Nebraska went into Columbus believing it could defeat Ohio State.
It now leaves Columbus just a few plays short of doing so.
The Huskers had one final chance this year to make an impressive statement on a national stage, but instead left with a frustrating loss and two plays going viral for all the wrong reasons.
Plenty of people will talk about how impressive it was that Nebraska hung tough with Ohio State for 60 minutes. It was an impressive feat. There are many positives to take away from Saturday’s game, and it’s clear that this team is continuing to grow up. But at the end of the day, this loss was nothing more than another learning experience in the midst of a frustrating season for the Huskers.
Scott Frost and Nebraska had a clear gameplan to win this game. They wanted to turn it into another boxing match. Most Nebraska-Ohio State games have been fights that usually end in an early TKO. Frost and Co.’s goal for this fight was to withstand that first punch and see what the Buckeyes were really made of.
It was actually Nebraska that punched first. The Huskers received the ball and and drove straight down the field for an early touchdown and 7-0 lead. Frost then had the smart idea of trying to get the ball back with an onside kick and take an even larger lead. Nobody on Ohio State expected it.
The only problem with the play? Caleb Lightbourn failed to execute the kick, and ended up falling down as the ball rolled haplessly one yard downfield. Instead of Nebraska having an opportunity to take a quick two-possession lead, it turned into the laughingstocks of college football with replays of the kick already being circulated across media outlets.
The Huskers still responded impressively, stuffing the Buckeyes on fourth down and getting the ball back. But they let yet another opportunity slip away, as they let Keandre Jones run untouched to Isaac Armstrong and block the punt out of the end zone. The Buckeyes landed their first haymaker, and landed two more quick ones with back-to-back touchdowns to make it 16-7.
Nebraska had its counterpunch ready, though. Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez found seldom-used freshman tight end Austin Allen unguarded for a 41-yard play and quickly drove back into the red zone. But once again, a viral error kept Nebraska from landing its punch.
Martinez was met in the backfield on an option run, and then threw the ball backwards to J.D. Spielman. Spielman was not ready for the pass, fumbled it, and Ohio State pounced on it. It gave the Buckeyes a chance to land their knockout punch, just a little later than they usually have.
Instead, it was Nebraska connecting on the big hit. Sophomore safety JoJo Domann lit up Dwayne Haskins deep in Nebraska territory, and junior defensive tackle Carlos Davis landed on the loose ball. Nebraska then went back on the offensive, with two touchdowns sandwiched around another forced turnover, and had the opportunity to take a two-possession lead after an end zone interception by junior defensive back Lamar Jackson.
Once again, the Huskers couldn’t land the big hit. Spielman let a third-down pass go through his hands and Ohio State scored twice to take a commanding 30-21 lead.
Down the stretch it was a game of inches. Nebraska failed to get that extra yard or catch several times, and punted five straight times. When the offense did get moving again, they were once again stopped a yard short, this time of the end zone on third down and settled for a field goal.
Meanwhile Ohio State got the extra yards it needed down the stretch. J.K. Dobbins got just enough on a 3rd-and-four to extend a touchdown drive, then dove across the first down marker for the game-sealing first down.
Nebraska has two more challenges left in its season, with two games against potential ranked opponents in Michigan State and Iowa. Those are two more opportunities for them to build positive momentum for the future.
Nebraska has now faced three ranked opponents away from home this season, and lost all three games in completely different ways. Their first game against Michigan was a humbling defeat that showed the team that they didn’t even know how to prepare to face an elite team.
Their second loss at Wisconsin was one where they failed to compete for four quarters, but proved they could move the ball against quality competition.
This third loss at Ohio State showed that Nebraska is going to be a team capable of beating anyone in the conference, but it has to execute better and land that knockout punch.
In many ways, Nebraska came back down to Earth in Columbus. Martinez made freshman mistakes, the defense couldn’t get that final push they needed, and special teams made crucial mistakes that put them at an early disadvantage.
Nebraska is continuing to improve in an impressive fashion. While many coaches have preached excuses for struggling in their first season at a school, Frost and his staff have kept their focus on improving week-by-week and they have. The challenge for them now is to continue that improvement in the final month, even if a bowl game is now highly unlikely.
The Huskers are growing up quickly, but there are still plenty of growing pains along the way.