There is little room for mistakes when attempting to upset a top-five team in the country.
While Nebraska (0-1) had its moments against No. 5 Ohio State (1-0), sloppy errors helped the Buckeyes pull away to win 52-17.
Nebraska had eight penalties for 90 yards in the game, including two targeting penalties resulting in the ejections of junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and senior safety Deontai Williams. It also lost two fumbles, with one being returned for a touchdown that gave the Buckeyes a 38-14 lead.
“Unfortunately some of the things that led to the game getting out of hand were self-inflicted things that we can fix,” head coach Scott Frost said postgame. “We had too many penalties, they didn’t have hardly any, we turned the ball over a couple of times with the quarterback running.”
The Huskers started hot. As promised, junior quarterback Adrian Martinez was the starting quarterback, but redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey was involved early. On the third play of the game, Martinez lined up under center with McCaffrey at tight end. The backup then motioned to the backfield and took a handoff for 47 yards. Immediately following that play, Martinez ran for a 10-yard score.
“I’ve been telling everyone that our two quarterbacks are two of the best players on our football team,” Frost said. “That certainly played out today, I thought both played well.”
Any excitement the Nebraska offense generated was immediately dashed by Ohio State’s first drive. Buckeye junior quarterback Justin Fields’s first two passes went to junior wide receiver Chris Olave for 14 yards and sophomore receiver Garrett Wilson for 24 yards.
The Blackshirts spurred hope following that play, sacking Fields for a loss of five and stuffing sophomore running back Master Teague III for a loss of one. However, Fields then had a 11-yard run on third down, setting up a fourth down and short. The Buckeyes went for it, and found Wilson for 14 yards and the first down at Nebraska’s 16-yard line. Four plays later, Teague ran it in from one yard out to tie it up.
Nebraska didn’t score on its next two drives after being derailed by mistakes. On second and short on their second drive, the Huskers tripped a false start penalty, which was followed up by a one-yard gain and an incompletion.
The ensuing drive, Martinez ran for a first down to open the drive but had to leave the game shortly due to a helmet issue. The next three plays featured senior running back Dedrick Mills rushing for a loss of four on his first carry of the game, McCaffrey losing two yards after fumbling the snap and him making it up somewhat with a 14-yard rush. However, Nebraska opted to punt, rather than try to pick up two yards on fourth down and keep the drive going.
Meanwhile, Ohio State kept it moving. After Nebraska’s second drive, Fields converted a third-and-one with a quarterback sneak and then had a 16-yard completion, a six-yard rush and a 42-yard touchdown pass to Wilson.
Unlike the first half last year, Nebraska continued to stay in the game. The Blackshirts forced a punt on the Buckeyes’ third drive, and then Martinez led a touchdown drive highlighted by a 26-yard pass to junior tight end Austin Allen and capped off by a three-yard touchdown run from Mills.
That was Nebraska’s last touchdown of the game. The Huskers’ only other full drive of the half started with a delay of game, followed by a run for no gain and Martinez losing five yards on consecutive plays.
Ohio State once again took advantage. After Nebraska’s score, Fields diced up the Husker secondary again, with completions of 12, 13 and 29 yards. The drive only ended with a field goal, however, as the Buckeyes committed an illegal shift on fourth-and-one inside the 20.
After Nebraska’s last full drive of the half, the Huskers committed a facemask penalty on the punt. This set up Ohio state at Nebraska’s 46-yard line, with a good chance to take a double-digit lead into halftime.
Ohio State did just that. Fields completed an 11-yard pass to Wilson on third down, then the Buckeyes drew a pass interference penalty on the next play. They started to have success on the ground to finish the drive, as Teague had runs of 11 and six yards, the latter getting into the endzone.
Nebraska received the ball with 1:10 remaining in the half, but ran the ball twice and took a 10-point deficit into halftime.
In the second half, Ohio State put Nebraska away for good. On the opening drive of the third quarter, Fields scored on a 17-yard touchdown run. Nebraska responded by driving into Ohio State territory, but Martinez fumbled on a quarterback run, which turned into a 55-yard touchdown return by Buckeye junior cornerback Sevyn Banks. Not even halfway into the third quarter, a 10-point lead had been extended to 24.
Nebraska had its last score of the game on the next drive, as a 39-yard Martinez run put senior kicker Connor Culp in range to make his first field goal for the Huskers and cut the deficit to 21.
After that, it was all Ohio State, with Nebraska making some noteworthy plays along the way, both good and bad. On a third-and-14, freshman running back Steele Chambers picked up a first down for the Buckeyes. However, Taylor-Britt landed a blow to the running back’s head, and was ejected for targeting. Later on in the drive, Nebraska forced and recovered an Olave fumble, but then followed it up by being called for holding and eventually punting.
After that punt, Nebraska had another player disqualified for targeting in Williams. This also led to a toe-tap touchdown for Ohio State freshman wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Due to the NCAA’s targeting rules, both Taylor-Britt and Williams will miss the first half of next week’s game against Wisconsin. Frost said he would like to see if there’s any way either of those suspensions can be overturned.
“On the field it looked to me like Deontai hit him in the chest with his shoulder,” he said. “... Hopefully we can have discussions about that, we’ll see where that goes.”
Before the game was over, McCaffrey fumbled and Ohio State scored another touchdown. Along with the mistakes, Nebraska forced just two punts all game.
The Blackshirts had no answers for Fields as he completed 20-of-21 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 54 yards and another score on the ground. Wilson and Olave both finished with over 100 receiving yards.
Through both halves, Ohio State’s pass game was consistent. There was a stark difference in the success of the Buckeye running game between halves, however. In the first two quarters, they ran the ball 24 times and averaged 3.8 yards per carry. In the second half, they ran it the exact same amount, but averaged 5.5 yards every rush.
On Nebraska’s side of the ball, the Huskers’ two-quarterback system of Martinez and McCaffrey combined for 160 passing yards, 164 rushing yards and one touchdown on the ground. Mills was the leading Husker running back with 33 yards, while no Nebraska wide receiver had over 50 yards. Sophomore Wan’Dale Robinson finished closest, with 49 yards on six receptions.
Nebraska played the Buckeyes closer than it did last year, when it lost 48-7 to Ohio State in Lincoln. However, to be competitive, the team needs to make less mistakes.
“When we’re playing really good teams like we will throughout the Big Ten, we have to limit our errors,” Martinez said. “I thought we shot ourselves in the foot there more than a few times, I can’t turn over the football, and we have to continue to execute at a high level.”
Next week, the Huskers will take on Wisconsin and redshirt freshman Graham Mertz, who was also very efficient this week. Against Illinois on Friday, he completed 20-of-21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns.
Especially now that the Huskers may be missing two starting defensive backs for half of next week’s contest, the Blackshirts will need to limit mistakes to contain the Badger offense.
“Day by day, week by week, we’ve already turned the page,” senior linebacker Jojo Domann said. “We’re going to correct the things that need to be corrected and we’re ready to go onto Wisconsin.”