8:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Ohio State -17, Over/Under: 53
A Top-Five Showdown with major implications on not only the Big Ten as a conference, but the College Football Playoff is on tap tonight in Columbus, Ohio as the sixth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes host the tenth-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers. Resiliency is the topic of this matchup, as both teams continue to deal with major losses over the past few weeks. In the case of Nebraska (7-1, 4-1 in Big Ten), their unbeaten run to begin the 2016 campaign came to a halt in Camp Randall Stadium last Saturday, falling to Wisconsin in a 23-17 slugfest. Falling behind early, Mike Riley’s charges rallied back to score ten unanswered points in the Fourth Quarter, pushing the contest to Overtime. Unfortunately, the hosts would prevail as Tailback Dare Ogunbowale scored the go-ahead 11-yard touchdown, yet a missed Extra Point made things interesting as the visiting side was granted possession. After a pair of runs netted precisely two yards, Cornhuskers Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. launched successive incomplete passes ending the extra frame, and the game as well. Throughout the affair, it became readily apparent that both teams were evenly matched; both struggled in the passing game (267 yards combined) and committed a pair of turnovers, and while the Badgers rushed for many more yards (223), the Huskers enjoyed a greater Time of Possession (32:15). However, despite stringing together lengthy drives (9-of-18 on Third Down), Nebraska simply couldn’t punch the ball into the End Zone enough, and as a result saw their unblemished record become, well, blemished. As mentioned earlier, Armstrong struggled passing the ball, completing just 12-of-31 passes (38.7%) for a paltry 153 yards with two interceptions, but did his best to make up for said woes with his legs, rushing thirteen times for thirty-nine yards and a touchdown. So now where exactly does this team go from here? For weeks the prevailing criticism of Riley’s outfit has been their less-than-impressive resume’; despite being undefeated, Nebraska had been very fortunate against some rather mediocre competition, defeating the likes of Oregon (35-32), Northwestern (24-13), Illinois (31-16), and Purdue (27-22) by an average differential of 9.4 points. Furthermore, the combined record of those five opponents is currently 16-24 (.400). In fact, since defeating Wyoming (6-2) back in early September, Wisconsin was the first opponent with a winning record that they faced in seven weeks. Essentially, they’re being knocked down a few pegs due to an overall lack of style points against weaker opponents. Great teams beat subpar competition handedly, and the CFP Committee respects that above apparently all else. Is Nebraska as great team? Hardly. But have they been competitive under the guidance of a newly appointed veteran Head Coach? Absolutely. In his first term in Lincoln, Nebraska, Riley has made it a point not to change the Huskers’ DNA; they continue to play smash-mouth football and solid defense, averaging 204.1 rushing yards per game on a hefty 45.3 attempts, while limiting opponents to just 18.4 points, fifteenth in the country. Now a Senior, Armstrong has been the engine that drives this offensive attack; though he’s never progressed into a great passer (53.0% passing, 1,764 yards, 11 TD, 7 INT), he remains a huge factor in the running game, rushing for 419 yards and seven more scores. Tailbacks Terrell Newby (588 yards 4 TD) and Devine Ozigbo (353 yards 5 TD) also factor heavily into the mix, behind an Offensive Line that typically resembles mountains more so than men. Defensively, this team is loaded with Ballhawks, snaring fifteen interceptions thus far, with four different players logging at least three picks apiece. Senior Safety Nathan Gerry leads the way with four interceptions, including two in last weekend’s loss at Wisconsin. The Defensive Back has proven to be a takeaway machine in his four years as a member of the Blackshirts, totaling four picks in each of the last three seasons, while also forcing three fumbles to boot. Of course, a win tonight in Columbus would help quell any lingering doubts about this group, and in the process provide them with some gladly needed space in the race for the Big Ten West; Nebraska currently clings to a one-game lead over the likes of Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Northwestern.
Meanwhile, Ohio State (7-1, 4-1 in Big Ten) knows all too well what their counterpart tonight is going through, for it was just one week ago that they found themselves in the very same position. Following their first loss of the campaign, a stunning 24-21 defeat at Penn State, the Buckeyes nearly made it two in a row with an underwhelming 24-20 victory at home over a game Northwestern team. For the third consecutive week, Urban Meyer’s charges looked hardly like a team annually contending for a National Title; with the game tied at seventeen points apiece late in the Third Quarter, Tailback Curtis Samuel rushed for a 3-yard touchdown to break the deadlock, and managed to stave off a furious comeback from the Wildcats in the waning moments. Both teams moved the ball at will against the other, combining for a whopping 837 total yards of offense. If you’re looking for a reason for this team’s struggles over the pas three weeks, than look no further than the disappearance of their defense in these big games. True, you can find a plethora of Buckeyes’ Defenders among any number of Mock Drafts and Scouting Big Boards, but for all their ridiculous talent, this unit is still very YOUNG, and youth as we all know can cause lapses in performance and execution. Last Saturday’s victory marked the third time in four contests that Ohio State had relinquished at least 400 yards of Total Offense, which should come as an alarming development for Meyer and his Staff. After all, Northwestern is hardly an offensive juggernaut, ranking ninety-third overall in Total Offense, yet nonetheless manufactured a series of drives consisting of sixty, seventy-five, eighty-two, and eighty-four yards. As a result, these less-than-stellar performances have dropped them out of the College Football Playoff altogether, on the outside-looking in in terms of both the CFP and the Big Ten East; the Buckeyes are currently looking up at undefeated Michigan, making their annual meeting at the end of November all the more significant. And it’s with that said, that they simply can’t afford another slip-up en route to that showdown. Of course, what Meyer and Co. possess that most in the conference don’t is an explosively prolific offense, averaging a staggering 42.6 points (9th Overall) on 492.9 total yards, including 220.5 through the air and another 272.4 on the ground. Senior Quarterback J.T. Barrett has waited a long time for the starting gig to be exclusively his, and he’s making the most of it in his final year in Columbus; Barrett has been a real threat with both his arm and his legs, completing 63.9% of his attempts for 1,675 yards, seventeen yards and four interceptions, while carrying the ball 121 times for 531 yards and six more scores. Though he didn’t reach the End Zone in the win over Northwestern, he met very little resistance when in possession, totaling 294 total yards, including seventy-one on the ground on juts thirteen carries. Tailbacks Mike Weber (770 yards 6 TD) and the aforementioned Samuel (558 yards, 5 TD) are just as dangerous in the Backfield, while Redshirt Freshman Receiver Noah Brown has slowly rounded into a playmaker in the passing game, hauling in twenty-four passes for a team-high 309 yards and six touchdowns. Samuel though, may have proven to be the most indispensable member of this Skill Group, operating as effectively as a pass-catcher out of the Backfield in addition to a traditional Tailback. The Junior has racked up nearly as many receiving yards (539) as rushing yards, while leading the team with forty-four receptions. Furthermore, he’s averaging 9.5 yards per touch, leading to 1,097 All-Purpose Yards and eight total scores. Over the last three games, he’s become Barrett’s go-to guy in the short passing game (particularly as defenses takeaway their weapons on the perimeter), averaging 64.6 receiving yards on twenty-one receptions. Meyer likes to get creative with his packages, and you can bet that the offensive genius will try to take advantage of mismatches with the Huskers’ Linebackers, maybe even deploying Weber and Samuel on the field together. Given their opponent’s predilection for forcing turnovers, you can bet that Barrett will be mindful of Nebraska’s Secondary, meaning Samuel should see all kinds of action in the short to intermediate zones of the defense.
Predicted Outcome: Ohio State 24, Nebraska 16