Hail Varsity staff member Derek Peterson, Greg Smith and Brandon Vogel offer some final takeaways from Nebraska's close loss at Ohio State.
Turnovers are a tricky thing. Every team wants to create them on defense and avoid them on offense, but how? That's the million-dollar question.
What isn't in question: Win the turnover battle (however that happens consistently) and a team is very likely to win the game. That was especially true at Nebraska through all of its ups and downs of the past decade or so.
From 2007 to 2016, the Huskers were 15-0 when going plus-two in turnovers in a game per bcftoys.com. Nebraska managed it just once in 2017 (not surprisingly) finishing plus-two against Arkansas State in the season opener.
That made Saturday's loss to Ohio State the first game the Huskers had lost since 2007 while being plus-two in the turnovers column. Nebraska was even a turnover short of its expected total. The Buckeyes fumbled six times, four of them forced, and lost two. Based on national averages, which hold very steady year-to-year, a team can be expected to lose 50 percent of its fumbles.
Even at one short, the two fumbles Nebraska did recover were huge and kept the Huskers in the game. Both fumble recoveries happened on the Huskers' side of the field. Lamar Jackson's third-quarter interception came in the end zone.
"It’s huge," senior linebacker Luke Gifford said. "They had quite a few yards but when you are able to get those takeaways like that, it completely changes the game."
They did. In every game from 2007 to yesterday, that turnover margin had been enough to deliver a win. I'm willing to bet that the Huskers won't lose many more in the near future while going plus-two, but from this perspective especially Saturday feels a little more like a missed opportunity.
I came away impressed after Saturday’s game in Columbus where Nebraska fell 36-31 to Ohio State. Nebraska put up 450 yards of total offense for the sixth straight game which ties for the longest in school history. Adrian Martinez recorded 338 yards of total offense, accounting for 300 yards of total offense for the 5th time in eight games this season.
However, it’s not the offense that I find myself most impressed with after Saturday’s game against Ohio State.
In a lot of ways, I think this game was a version what things will look like for Nebraska’s defense. Looking into the future, I believe they will limit the busts and bring in more overall team speed to match up with the athletes that teams like Ohio State can run onto the field. Once Nebraska has more defenders that are capable of wreaking havoc, the defense will be much more consistent in creating sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers.
It seems a bit odd that confidence was instilled in me after the defense gave up 36 points, 481 total yards, and 163 yards plus three scores to JK Dobbins. However, winning the turnover battle 3 to 1 on the road is a big deal. Holding the Buckeyes to 3 for 9 on third downs was key as well. The defense has steadily improved through the season which is something coach Scott Frost noted.
“I’m thrilled that we are starting to get turnovers. The guys are starting to play the football. JoJo Domann has been a real spark for us and is going out there making plays for us. There were tipped balls that we had chances to get. We had hits that are causing fumbles. That stuff didn’t exist for us early in the year. You got to have those things to win and we are starting to get it.”
The offense is going to continue to garner headlines and it should. Moving forward, I’ll continue to keep an Erik Chinander’s crew which is a better overall unit than it was a year ago with many of the same players in key roles.
Nebraska has 35 runs this season of at least 15 yards. It’s got one in every game, even against Michigan when it was held to a total of 39 rushing yards. (The Huskers actually had three in that game, and that marks the season-low.) Nebraska leads the Big Ten in 20-yard pickups on the ground. It’s been a strength all season and on its way toward becoming an established identity.
They had one against Ohio State. One 24-yard gain. The offense produced just five chunk plays (10 yards or more) on the ground, marking the third-lowest output this season.
“We didn't give up a big hit,” Buckeye coach Urban Meyer said after the game. “We had a couple of hits, but not the big hit.”
Overall, Nebraska had 10 explosive plays out of its 82 plays run. That’s 8.2 percent. The Huskers have been held below a 15 percent explosive play percentage just once this season (Michigan); it had not been held below 10 percent until Saturday.
In the third quarter, Nebraska’s offense dried up. The team punted on its first five possession to begin the second half and gained 59 total yards on those drives. Nebraska has had its dry spells this season but if you throw out the Michigan game (most Nebraska folk would like to), nothing came close to what happened in that second half Saturday.
A lot of that might have had to do with the lack of that big play. Nebraska wasn’t operating at its most efficient self but that’s to be somewhat expected playing an elite team on the road. What it needed was a few of those game-breaking plays to loosen an offense that felt a little bottlenecked at times.
Everyone will point to JD Spielman’s drop in the third quarter, what would have been a 54-yard touchdown, but Nebraska had other chances. Running back Devine Ozigbo was a lone tackler away from breaking a big run on several occasions and he couldn’t get past that one guy.
“We have to come up with big plays when it matters.” coach Scott Frost said. “We had chances to put this team away and we didn’t.”
Quarterback Adrian Martinez took the struggles on himself, saying, “There were a couple throws I’d love to have back, there were a couple misplaced balls on my part, things that could have changed the game. Also, my turnover. Obviously, it was a terrible mistake.” He said he needed to play better. Some truth but it’s not the whole truth. Martinez’s first-quarter fumble was a critical mistake but not the critical mistake.
“Sometimes we aren’t putting ourselves in the best positions getting caught in third-and-medium or third-and-long,” Martinez said. Especially against a team like Ohio State. I need to perform better. There were a couple of misplaced balls on my part that would have helped us extend drives.”
Twelve of the Huskers’ 14 third-down attempts came from 5 yards out or more, four came from 9 yards or more. They were 2-for-12 and 0-for-4, respectively.
Nebraska felt like it played well enough to win; Frost said, “We had every chance in the world to win that game.” I asked safety Tre Neal if the team is tired of moral victories, it sure seems like it. “After we go watch the film we see if we do this we’ll be better, if we do this… there’s not a lot of things to correct,” he said.
When they go back through the tape, they’ll undoubtedly find some more of those detail plays that have been a thorn all season. They’ll see something new, though: an offense that hit a bunch of doubles and triples but couldn’t find that home run. Stretch another 10-yard play to 30 and there’s a chance things look a little different. That’s probably a little comforting and a lot frustrating for Nebraska.