Nebraska football’s boogeyman arrives one week before Halloween this year.
Saturday’s matchup at No. 5 Ohio State is nothing short of a daunting challenge to open Nebraska football’s season. When Nebraka’s first 2020 schedule was released, the Huskers were slated to open the season against a conference foe, Purdue, before games against Central Michigan and South Dakota State. This was supposed to help Frost’s squad ease into a tough home clash against Cincinnati and the remainder of Big Ten play.
The current iteration of Nebraska’s schedule does anything but ease Frost’s squad, with a nine-game, no-bye, conference-only regular season. Nebraska’s gauntlet of a first-half schedule opens with the Buckeyes who, aside from a close matchup in 2018 and a Nebraska upset victory in 2011, have dominated the Huskers.
Ohio State’s most recent thrashing of Nebraska came last season, as the Buckeyes embarrassed Frost’s squad 48-7 in front of a nationally televised audience. Then-sophomore Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields shined in last year’s matchup, throwing for 212 yards and three touchdowns, while adding 72 of the Buckeyes’ 368 total rushing yards and a score on the ground.
Fields’ fellow sophomore quarterback on the other sideline did not find as much success. Adrian Martinez tossed three first-half interceptions against a fearsome Buckeye defensive unit and totaled just 47 passing yards all game. Martinez’s first-half struggles allowed Ohio State to race out to a 38-0 halftime lead and coast in the second half.
Despite the fact that last year’s blowout is almost certainly lingering in the minds of returning Husker players and coaches, Frost said that his players are excited to challenge a team of Ohio State’s caliber and that his team needs to respond better to the ebbs and flows of the game.
“They know the test in front of them. So, I'm anxious to see their response when inevitably Ohio State makes a play or two on us and hits us in the mouth and scores on us,” Frost said in a press conference on Thursday.
Frost said that no matter what happens over the course of Saturday’s game, he wants to see his team play without fear and “respond the right way” during this weekend’s contest.
Even with his struggles against Ohio State in 2019, Martinez knows a thing or two about hanging with the Buckeyes on the road. In 2018, he led Nebraska back from a 16-7 first quarter deficit in Columbus to take a 21-16 halftime lead.
Nebraska’s upset bid over the then-No. 8 Buckeyes ultimately fell short. Martinez, however, starred, completing 22-of-33 passes for 266 yards and one touchdown. He added 72 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
And, aside from senior tight end Jack Stoll and junior tight end Austin Allen, Martinez is one of the most experienced offensive pieces that played in the Buckeyes’ 36-31 victory two years ago. Stoll and Allen both caught passes in that contest, but they are the only skill position players on the roster that recorded either a catch or carry in the 2018 matchup.
The Husker wide receiver room, in particular, is filled with a lot of new faces that could make an impact in Saturday’s game. Junior wide receiver Kade Warner and sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson are the two most experienced receivers in the group, and both figure to be on the field plenty in the season-opener.
Behind them, though, there are some question marks. Frost said that he “didn’t know” if the offense would have the services of talented JUCO-transfer wide receiver Omar Manning against the Buckeyes, but did hint at the fact that several of Nebraska’s younger wide receivers could see some action.
“There's certainly a lot of new guys that we're trying to bring along. [Freshman wide receivers] Alante Brown, Marcus Fleming and Zavier Betts have all done really good things for us,” Frost said. “So, we're just going to have to use a mix of all those new guys as much as they're ready with some of the veterans that have been in the program longer."
The Husker offense may improve in 2020 and could even benefit from some new faces at skill positions, but in order to find success against Ohio State, two things have to happen.
First, Nebraska has to win the time of possession battle. In last year’s blowout, Ohio State had the ball for over 13 more minutes than Nebraska did. However in the 2018 contest when the Huskers hung with the Buckeyes, Nebraska had the ball for just over seven more minutes than Ohio State.
In order to replicate 2018’s gameplan on Saturday, Martinez has to limit his turnovers, while senior running back Dedrick Mills and redshirt freshman Ronald Thompkins need to be fed the ball early and often. Devine Ozigbo carried the ball 20 times in the 2018 game, and one would guess that Frost has a similar role lined up for Mills on Saturday — something the Waycross, Georgia, native says he relishes.
“I feel honored to be called the bell cow [running back] of the team,” Mills said in a press conference on Tuesday.
Secondly Nebraska must limit big plays — on both ends of the ball. Ohio State’s defense is talented. Sophomore edge rusher Zach Harrison is the next name on a long list of elite Buckeye pass rushers. He and senior cornerback Shaun Wade are talented enough to flip the momentum of a game by themselves. In addition to Martinez limiting critical mistakes, Nebraska’s offensive line must find a way to minimize Harrison’s impact while keeping a clean pocket.
When Ohio State has the ball, it has a variety of ways to punish opposing defenses. Even if a team slows down the Buckeyes’ talented running back duo of graduate transfer Trey Sermon and sophomore Master Teague III, Fields can torch defenses with his legs, or sling it to junior wide receiver Chris Olave. Ohio State has a deep, talented and athletic offense — an offense that could create matchup problems all over the field on Saturday.
If Nebraska hopes to slow down the Buckeye offense, its front seven must have a strong outing. Senior defensive lineman Ben Stille and senior linebackers Jojo Domann and Collin Miller will need to step up and create havoc in Ohio State’s backfield.
Squaring off with Ohio State to open the season is no easy task, but it’s clear that it’s a task that Frost and his players want to take advantage of.
“Listen, we could complain about a lot about a lot of things right now,” Frost said. “But our guys are just excited that they're going to be playing.”