The behemoth awaits.
Nebraska football, cut near-hopelessly adrift after a loss to Purdue last weekend, faces its most daunting opponent yet in the form of the Ohio State Buckeyes this Saturday.
It’s an Ohio State team with true freshmen dominating play on either side of the ball. It’s an Ohio State team that hasn’t lost a conference game in years. It’s an Ohio State team that, barring some sort of calamity, will likely make the College Football Playoff at year’s end.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost and his crew knew going into the season that this game was likely a step too far up in quality, and after a bitter string of disappointment, the prospects of the matchup are poor.
Here’s what to watch for when the Buckeyes come to Lincoln:
How long will Ohio State’s starters stay on the field?
It’s a rather bleak note to start on perhaps, but the honest Husker fan will have to accept this possibility as a distinct one.
Head coach Ryan Day, if history is any indication, views Nebraska in a positive light. The Buckeyes and Huskers have shared plenty of high-profile matchups in the tenure of both coaches, despite the one-sided nature of the results. The 2019 installment of the matchup delivered much fanfare on the stage of ESPN’s College Gameday, but the action on the field didn’t deliver.
That game ended 48-7 in Ohio State’s favor.
Ohio State scored 34 of those points in the first half, before rather inauspiciously calling off the dogs. This was perhaps as a sign of respect, though the gesture wasn’t quite repeated in last year’s season opener, a 52-17 nationally-televised drubbing of Nebraska. Still, with Day once again speaking positively of the team, it’s something to consider as the teams set up to play on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff for the second consecutive year.
If any discussion of a win is out of the question, Frost keeping this hammerblow away for as long as possible may have a certain appeal.
How will Nebraska’s defense adjust?
The last few weeks haven’t been so great for Nebraska’s defense.
After impressing against the dynamic offenses of No. 8 Oklahoma, No. 3 Michigan St. and No. 7 Michigan, the Huskers’ defense has found itself in a rut. As noted, the team played better against top opposition in the past, primarily it seems because top opposition honed very specific parts of their respective games.
The unit shut down Oklahoma’s expansive passing game with a soft zone, defanged potential Heisman-winning junior running back Kenneth Walker III and kept the Michigan run game rather quiet up until the fourth quarter.
That being said, the Minnesota and Purdue games were significant steps back for the unit. The Golden Gophers, despite being three running backs into the depth chart at that point in the season, pulled a brilliant performance out of junior running back Bryce Williams, who finished with 175 yards and a touchdown.
Even the rather uninspiring elder statesman, senior quarterback Tanner Morgan, put up a good enough statline against the Huskers -- he managed 209 yards on a very solid 20-of-24 passing.
Perhaps it was the Golden Gophers’ lack of any sharp edge which doomed the Huskers. Well, that argument applies less well against the Boilermakers, which has just a bad offense overall.
The Boilermakers thrived off the strength of their passing game, also carrying the ignominious title as one of the worst run game teams in the country going into Lincoln. This didn’t seem to matter last Saturday, however, with Purdue going 116 yards in total.
This isn’t to say Purdue’s passing game was bad too. Senior quarterback Aidan O’Connell went 34-for-45 through the air for 233 yards, primarily off of quick 10-yard passes and other such casual, intermediate looks. Of those 233 yards, the most damning part is only one came off of a play more than 20 yards.
For a defense that at one point in the season looked like it would carry Nebraska to some dizzying height of success, the harsh example of the last few weeks has corrected that assumption.
Unless Nebraska’s defense fundamentally operates on some bizzaro contralogic — one where it can only perform against good teams — it seems like the Buckeyes will take advantage of a weakened unit. Freshman running back TreyVeon Henderson is one of the nation’s best, and freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud has largely overcome the weaknesses he displayed early in the season.
A good defensive performance will be crucial for a win, but that seems rather unlikely.
Can Adrian Martinez bounce back?
Frost’s era is inextricably linked with the era of junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, and vice versa. Unfortunately, just as it looks like one’s career with the Huskers is potentially winding down, the other is similarly not ending his contribution with success.
Martinez had one of his worst games as a Husker against Purdue. He threw a mere 14-of-29 while throwing four interceptions. One of these almost certainly wasn’t his fault, but the other three are mistakes carried entirely on his own shoulders.
Martinez’s biggest problem remains his accuracy, which has begun to infect every aspect of his play. Though he once had a more-than-competent deep ball, his confidence throwing the ball appears to have nearly completely collapsed.
Martinez’s problem, more than general accuracy, has been overthrowing balls. He can sometimes overthrow even junior tight end Austin Allen, who is 6-foot-9. These problems put a cap on Martinez’s offensive production.
Martinez’s passing weakness is also further exposed by opposing teams learning how to cover him. Though he is a live threat to peel out of the pocket, if Purdue can figure out how to keep him to 18 yards on a full 10 carries, then so can Ohio State.
The quarterback is a crucial part to operations at Nebraska. If the Huskers are to do well, Martinez will have to lead them.