The fifth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes (4-0) have breezed through the early portion of their schedule, winning by an average margin of 44.5 points in those four games and starters having yet to be called upon to play a full four quarters of football.
But the nonconference slate is over, and the full Big Ten schedule has officially arrived for the Buckeyes; they defeated Indiana in week three. With that comes Ohio State’s stiffest test to date, a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, to take on the Cornhuskers (3-1) in a primetime kickoff under the lights in Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska’s lone loss came in overtime at Colorado in week two, and last week the Cornhuskers were in survival mode at Illinois as they came from behind to beat the Illini, 42-38, in a game in which they trailed for three quarters.
Despite its lackluster play thus far, Nebraska presents a significant step up in talent for Ohio State, led by an explosive offense with more than enough firepower to burn undisciplined defenses.
Add in what is sure to be a raucous environment in Lincoln and a Buckeye team that has yet to face any sort of adversity throughout the course of a game, and Saturday’s showdown presents the juiciest matchup so far this season for Ohio State.
The Nebraska offense had its best statistical showing of the season last week, amassing 673 yards of total offense against the Illini.
Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez is the unquestioned leader of the offense, and he presents a dynamic challenge for the Ohio State defense with his ability to make plays both in the passing game and as a runner.
Martinez has thrown for 1,052 yards and seven touchdowns this season to go with just two interceptions. But where Martinez is the most dangerous is keeping plays alive with his feet, whether that is to continue looking for receivers downfield or to pick up yards on the ground. Martinez ran for 629 yards and eight touchdowns a season ago, and he already has 234 yards and three rushing touchdowns this season.
In Ohio State’s 36-31 win over Nebraska last season, Martinez had his way with the Buckeye defense, completing 22 of his 33 attempts for 266 yards and a touchdown while adding 72 yards and two touchdowns rushing.
The challenge facing the Ohio State defense this week begins with containing Martinez to the pocket and will likely be the biggest key to the Silver Bullet’s success Saturday night.
Lining up alongside Martinez in the backfield will be running backs Dedrick Mills and Maurice Washington, and the duo has combined for 497 yards and six touchdowns on the season. However, it’s been freshman receiver Wan’Dale Robinson who has emerged as perhaps the Huskers’ best playmaker out of the backfield, and their best playmaker in general aside from Martinez.
With both Mills and Washington dinged up at different points in last week’s game, it was Robinson who exploded, carrying the ball 19 times for 89 yards and a touchdown.
The do-it-all playmaker added eight catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns in that game, a performance that should remind Buckeye fans a lot of a dynamic athlete who torched Ohio State last season in Purdue’s Rondale Moore.
Junior receiver J.D. Spielman gives the Huskers an experienced and highly-productive outside presence. Spielman has eclipsed 800 yards receiving in each of his first two seasons at Nebraska and is well on his way to doing so again this season, having already caught 18 passes for 383 yards and a score.
Spielman had six catches for 61 yards and a touchdown in Columbus last season.
At tight end, Nebraska returns a more-than-capable pass catcher in 6-foot-4-inch junior Jack Stoll, who is averaging 15.3 yards per catch this season. A season ago, he averaged nearly 12 yards on his 21 catches.
Along the offensive line, Nebraska returned three starters from last season, including both tackles in juniors Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok. The two tackles have combined for 44 starts between them.
Boe Wilson, also a junior, started nine games at guard last season for Nebraska. The interior offensive line will be tested with two new starters this season. Sophomore Trent Hixon starts at left guard and redshirt freshman Cameron Jurgens starts at center.
Turnovers have been an issue for the entire Nebraska offense as it has turned the ball over 11 times already this season, including at least three in all but one of their games.
Nebraska’s “Blackshirts” defense ranked 88th in the country last season in total defense but has shown moderate improvements this season, albeit against less-than-stellar offenses.
The Huskers are giving up an average of 117 yards rushing and 240 yards passing per game, good for 41st and 81st in the country, respectively.
Linebacker Mohamed Barry led the team in tackles last season with 112 total stops and added two sacks. He is once again leading the way for the Blackshirts with 33 total tackles this season and one sack.
Sack leader Ben Stille also returns on the defensive line after recording five sacks as a sophomore last season.
Nebraska features size all along their defensive line. Sophomore defensive tackle Damion Daniels checks in at 340 lbs., and his brother, Oklahoma State transfer Darrion Daniels, is right behind him at 325 lbs.
Senior Carlos Davis, at 6-foot-2 and 320 pounds, provides more beef in the trenches for the Huskers. Davis earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors last season.
In the secondary, Nebraska returns a pair of experienced corners in senior Lamar Jackson and junior Dicaprio Bootle. Jackson started 11 games last season and has three interceptions on his career, including his lone pick this season, which came at Colorado.
Jackson brings elite size to the corner position at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. Bootle, who started all 12 games last season, is undersized at 5-foot-10 and can be victimized in one-on-one matchups against bigger receivers.
Marquel Dismuke leads the safeties group — and the entire secondary — in tackles with 20 total stops in his first season starting for the Huskers.
Cam Taylor-Britt gives Nebraska a versatile athlete who has lined up at multiple positions in the secondary, and he has proven to have a nose for the ball. Taylor-Britt leads the team with two interceptions and has also forced three fumbles.
Simply put, the kicking situation at Nebraska has been an utter disaster early on for Scott Frost. With last year’s returning kicker, Barret Pickering, currently sidelined with leg pain, Frost has turned all directions in search of a reliable kicker.
The results have not been pretty. So bad, in fact, that Frost added a walk-on kicker ahead of last week’s game in Matt Waldoch, who had previously played club soccer at Nebraska.
Waldoch didn’t travel with the team to Illinois last week, a game in which they had two field goals and an extra point blocked. It remains to be seen who will get the nod for the Huskers against the Buckeyes on Saturday.
The punting situation has been much more steady with returning starter Issac Armstrong, who is averaging 46 yards per punt this season and has a long of 58 yards.
In the return game, both Robinson and Spielman provide dynamic return ability for the Huskers.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.