There were about 9 minutes left in the third quarter and Nebraska had just recently ended Ohio State’s 97-0 scoring run. That was dating back to last year, of course. The Buckeyes scored the final 55 points in the game in Columbus a year ago and the first 42 in Lincoln on Saturday night before quarterback Tanner Lee connected with JD Spielman for a 77-yard touchdown.
Ohio State got the ball back and started moving the ball back downfield with the sort of certainty only the killer in the first hour of a slasher flick gets to enjoy. No need to hurry, we know how this ends. It’s in the script.
And then there was a gust of wind. Before one of the Buckeyes’ plays, the ball, already placed for the next snap, blew away, rolling right along the Huskers’ 40-yard line.
It didn’t disrupt the Buckeyes’ touchdown drive, their seventh on the night in as many tries. It did, however, remind me of a tumbleweed. That’s another great movie trope, the universal sign of desolation. Nothing happening here, nothing to see.
Memorial Stadium wasn’t quite a ghost town at that point – a sellout crowd had shrunk to spring-game size shortly after halftime, which is still pretty good – but there wasn’t much happening, not a lot to see. Not from the Huskers, at least.
The only thing surprising about the 56-14 loss was that it wasn’t surprising at all, and that might be the most damning part of what has to be the nadir for this current era of Nebraska football. There have been bad losses before. Colorado in 2001 had more at stake. Wisconsin in 2012 was more shocking. Purdue in 2015 had more shame. But in terms of first kick-to-final-gun dominance it’s hard to think of anything that compares.
“It certainly does paint a picture of where you have to go if you really want to do what everybody wants to do here,” Mike Riley said.
It certainly did.
Ohio State had 41 first downs. The NCAA record is 45. Eight of the Buckeyes’ nine drives on Saturday ended in touchdowns. Last year it was eight-of-11 with two others ending in field goals. In two years, Nebraska has stopped Ohio State from scoring once. The other two drives without points ended when the games did.
This is the upper echelon of modern-day college football, and how Saturday looked is how far away Nebraska is from that. We can talk about how that’s happened or why it’s happened, but we’ve been talking about things like that in this state for a decade or more now.
What might be more valuable is to wallow in it a little bit. Let some of the scare stats sink in. Just stop and think about the gulf between those two programs. Perhaps part of Nebraska’s trouble over the past 10 or 15 years, part of the reason it’s no longer a contemporary of Ohio State, is that it never really bottomed out. Five-win seasons were tough, sure, but maybe they weren’t bad enough to force a real top-down reckoning.
It feels like we’re there now. Rumors are flying that Nebraska could be ready to announce its new athletic director in the next few days. He or she can start the new gig with a close consideration of what happened on Saturday. The job has a lot of appeal, but the current standing of the football program isn’t one of them.
And that, of course, will be job number one for the new person in town: How are we fixing the football program? There probably isn’t any easy answer to that question, but Nebraska needs someone with a plan.
It also probably shouldn't be the AD's direct responsibility either, but the evidence that Riley is that person is hard to find at the moment. After stumbling to a 6-7 season in year one, Nebraska started 2016 7-0. Since then the Huskers are 5-8 with wins over Arkansas State, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota and Rutgers.
The team is “going to expect me and the coaches to have something for them Monday that they can use to have some real confidence going forward that we’re going to go win,” Riley said.
That’s a more than fair expectation, but there’s no indication there that Riley knew what that “something” would be. I guess we’ll see in two weeks in West Lafayette.
A lot may have changed with Nebraska athletics by then. There should at least be someone new in charge and then things will get really interesting. The climb back from bottoming out against Ohio State truly starts there. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but they used to be equals.
Still are if you just look far enough back. The Buckeyes’ win on Saturday was their 892nd. It moved Ohio State into a tie for fourth all-time.
Tied with Nebraska.