COLUMBUS, Ohio – If you’re looking to bottom-line Nebraska’s season-opening 52-17 loss at Ohio State, you could start here: Over the Huskers’ first 10 drives in the game, which takes you into the fourth quarter, the three that didn’t include a penalty or a fumble, ended in scores.
The seven drives that did, did not.
Seventeen points isn’t going to win many games in today’s college football. It’s definitely not going to win against Ohio State, one of the three most unforgiving teams in the country of late. The other two teams on that list play often for the national title.
The hard thing to figure out is just how surprising this strange opener following the strangest of offseasons actually was.
Nebraska’s offensive success against the mighty Buckeyes was a welcome sight, but this staff always seems to have a good offensive plan against the best team it plays each year. The 54.4% success rate—a measure of how often an offense is on schedule––the Huskers put up in Columbus in 2018 was the best against Ohio State over the past two seasons. Last year’s 39.6% success rate wasn’t strong but was better than any other team managed against the Buckeyes in 2019, even Clemson.
On Saturday, Nebraska succeeded on 55.8% of its plays. Ohio State was at 55.7%. The Huskers have a history under Scott Frost of being efficient against this defense. So, why a 35-point loss?
Let’s work small to big. Nebraska’s second drive, following a 9-yard pickup on first down, was derailed by a simple false start penalty that took second-and-1 to second-and-6.
“Five yards can make all the difference,” right guard and captain Matt Farniok said. He was referring to that penalty specifically and perhaps that quote should speak as loudly as any from this game.
Nebraska punted and six plays later Ohio State had a 14-7 lead.
Needing an answer—because losing momentum against a team like this is virtually fatal—Nebraska went for 10 yards on first down. (The Huskers averaged 9.6 yards per play on first down in this game. A team usually wins when it does that.) Next play was a loss of 4, play after that was a fumbled snap to Luke McCaffrey. The Huskers’ didn’t turn it over, but the loss of 2 yards meant the 14-yard rush McCaffrey had on third down came up, well, 2 yards short.
Down 10 with 1:10 left in the first half, and the Buckeyes getting the ball to start the second, Nebraska knew it needed to push for a score. The 8-yard gain to start the drive gave it life. The holding penalty on 2-yard run, that would’ve moved the chains, killed it.
The two quarterback fumbles happened after the Buckeyes were more than comfortable with a three-score-or-more lead, but they’re still problematic. Ohio State returned an Adrian Martinez fumble in the third quarter to effectively end things. Martinez has now fumbled 21 times in 22 career games, losing 11 of them. It ended a really strong drive into Buckeye territory.
It was McCaffrey’s turn three drives later, coughing it up at the Buckeyes’ 22. The redshirt freshman more than proved his value over the course of the day, however Nebraska wants to use him. He had the Huskers’ longest run of the day (47 yards) on a handoff from Martinez and one of the two passes of 20-plus yards. McCaffrey also caught a pass, so you could view that fumble, with Nebraska already trailing 45-17, as somewhat academic.
“If we’re going to run our quarterbacks like we do, they need to take care of the ball just like everyone else,” he said. “We’ll address that this week.”
As familiar as this offense moving the ball against this defense has become over the last three years, so have the tiny annoying details that ruin what could be an otherwise decent picture.
But Ohio State demands pristine quality. It is an exacting collector. Only the best will do.
“That’s kind of a pro,” linebacker Collin Miller said when describing the Buckeyes.
The question that will consume the rest of the week ahead, then, is are the Huskers closer to pro status?
That’s always a dangerous thing to try to answer after one game, no matter the opponent. But because the opponent was Ohio State, maybe this is a better measuring stick than the traditional early September tuneups.
The offense put up some impressive numbers against a defense that, while somewhat green on the line and in the secondary, is still stocked with talent.
The defense? Well, it gave up 45 points and only got three stops on 10 drives. But, through all of that there were some encouraging signs there as well, perhaps none bigger than a run defense that offered some resistance. Remove sacks—and the Huskers had three of those, a mild surprise on its own—and Nebraska held Ohio State to 5.4 rushing yards. That’s above the national average, but the Buckeyes averaged 6.3 for the season a year ago (sixth nationally). And Nebraska gave up 5.5 in 2019 (109th).
“I thought we did a lot of good things and, you know, unfortunately some of the things that led to the game getting out of hand were self-inflicted things that we can fix,” Frost said.
Nebraska fans have heard that “we can fix” refrain often, from many different coaches over the last 10 or 15 years.
The first game, obviously, didn’t prove that it’s no longer necessary. There was enough there, however, to hint that it may not be the refrain at the end of the last game.
It’s a start in a year when even that wasn’t a given.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.