drives.
“That was real bad and we’re all responsible for it,” Mike Riley said following the 62-3 loss.
Pretty much sums it up. The less time spent on the blow-by-blow the better. Ohio State did whatever it wanted. Nebraska did almost nothing it wanted. End result: 62-3.
“We’re a 7-2 team and outside of Nebraska everybody has doubted us,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “That’s what we are; we’re a 7-2 team right now and we lost in a bad way.”
Taken at face value, you can’t dispute any of that, but college football has always been terrible at taking things at face value. This is a sport of arguments and opinion polls. Perception doesn’t dominate the conversation, it is the conversation.
And perception won’t be kind to Nebraska for a while. Back in 1945, No. 1 Army beat No. 6 Penn 61-0. That’s the only margin of victory between two top-10 teams larger than Saturday’s 59-point margin. That will stick with people for a while.
A week ago, it felt like Nebraska proved it belonged. This week showed just how far the Huskers still have to go. The gap between the Huskers and Buckeyes was massive and you could see it in just how small Nebraska’s margin for error was.
Take, for example, Ohio State’s first offensive touchdown of the game. It was only 7-3 at that point and, after giving up a 22-yard completion on third-and-20, the Huskers’ defense rebounded and had gotten two stops inside their own 10-yard line to put the Buckeyes in third-and-goal. On that play, J.T. Barrett leaks out of the pocket to the left and fires the ball to Terry McLaurin. Nebraska’s Chris Jones gets there at almost the exact same time the ball does, but McLaurin held on. Guy made a play.
Next drive, Nebraska is not yet out of it and forces a third-and-2. Nebraska linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey shoots a gap and hits the Buckeyes’ Mike Weber in the backfield. Weber pushes through the tackle in a backpedal and gets the two yards anyway. Guy made a play.
Those type of plays were everywhere on Saturday, particularly for the previously solid Nebraska defense. The Huskers were in position often enough, there to contest passes, to make tackles, to make the plays that propelled Nebraska into the top-10 in the first place.
But on this night “they came out different,” Banker said. “If I had answers or magic dust I would’ve sprinkled it somewhere along the line, there were just so many different things that didn’t go our way.”
The answer is partly talent. There are only two or three teams in the country with as much of it as Ohio State has and it looked that way. Top-five talent is the closest you can get to magic dust in this game. Players like that erase a lot of errors and make a lot of plays.
But that doesn’t explain how mortal the Buckeyes had looked over their last three games, how Northwestern came into this same stadium and traded punches last week, how Penn State made just enough plays to knock off Ohio State the week before that, how Wisconsin controlled much of its matchup.
Very few people were expecting Nebraska to go into Ohio Stadium and win, but it felt like the Huskers had come far enough, had shown the resolve under Riley to this point, to at least make it close enough to feel like continued progress.
Instead, it felt like the old Ohio State against the old Nebraska again.
“We were beaten thoroughly in all the phases and it really didn’t remind me of our team,” Riley said, adding that this game “came out of the blue” for him.
Husker fans aren’t as fortunate. It didn’t come out of the blue for them, it came from what they had hoped was the past.
Maybe someday it will be the past. That day wasn’t Saturday.