It’s been anything but a normal week in Lincoln, but head coach Scott Frost and his players insist they’ve treated it like any other week.
The city, as well as the state, has been abuzz since ESPN’s popular college football pregame show College GameDay announced its return to Lincoln minutes after the Huskers escaped Illinois with a 42-38 victory last Saturday night.
There has been speculation all week about which celebrities will be in town, how big the crowd surrounding the pregame set will be and whether analyst Lee Corso will be putting a giant nut or a corn cob on his head come 11 a.m. Saturday morning.
This is anything but a normal weekend for the fans.
The players and coaches have gone about preparing for No. 5 Ohio State (4-0, 1-0) like they do for every other opponent, but they know this will be their first “measuring stick game” of season two of the Frost era.
“Sooner or later this program’s going to be ready to take on that challenge and overcome the challenge,” Frost said following practice on Thursday morning. “These are the games you want because this lets us see where on that road we are. I don’t have any doubt we’ll get there. We’ll take our swing on Saturday and see how far we’ve come.”
When it comes to measuring the progress of a program, no school in the Big Ten Conference is a better reference point than Ohio State. The Buckeyes have decimated four teams with a combined record of 8-7 by a score of 214-36, and have two players in contention to win the Heisman Trophy.
Despite Ohio State’s pedigree, this will also be a program-defining night for the Buckeyes as well.
Ryan Day is in his first full season as Ohio State’s head coach, and this will be his second true road game at that position. His quarterback, Georgia transfer Justin Fields, is also starting just his second true road game. Luckily for both, they’ll have some help.
Frost said Thursday he believes the Buckeyes are one of the best teams in the nation, and they have NFL-level talent at nearly every position.
While the Buckeyes have proven strength at every skill position on offense, there are still questions about their new offensive line. Ohio State returns one starter from last year’s unit, and added Rutgers graduate transfer Jonah Jackson at left guard.
On defense, the Buckeyes don’t have many weaknesses. Junior defensive end Chase Young is projected by most analysts to be a top-five selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Senior safety Jordan Fuller leads the team with 19 tackles, and senior outside linebacker Malik Harrison is right behind him with 18 and 2.5 sacks as well.
For the Huskers to compete with the Buckeyes, Frost knows that his offense will have to execute at a high level. That will be a challenge, given that they lost four fumbles last week at Illinois and sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez leads the FBS for most fumbles over the past two seasons.
Despite the tough challenge, Frost and his Huskers are excited for the opportunity.
“I don’t think our guys have anything to lose this week but to go out and play,” he said. “This is a really good team coming in, I don’t think a lot of people are going to pick us to win, rightfully so because they’ve got one of the best teams I think in the country right now. They’re playing really well and at a high level. There’s no reason for us to be nervous or uptight. We’ve just got to go take our swing.”
Throughout history, the Buckeyes have not been kind to the Huskers. After Nebraska came back from 21 points down to knock them off in 2011, Ohio State won the next three games by scores of 63-38, 62-3 and 56-14. That trend ended in Frost’s first season.
Facing the Buckeyes on the road last year, Nebraska forced three turnovers and jumped out to a 21-16 halftime lead, but the offense stalled in the second half and a late comeback fell short as Ohio State escaped with a 36-31 victory. Running back J.K. Dobbins stabilized the Buckeyes with 163 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and ran out the clock by picking up three first downs over the final eight minutes.
This year, Dobbins has a new sidekick in freshman phenom Master Teague III. Teague has burst on the scene with 249 rushing yards through four games. After dominating opponents throughout September, the duo may meet its match Saturday night in Lincoln.
Junior Dedrick Mills, sophomore Maurice Washington and freshman Wan’Dale Robinson have developed over the first four games into a three-headed attack that can break big plays, run clock and take the pressure off of Martinez. The trio has combined for 840 yards and nine touchdowns over the past three games, despite Washington leaving the previous two games early with injuries and Mills also leaving early last Saturday.
All three appear to be healthy and ready to play on Saturday night.
With a 6:30 kickoff on ABC, this game will be the biggest spotlight the program has been under since Frost’s return last December. The Huskers are 21-2 in their last 23 home night games, but one of those two losses was a 56-14 beatdown against the Buckeyes in 2017. This time around, expectations are different.
“Everybody knows what type of team they are,” senior defensive tackle Darrion Daniels said about the Buckeyes on Monday. “And for a team like us trying to prove ourselves and for a team to take that next step from being a decent team, to being a good team, to being an even better team, this is one of those opportunities where we have to see it and seize it, then take full advantage of it.”