Football vs. Ohio State No. 22

Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez (2) carries the ball during the game against Ohio State on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The cycle continued for Nebraska football on Saturday, but with a twist. The Huskers lost by more than one possession to yet another College Football Playoff hopeful, this week No. 5 Ohio State.

Still, the loss seemed to follow a similar script seen in all of the other Nebraska losses this season.

Here are four takeaways from Nebraska’s 26-17 loss to the Buckeyes:

This offense isn’t sustainable

Let’s get this out of the way, junior quarterback Adrian Martinez is playing through a broken jaw and a high ankle sprain. That’s as gutsy as it gets for any athlete.

However, Martinez remained mostly at fault for the offense’s inconsistency. After the first four drives, Nebraska had 47 yards, and 24 of those came on the offense’s first play. That was followed by two scoring drives that took 10 plays and 129 yards.

After those 10 points, the next five drives took up a total of 15 yards. Martinez’s issues stemmed from an apparent timid rushing ability, always giving the ball to the running back on zone reads and not making scrambles on potentially broken plays.

Still, Nebraska’s offense moved through explosive plays. Senior wide receiver Samori Toure hauled in a 72-yard touchdown to give Nebraska its first touchdown in the second quarter. The drive before, junior tight end Austin Allen hauled in a 26-yard catch to set up for Nebraska’s first points of the game.

When explosive plays went away, the Husker offense couldn’t sustain a drive of its own. A part of that is inability to consistently hit throws in rhythm, which Martinez struggled with overall as he went 16-of-31 for 248 yards and a touchdown on the day.

The inability to sustain drives was most apparent on third downs, when Nebraska was just 2-for-13 on third down attempts and didn’t convert its first third down until the fourth quarter. A part of those third down struggles come from a lack of early-down productivity, which stems from Martinez’s inability to stay in rhythm.

Martinez had thrown four consecutive incompletions before tossing a 53-yard strike to Toure that set up Nebraska at Ohio State’s 1-yard line near the end of the third quarter. Nebraska was down just 23-17 after that touchdown drive and its next drive ended with a missed field goal.

Overall, Nebraska had nine out of its 14 drives go for less than 30 yards, including a crucial fourth quarter drive still down just six. Big plays can only do so much to hide a Huskers offense that can’t methodically drive down on opponents.

Defensive leaders show out

Ohio State’s offense, number one in ESPN writer Bill Connelly’s latest SP+ ratings, was held to just two touchdowns against the Blackshirts. The Buckeyes did move the ball with ease, putting up 495 yards of offense but struggled with finishing drives.

That’s in part due to the defensive leaders making their mark on the game. Senior linebacker JoJo Domann led the defense, intercepting freshman quarterback CJ Stroud in the first quarter, but Domann’s greatness was apparent throughout the game.

Besides his interception, Domann had two pass break-ups and was tasked throughout the game to hold a Buckeye aerial attack in check. Domann’s coverage saw threats like junior tight end Jeremy Ruckert be neutralized out of the game.

On top of that, Domann was a force on the ground along with fellow senior defensive lineman Ben Stille. Ohio State freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson, among the best in the country, finished with just 97 yards on 21 carries and a long run of 22 yards.

The Buckeyes mostly passed, but the majority of targets went to sophomore wide receiver Jaxson Smith-Njigba, who finished with an Ohio State-record 15 catches and 240 yards for a touchdown. 

Still, junior defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt had another fine game. Taylor-Britt followed senior wide receiver Chris Olave for stretches of the game and, during those matchups, Olave was held in check. By game’s end, the superstar receiver had only 62 yards on seven catches.

Doubts casted on the defense over the last two games disappeared Saturday, with the defensive leaders bringing out the Blackshirts best all-around performance since the drubbing of Northwestern back on Oct. 2.

Kicking away fourth down chances

Nebraska was a clear underdog yet had plenty of opportunities to win the game. An area where Nebraska especially fell short on Saturday was maximizing its drives, specifically on three different occasions.

The first was in the first quarter when the Buckeyes failed to convert a fourth-and-1, giving Nebraska great field position at its own 43-yard line. The offense then quickly advanced to Ohio State’s 25-yard line before facing a crucial third-and-2.

The offense looked out of sorts on that third down, creating a two-yard loss but still was a fourth-and-4. Instead, Nebraska opted for a 45-yard field goal try from sophomore Chase Contreraz who was making his second career start.

In its first opportunity to punish a Buckeye mistake, Nebraska opted for the safer option instead of gambling with chance. Contreraz missed that kick, but opting for three points from a well-known position of weakness is a head-scratching decision.

Contreraz did make his second kick in the second quarter on a fourth-and-six, but a closer distance from a more comfortable range is just a bit more sensible. The two questionable calls came in the second half, one where Nebraska punted on fourth-and-4 from its own 47-yard line and kicked a field goal in red zone territory in the fourth quarter.

The punt came when Nebraska was down 20-10, which is inexcusable considering this was the Huskers’ best drive since their field goal drive in the second quarter. Ohio State punted back to Nebraska after this drive, but going for it reassures confidence in both the offense’s ability to get the first down or, if stopped, the defense’s chances to get the stop themselves.

The last came when Nebraska was down 23-17 in the fourth quarter and faced a third-and-4 from the Ohio State 13-yard line. Up to this point, the offense only ran the ball, but decided to pass on third down.

The play didn’t go as expected but still, only four yards from a first down and possibly taking the lead is more significant than taking another field goal with a wobbly Contreraz. That opportunity plus not knowing if Nebraska could get down to such a spot like this again should have played a factor into the decision-making.

That didn’t happen, and Nebraska’s third field goal missed poorly. These were distinct opportunities that Nebraska failed to seize, a reminder in the final score: 26-17. 

Some may point out about Nebraska chasing points if it didn’t attempt those field goals, but Nebraska’s conservative football hasn’t worked all season. Why not try something new?

What is the task of special teams?

There are bad units, and then there’s the Nebraska special teams. At this point, anything that happens to this season’s special teams unit could be believable.

Contreraz is the main focus, missing two field goals in a nine-point defeat that could have swung the game. As stated earlier though, Contreraz’s field goal attempts came with Nebraska still leaving potential touchdowns on the board. After all, Nebraska’s fourth down conversion rate of 55.56% is higher than its field goals conversion rate at 53.8%.

The issue with Nebraska’s special teams is it rarely flips the field in its favor, and Saturday was no different. The Huskers had just one punt return going for two yards, while the Buckeyes had four punt returns going for an average of eight yards.

Better starting field position helps a struggling Nebraska offense, who’s average starting field position was worse than starting on its own 25-yard line every time. That calls into question where the focus is for the special teams.

This area of field position has been a running issue for four seasons, and after a 13-yard punt that wasn’t even the team’s shortest of the season, there should be concerns about how Nebraska’s coaching staff could even handle this third of the game.

The Huskers haven’t won the field position battle in most of its games, and this issue is most prevalent within their losses. The field goals are the obvious part of the special teams blunders but there is much more that the unit has done wrong and haven’t been fixed.

sports@dailynebraskan.com