For Nebraska, the fun in Columbus on Saturday lasted about a quarter and a half.
And, to be fair, it was a fantastic stretch of play.
The Huskers’ first two scoring drives were nothing short of brilliant. Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick and head coach Scott Frost’s offensive brainchild worked wonders in the first half. Ohio State was on its toes, the Huskers were handing the ball off to redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey and junior quarterback Adrian Martinez was taking care of the football. It was explosive, and started working immediately.
Perhaps most importantly, a three-yard touchdown run from senior running back Dedrick Mills tied the game at 14 with 8:24 left in the second quarter.
By the 8:24 mark in last year’s matchup with Ohio State, Nebraska was down 24-0. This did not repeat itself this year.
But, to understand this game, there’s a sequence at the end of the first half which is a quintessential example of the Huskers’ afternoon — one marred by self-inflicted wounds that continually reopened as the game progressed.
There’s 3:52 left in the first half, and Ohio State’s offense is faced with a third-and-one from Nebraska’s 13-yard line. The Buckeyes opted to hand the ball off graduate transfer running back Trey Sermon, and senior linebacker Jojo Domann made a fantastic play to stop Sermon dead in his tracks.
On the ensuing fourth down, Ohio State was called for an illegal motion penalty and settled for a field goal instead of attempting to go for it. Nebraska found itself down 17-14 with 3:12 left in the first half, with an opportunity to tie the game or even take the lead in a matchup nobody expected to be close.
Instead, the Huskers shot themselves in the foot.
A delay of game on Nebraska’s first play from scrimmage ultimately wrecked the Huskers’ ensuing drive, punting the ball back to Ohio State with 2:32 left. It wasn’t ideal, but Ohio State did need to pick up some ground before either attempting a field goal or going for the end zone.
However, a facemask penalty called on senior safety Marquel Dismuke set Ohio State up in Nebraska territory. Ohio State still had its work cut out for it, though, as Nebraska forced a third down on its own 43-yard line after senior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle made an excellent play to break up a sure-fire Buckeye touchdown.
Another penalty, this time a pass interference call on junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, gave Ohio State’s offense another chance to extend the lead. Championship-caliber teams like the Buckeyes make teams pay for errors of that magnitude, and sure enough, sophomore running back Master Teague III punched in a 6-yard touchdown run to give Ohio State a 24-14 lead.
Teague’s touchdown was the first score in a 35-3 scoring run that Ohio State closed the game on. Unfortunately for Nebraska, Ohio State extended its lead thanks to more unforced errors.
The Buckeyes returned a Martinez fumble for a touchdown, and Dismuke and Taylor-Britt were ejected for targeting. Overall, the Huskers lost two fumbles and were penalized eight times for 90 yards.
“I thought we did a lot of good things today,” Frost said postgame. “Unfortunately, a lot of the things that led to the game getting out of hand were self-inflicted.”
If it wasn’t obvious already before today’s display, Nebraska and Ohio State are programs eons apart in the college football landscape. Sequences like the ones at the end of the first half are what separates good programs from great ones.
Frost knows that, too. He’s been on championship teams at Nebraska. He was an assistant at Oregon when the Ducks were near the top of the pecking order in the college football landscape, and was the head coach for an undefeated squad at Central Florida.
My point is that Frost knows what goes into building a championship-caliber program. He knows that stretches like the one at the end of the first half can flip games, and he admitted as much postgame.
And while penalties and unforced errors tell most of the story, they don’t exactly tell all of it. Ohio State beat Nebraska by six less points than it did one year ago, but Nebraska competed much better on Saturday afternoon — every player that spoke postgame echoed those sentiments.
The Buckeyes are just as good, if not better than, last year's squad that rolled through the Big Ten and lost a close contest to Clemson in the College Football Playoff. And if junior quarterback Justin Fields can turn in performances like his 20-of-21, 276-yard, two-touchdown masterpiece on Saturday, Ohio State will be a safe bet to return again.
So what exactly can you take away from this game? After all, Nebraska faced a great opponent that is all-but a shoe-in for playing meaningful football in January. Mistakes are almost expected against a squad as talented as the one Buckeye head coach Ryan Day boasts.
And I guess that takeaway would be that, at least for a bit, something was working for Nebraska. What exactly that was? The stretch that made it seem like Nebraska was an equal match for the No. 5 Buckeyes? Frost and his staff have to decide that for themselves and must do so rather quickly, as top-15 opponents Penn State and Wisconsin loom.
To wit, Frost and his staff must also decipher how exactly the wheels fell off. The Huskers gained nearly 200 yards in the second half and gained just 122 less yards than the Buckeyes, but did not have nearly as much to show for it.
While it’s easy to point fingers, Saturday afternoon’s performance simply displayed that Nebraska has a long, long way to go if it wants to compete with the Big Ten’s elite.
As a collective, the Huskers put together 27 solid minutes against one of the best teams in the country. They need to put together 60 if Nebraska wants to be successful in 2020.