Ohio State visited Lincoln on Saturday looking to get the offense back on track after some red zone struggles against Penn State. The Huskers have a statistically good defense in the red zone but have struggled at times defending other areas of the field. That’s a longwinded way of saying that Nebraska generally may give up yards but not a lot of points.
Here are the things that had me punching metaphorical walls against the Huskers. Hey, I need to type at my job, so I can’t be punching real walls.
Not Gonna Run = Ain’t No Fun
When the forward pass became legal, some coaches decided that that’s all a team should ever do. That was never a problem with Ryan Day before, but it was against the Huskers on Saturday. The game had been underway for two hours in real time before the Buckeyes ran on consecutive plays. In fact, they ran three straight times and picked up a first down. Day decided he’d have no more of that nonsense and the wacky, pass-happy play calling continued. The dumb part of that is TreVeyon Henderson was picking up four yards just about every touch early in the game. By not trying to run often, Ohio State became predictable at times when they chose to do so and the offensive line couldn’t get into a rhythm.
Ohio State called an option run on third down on the first possession of the game, which seemed strange for multiple reasons. The Buckeyes don’t use a lot of quarterback runs and CJ Stroud kept the ball on the play, was stopped short of the yardage to make, and then the Buckeyes failed on fourth down (more on that below). The Nebraska defense sees that type of play over and over daily in practice, so it’s an odd opponent to use that particular play against. Even though it had a chance for success with a pitch, the likelihood they’d sniff that out was high.
Now, about that fourth-down play…
Ohio State took a shot down the field on fourth-and-short, but Jeremy Ruckert dropped what could have been a big play. While the defensive back deserves credit for getting his hand in there initially to prevent a clean catch, the ball hung up in the air, giving Ruckert another shot at it. The tight end pulled the ball to his body but wasn’t able to secure it with his second hand while going to the ground. The impact jarred the ball loose, turning it over on downs. That all-important second hand on the ball was close to securing it but he couldn’t quite get it into position.
The second OSU drive ended in an interception by JoJo Domann which likely prevented Ohio State from putting points on the board early with the turnover. Stroud rolled right and could have gained a few yards — maybe four — by running, but he was under no pressure, so he did what he’s supposed to do and kept his eyes downfield. He was perhaps not on the same page as Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who didn’t turn around, appearing to continue working down the field, and by the time he took a look back it was too late to prevent the turnover.
Third Drive Follies
After another productive run by Henderson on first down (gaining four yards) on the third OSU possession, Day again forgot that running the ball is an important part of football. Stroud didn’t set his feet on second down and threw short of Smith-Njigba on second down. On third down, Stroud scrambled left and threw the ball away with Domann closing and two more defensive backs near the line to make. Folks in my timeline were complaining about Stroud’s reluctance to run, but on that play, he wasn’t making the first down and likely would have taken a big hit from Domann.
Don’t Answer Me
Ohio State finally found the end zone in the second quarter on a Stroud pass to Chris Olave. At 10-0, the Buckeyes had a chance to seize complete control with a stop and another score. But the defense went back to bad habits on the ensuing drive, with soft coverage in the middle, giving Adrian Martinez some easy completions as the Huskers moved right down the field. Nebraska helped Ohio State with a run on third-and-long, so the Buckeyes got a stop, but the Huskers got on the board and cut it back to a one-score game with a field goal. The defense had been outstanding to that point in the game and when the Buckeyes had a chance to tighten the vice on the hosts, it couldn’t hold.
I Said Don’t Answer Me!
Smith-Njigba took a short route 75 yards for a touchdown after the Nebraska field goal to seemingly give the Buckeyes control of the game again. But the defense from the first few weeks of the season showed up on the ensuing Cornhusker drive. Lathan Ransom got isolated — and burned badly — on the second play after a first-down stop. Samori Toure caught a simple pass and took it the distance on second down on an embarrassingly bad play. FOX analyst Joel Klatt had lauded Ohio State for keeping the Cornhuskers in front of them and not allowing big plays just seconds before the snap, executing a perfect announcer jinx. I swear I knocked, but my computer desk isn’t made of real wood, and I simply didn’t have time get to some actual wood for the requisite knocking.
Giving up points after a score is a worrisome trend that has been a problem all year.
Nebraska was forced to punt in the final minute of the second quarter from deep within their own territory. For some reason, Ohio State brought no pressure on the punter and opted to set up a return that never happened due to the punt going out of bounds. Earlier in the game, Marvin Harrison Jr. had come close to blocking one, but in this situation, which should have been the perfect time to come after the punter, the Buckeyes curiously decided not to do it. The Buckeyes ran out of time before the half at the edge of field goal range.
Hold Up a Minute
Ohio State got another key third-down stop when Martinez was pressured on a throw-back screen that fell incomplete. But the Cornhuskers got new life on a holding call on Steele Chambers, giving them a fresh set of downs. Chambers made contact with the intended receiver behind the line of scrimmage while trying to slip inside the blocker. He lost his balance while cutting underneath but it’s perhaps a stretch to call what he did “holding.” It turned out to be a huge call, because…
Making a Big Play Bigger
…Nebraska took advantage of the new set of downs with a completion downfield on the next play. Ohio State compounded the issue by missing multiple tackles and allowing the Cornhuskers to get nearly to the end zone. They got there on the next play on a Martinez run. It wasn’t the only example of poor tackling on the day by the OSU defense. The Buckeyes weren’t nearly surehanded enough on that side of the ball. Most of the day it wasn’t costly, but on that play, it turned field goal range into an eventual touchdown.
The Boy Scouts are prepared, but Ohio State’s offense…not so much. The Buckeyes took a delay penalty on the first play of their next offensive drive after allowing the touchdown. If there’s one play that should never be delayed, it’s the first one. Have the play call ready, get on the field, and snap the dang ball.
The Pick II
When you throw on nearly every down, sometimes the other team is good at guessing that you’ll pass and can get defenders in your face. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Nebraska got pressure up the middle on Stroud out of the TV timeout. The OSU quarterback scrambled to his right. With a defender practically on top of him, Stroud tried to throw deep, but his pass was underthrown by inches, and those inches were just enough to allow Myles Farmer to get his hands on the ball, intercepting it and giving the Huskers an opportunity on offense to drive down and take the lead. They were unable to do it, but the chance was there. That bad play happened on a first down pass attempt. The previous sentence is a classic example of foreshadowing.
Ohio State was doing a good job of moving the ball, taking time off the clock, and even running the football on its last full offensive possession. But after reaching the Nebraska 34-yard line with the clock running, the Buckeyes inexplicably called yet another pass play on first down. A blitzer got to Stroud and stripped the ball, which bounced sideways across the field. It seemed that disaster had struck and OSU fans watching on TV were likely having nightmarish visions of a defensive back entering their picture, scooping up the ball, and running for a go-ahead touchdown. Thankfully, Luke Wypler fell on the ball before a Cornhusker could get to it, and it was merely second-and-19 instead of a Nebraska score. That decision to throw when the team had finally started to run the ball (and do it well) was coaching malpractice by Day. Three runs might or might not have resulted in a game-sealing first down, while taking all of Nebraska’s timeouts off the clock. The Buckeyes were able to accomplish take those anyway due to a pair of short completions that were no less risky. Noah Ruggles nailed the game-sealing field goal to let everyone breathe easier.
Missed it by That Much
Smith-Njigba finished just 13 yards short of tying the school record for receiving yards in a game and 14 from breaking it. His 240 yards were second only to Terry Glenn’s 253 against Pittsburgh in 1995. It was a huge game by JSN, and it’s too bad he wasn’t rewarded with a record for a tremendous day. To see him come that close and end up just short was excruciating.
Those are the things that threatened to send me to the emergency room on Saturday. It’s never easy watching the Buckeyes play with their food and one must wonder what the running backs did to Day this week to make him neglect them for long stretches of the game. Thankfully, I don’t have enough hair left to worry much about more gray.
The Buckeyes will host Purdue next Saturday.