Nebraska proved something last week by going into Madison and taking the Badgers into overtime. Not just to itself or its fans, but college football at large. The Huskers, frequently dismissed at 7-0, hardly dropped in the rankings after dropping to 7-1.
The same scenario might not exist this Saturday in Columbus. The task is tougher and the margin for good will without a good win is slimmer. Should Nebraska lose, even close, to Ohio State, it becomes pretty easy to look at the Huskers as a 7-win team that has lost its two toughest games.
How can Nebraska avoid that? With a win, of course, and while it won’t be easy it’s far from impossible.
THE LINE: Depending upon where you looked, Ohio State opened as a 15.5- or 16.5-point favorite over Nebraska and the line has ticked up slightly from there to 17 in most places. The Prediction Tracker average has this game trending closer to 15.3, which, given some shakiness from the Buckeyes in recent weeks feels a little more accurate.
THE RANKINGS: While Buckeye fans have found some reasons for concern in recent weeks, it hasn’t been reflected in the rankings. Ohio State ranks in the top five in three of the five rankings we’re tracking this year. The Power Rank has the Buckeyes the lowest at No. 7 and Nebraska the highest of the five at No. 14. The prediction there is Ohio State by 8.4 points with the Huskers having a 27-percent chance to win.
On to the six stats I’ll be keeping a close eye on this Saturday:
1. Tommy Has to Be Better
Obvious, right? The cacophony of quarterback talk is getting pretty loud, but I don’t think there’s a more important facet of this game for Nebraska on Saturday. Tommy Armstrong Jr. doesn’t necessarily have to be great – though Nebraska would certainly take it if he were – he just needs to be good. He needs to reverse the trajectory of the last month.
Over Nebraska’s first four games, Armstrong completed 53 percent of his passes and threw eight touchdowns against one interception for a 153.40 passer rating, which was about 10 points above the line I thought he needed to hit coming into this season. Over the last four, Armstrong has completed 49.5 percent with three touchdowns to six interceptions for a 110.70 rating. That ranks 10th among the 12 qualified quarterbacks in the Big Ten and Armstrong is currently completing a lower percentage of his passes than he did last year. His rushing attempts and yards per carry have also dropped over the last month.
You can explain some of that away by citing tougher opponents, a weaker offensive line and injuries at receiver and tight end, but not all of it. Some of the reads and throws Armstrong was making in September vanished in October. Nebraska needs those good reads and throws back in November, and Ohio State, with the third-ranked pass efficiency defense in the country, presents a massive challenge.
That said, the Buckeyes’ defense is also trending slightly in the wrong direction. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Ohio State’s past three games against Wisconsin, Penn State and Northwestern – all one-score games – is how ordinary they were. None of those teams and none of those quarterbacks played out of their minds just to stick with Ohio State. Alex Hornibrook had a passer rating of 125.98 against the Buckeyes, just a touch over his season average. Trace McSorley (105.38) and Clayton Thorson (106.68) were both significantly below their overall ratings.
With the Huskers’ run game struggling behind the hobbled offensive line, I don’t think Nebraska can afford for Armstrong to be as low as McSorley and Thorson were, which is about where he has been over the last four. The Huskers defense might be good enough for a Hornibrook level game, however.
Stat to Watch: Armstrong’s passer rating (Number to hit: 125.00)
2. The Give-and-Take of Big Plays
Nebraska defensive backs coach Brian Stewart said Tuesday that big plays through the air for Ohio State is what is currently keeping him up at night. For good reason – that would be a tendency breaker. The Buckeyes aren’t very good at hitting the deep ball right now and Nebraska has been very good at preventing those throws after being atrocious at it last year. If that match up were to flip on Saturday, the Blackshirts would be in big trouble.
But if you assume both teams will be basically as good as they have been, preventing the big ground gains is probably more important for the Husker defense. Nebraska’s improvement against the deep ball has come with some leakiness in run defense. The Huskers gave up 5.84 rushes of 10-plus yards per game last year, and that’s up to 6.63 in 2016. That may not seem like a huge difference, but Wisconsin hit for seven chunk runs last week. Oregon, without its best tailback, hit for nine back in September.
Statistically speaking, the Buckeyes run game is better than either of those teams. While it has struggled, relatively speaking, of late, Ohio State still ranks 12th nationally in yards per carry, seventh in rushes of 10-plus yards (chunk runs) and 11th in rushes of 20-plus yards (explosive runs). Factor in how often Ohio State is running it, and the rankings come down a little bit, but not drastically. The Buckeyes are averaging an explosive run on 5.5 percent of their attempts this season, 20th nationally.
I think the Huskers are going to have to be under that number otherwise the Buckeyes’ offensive staff will be heaving a sigh of relief that it’s not up to a struggling pass offense to generate the big gains.
Stat to Watch: Ohio State’s explosive runs percentage (Number to hit: 5 percent)
3. The Give-and-Take of Big Plays, Pt. 2
Ohio State’s defense is mightily efficient. The Buckeyes rank 12th nationally in defensive success rate, 18th in rushing S&P+ (an overall, opponent-adjusted measure) and eighth in passing S&P+. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s offensive efficiency has been dropping since a pretty stellar game at Northwestern.
The Buckeyes are, however, prone to giving up the big play ranking 83rd and 75th in Bill Connelly’s explosiveness measure for defense. Last week, Northwestern hit for 11 chunk plays (runs of 10-plus yards, passes of 15-plus). Penn State struck for 13, which included six passes that averaged 25 yards. The Nittany Lions only completed eight passes in that game, the very definition of boom or bust. Wisconsin, a not-very-explosive offense, also hit for 13 chunk plays.
Nebraska is going to need those, too. A lot of this game is probably going to be minimal runs and incompletions for the Huskers. Ohio State’s defense is just that good on a down-to-down basis. But when Nebraska does hit for a play, it better hit big. The Huskers enter Saturday averaging 10.5 chunk plays per game, 5.9 on the ground and 4.6 through the air. It will have to be higher than that this week.
Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s chunk plays (Number to hit: 12)
3 More to Monitor
Nebraska’s Start Offensively: If the Huskers are going to gash the Buckeyes defense, it’s easiest to do it early. According to Football Study Hall, Ohio State ranks second nationally in defensive S&P+ in the third quarter and fourth in the fourth quarter. Nebraska has been great in the fourth quarter this season. So has the Buckeyes’ defense, meaning the traditional path to victory for the Huskers could be a little rockier this week.
Stay in Striking Distance: Over the Buckeyes’ last 124 games dating back to the start of the 2007 season, just four teams have come back from more than 10 points down to beat Ohio State. One of those teams was 2011 Nebraska, which is the only team over that span to rally from 17 or more points down to beat the Buckeyes. But that was Luke Fickell-era Ohio State. This is the Urban Meyer model and a two-score lead early in this game would likely be death for Nebraska’s struggling offense. You get the sense that Buckeye fans are surprisingly antsy about their team at the moment. It would be a big advantage for Nebraska to bring all those questions bubbling to the surface in the Horseshoe with an early lead.
Turnovers: Yes, they always matter, but some interesting trends to note here. Ohio State has only forced five turnovers over its last five games after forcing 11 in three non-conference games. That’s been OK because the Buckeyes have only turned it over themselves three times in Big Ten play and had zero turnovers against Northwestern or Penn State (though two blocked kicks in the latter were effectively turnovers). Nebraska might be hard pressed to force some turnovers in this game, but more important will be avoiding them. If this game is in the vicinity of even turnover-wise, Nebraska should be in the game. Last week was the first game Mike Riley had lost at Nebraska when the turnover margin was even. Since 2007, the Huskers are 24-1 with just a plus-one margin and undefeated with anything better than that.
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.