It all comes down to this for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Ohio State Buckeyes. The winner keeps their dreams of the college football playoffs alive…the loser has visions of the Citrus Bowl dancing in their heads.
Sure, they both would still have a chance if there were a complete meltdown at the top of the polls, like there was in 2007, but for the most part one of these teams is going to leave the game feeling like the season is essentially over.
While both teams come into this match-up ranked in the top 10 of the first College Football Playoff poll of the season, both of these teams are coming into the game coming off of a rough couple of weeks.
After struggling with Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue the Cornhuskers played with fire a little too much last week as they lost to the Wisconsin Badgers in overtime.
Much like the Cornhuskers, the Buckeyes have been playing a little too close for comfort for many, winning two of their last three with all three games being within seven points.
TV: ABC (Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Samantha Ponder)
Radio: Ohio State IMG Network 97.1 WBNS (Paul Keels, Jim Lachey, and Matt Andrews)
Online: WatchESPN / Ohio State IMG Network / TuneIn
Series Record: 3-1, Ohio State (OSU is 3-0 in Columbus)
Previewing the Cornhuskers
The Cornhuskers are led by Mike Riley who is in his second year as head coach at Nebraska after a successful stint at Oregon State. Riley currently has a 13-8 record with the Cornhuskers and is 106-88 over his entire 16 year coaching career. While he has eight losses with the Cornhuskers, none of those losses were by more than 10 points.
Nebraska is led by senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. who will be making his 42nd start as a Cornhusker. Much like Barrett has for the Buckeyes, Armstrong Jr. has rewritten many records in Cornhusker history. So far in his career, Armstrong Jr. has the most career passing touchdowns (64) and the most passing yards (8,455) in school history. With another 54 yards of total offense, he will take over the all-time lead in that category surpassing Taylor Martinez. The big negative with Armstrong Jr. has always been his fondness for giving the ball to the other team. In his career, he has thrown 43 interceptions and has already thrown seven this year. For the season, Armstrong Jr. has combined for 2,183 (1,764 passing/419 rushing) yards and 18 (11 passing/7 rushing) touchdowns.
The main target for Armstrong Jr. is, slot wide receiver, senior Jordan Westerkamp who is licking his chops at the match-up against the combination of Damon Webb and Damon Arnette Jr. Although Westerkamp has battled injuries in the early part of the
season, he made his return against Wisconsin and had three catches for 62 yards. For his career, Westerkamp is fourth on the Nebraska all-time receiving yards list and third on the all-time receptions list.
Outside of Westerkamp, Armstrong Jr. has a couple of big play receivers in seniors Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore who both average over 20 yards per reception. The big weapon though has been sophomore Stanley Morgan Jr. who leads the team in receptions (23) and receiving yards (329).
At running back, the Cornhuskers have a terrific senior running back in Terrell Newby and another dangerous running back in sophomore Devine Ozigbo. After only receiving 33 carries in the first four games, Newby has taken control of the Cornhusker rushing attack averaging 22 carries for 100 yards over the previous four games. Against the tough Badger rush defense, Newby ran for 77 yards on 17 carries.
Altogether, the Cornhuskers rank fourth in total offense and sixth in scoring offense in the Big Ten.
The defensive line is led by the attacking style of seniors Ross Dzuris at defensive end and Kevin Maurice at defensive tackle. The duo has combined for 7.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Senior linebacker Josh Banderas leads the linebacking corps from the Mike linebacker position leading the team with 51 tackles and chipping in with 1.5 tackles for loss. He is joined at linebacker by senior Michael Rose-Ivey and sophomore Dedrick Young.
While the front seven has been impressive, the secondary has been the most opportunistic bunch in the nation ranking first in interceptions in the entire nation with 15.
The stout secondary is led by sensational senior safety Nathan Gerry who is tied for first on the team in interceptions (4) and second on the team in tackles (50) and tackles for loss (5.5). Gerry had two interceptions last week against Wisconsin.
Joining him in the secondary are cornerbacks Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu who have combined for four interceptions and fellow safety Kieron Williams who has four interceptions.
The 2016 version of the Blackshirts are fourth in total defense and scoring defense in the Big Ten.
Previewing the Buckeyes
The Buckeyes come into this match-up with most of their questions surrounded around the offensive identity of the team and the weak spots on defense. Most of the time, Ohio State tends to play to the level of their competition so we should expect their best against a top-10 team at night in the shoe with amazing uniforms.
As I spoke about earlier this week, the Buckeye coaching staff will look to find a little bit of consistency in feeding both H-back Curtis Samuel and running back Mike Weber enough touches to keep the offense moving. After a nice balance early, the staff has been unable to get Samuel the ball in the first quarter at all in two of the past four games. With this duo combining for 1,942 total yards and 14 touchdowns through eight games, it is vital for the offensive success of the team for both players to be involved early and often. Without both being involved, the pressure lies solely on J.T. Barrett to keep the offense moving.
Barrett has been the model of consistency this season as he has combined for 2,206 yards (1,675 passing/531 rushing) and 23 touchdowns. Even with his versatility, the Buckeyes offensive coaching staff needs to limit his rushing attempts and put the pressure back on Samuel and Weber to run the ball against Nebraska. The fact that Barrett only has eight less carries than Weber on the season is not something you want from your star quarterback. If Weber and Samuel wear down during the game, lean on freshman Demario McCall and senior H-back Dontre Wilson…not Barrett.
Another position looking for an offensive identity is at wide receiver. This may be even more of a point of emphasis this week as one of the starting wide receivers, Parris Campbell, may be limited or unavailable due to a sprained ankle. Noah Brown will continue to be the main outside target but who will step up this week with Campbell possibly being out. I expect to see a lot more on K.J. Hill this week and he may just be the person to spread the field a little bit as he is averaging over 25 yards per catch in limited action.
On the defensive side of the ball, the biggest question mark is going to be how the Buckeyes adjust their defense to take away their biggest hole; the middle of the field. Right now, the Buckeyes have relied on safety Damon Webb and nickel back Damon Arnette Jr. to cover the slot receivers. They have had a rough couple of weeks so will the defensive coaches stick with them or adjust personnel to account for the most talented slot receiver they’ve seen in Westerkamp.
One way to attempt to fix this problem is pretty simple in my admittedly simple mind. The Buckeyes have three starter quality cornerbacks and rotate them all freely in Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore, and Denzel Ward. Instead of relying on a safety or fourth-string cornerback why not just move Ward to the inside and have him cover Westerkamp the entire game. This may take Chris Worley off the field but I think it is worth it to shore up the inside pass coverage.
The big thing with stopping Armstrong Jr. is to make him think and not have an easy throw to an open guy across the middle. When he is forced to move around and create a play…good things usually happen for the defense in the form of a turnover.
Three Key Match-ups
Samuel/Weber Touches versus Ohio State Offensive Staff
As I’ve said over and over, until the coaching staff gets back to working both players into the offensive game plan from the beginning the offense will continue to struggle. There has to be an in between of zero touches (Indiana and Penn State) and seven touches (Wisconsin) in the first quarter for Samuel.
Ohio State Receivers versus the Cornhuskers Secondary
As shown above, the Cornhuskers have an incredibly opportunistic defense leading the nation in interceptions. As we’ve seen throughout the season, when Barrett starts to overthink things he has a tendency to throw the ball late and into coverage. If Noah Brown and whoever is out on the field are unable to get open, the Cornhuskers could take advantage of the indecision of Barrett.
Buckeye Secondary versus Jordan Westerkamp
The Buckeyes have been killed the last couple of weeks by the slot receivers. Even though he is a converted cornerback, safety Damon Webb has had trouble keeping up with receivers streaking across the middle. Nickel back Damon Arnette Jr. has had the same issues. Last week, Northwestern wide receiver Austin Carr sliced and diced the middle of the field for eight catches for 158 yards. Westerkamp is on a completely different level. If the Buckeyes are unable to adjust, expect to hear a lot from Westerkamp on Saturday night.
The Buckeyes are still in good position to make a playoff run as they are set to take on possibly three top-10 opponents in the next five weeks. Winning out will ensure their place among the top-four teams. Coach Meyer has said over and over the past two weeks they are not thinking about the playoffs but it is in the back of their minds. I think we see a focused team on Saturday night.
I was one of a few people who actually have been predicting the Cornhuskers to be good this year since spring ball. They had a rough season last year but luck was just not on their side…sort of like the 2011 Buckeyes. Nebraska is righting the ship but they are facing an entirely different beast on Saturday night.
I think the Buckeyes play some of their best ball in weeks and pull off a convincing victory against a very good Cornhuskers team. Ohio State wins 27-14.