LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska’s season will travel down one of two paths. Exactly which path will be determined Saturday night.
If the Huskers pull off the upset in Columbus and knock off No. 6 Ohio State, coach Mike Riley will be handed the keys to the city, Nebraska will be labeled as “back” and the Huskers will have a legitimate shot at the College Football Playoff if they win out.
If No. 10 Nebraska loses its second straight huge road game, it will be more of the same. Another Cornhuskers team that couldn’t win the big game, another Nebraska team that played close, but not close enough.
Nebraska has a chance to define the program on Saturday night.
How will it shake out?
Let’s check out how Nebraska matches up with the Buckeyes.
When Nebraska has the ball
The last thing a suddenly struggling Nebraska offense needs is a rash of injuries. But when the Huskers (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) go into Columbus, they’ll do so limping — figuratively and literally.
After spending the start of the season in the top three of the Big Ten in many offensive categories, Nebraska has slowed of late, scoring a season-low 17 points in last week’s OT loss at Wisconsin. The Huskers now sit fourth in the Big Ten in total offense and sixth in scoring.
And if Nebraska is to right the ship, it will likely have to do so shorthanded. Exactly who will suit up and who will sit is still up in the air for Nebraska, but senior WR Brandon Reilly might be out with a hamstring injury, RG Tanner Farmer is out with a knee injury, and LT David Knevel will miss the game with an ankle injury. Meanwhile, senior TE Cethan Carter is expected to return after being out for more than a month with an elbow injury, but his snaps could be limited. And LT Nick Gates will play, but still isn’t 100 percent with that sprained ankle.
And then there’s RB Devine Ozigbo. While he has yet to miss a game, an ankle injury limited him to just one carry over a two-game span in mid-October. He did get 10 carries last week against Wisconsin, but the Nebraska staff is unsure just how close he will be to 100 percent this weekend.
Ohio State’s defense is no joke. The Buckeyes (7-1, 4-1) are second in the conference in total defense and third in scoring defense. They have a fast and opportunistic secondary and a huge defensive line.
A healthy Nebraska would have made this game a shootout. Senior QB Tommy Armstrong will have to play one of the best games of his career for Nebraska to have a chance.
Edge: Ohio State
When Ohio State has the ball
Despite rumblings out of Columbus that this Ohio State team is still figuring out its offense, the Buckeyes are still the No. 1 offense statistically in the conference. Led by junior QB J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes average nearly 500 yards per game, and their 42 points per game are second only to Michigan.
They’re also first in first downs, third-down conversions and time of possession.
They have no shortage of weapons, most notably Curtis Samuel. He sits second in the Big Ten in receptions despite spending half of his time as the tailback. Fellow RB Mike Weber is fifth in the conference in rushing yards.
But the Blackshirts enter this game far more consistent than they were at the start of the season. The Huskers now rank 20th in the nation in defense, and sit behind only Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State in the conference in many defensive categories.
Ohio State’s offense vs. Nebraska’s defense is the matchup that will ultimately determine the outcome of the game. If Nebraska can slow down Ohio State enough to keep this a low-scoring game, it has a great chance. But in this realm, because of how good Barrett can be in big games, the edge is slightly to the Buckeyes.
Edge: Ohio State
This is a tight one, with the biggest difference clearly in punting.
As we’ve said many times, the play of Nebraska’s special teams fluctuates greatly each week. Right now, it looks pretty good, with P Caleb Lightbourn climbing out of the basement in the conference’s punting rankings. Ohio State P Cameron Johnston, meanwhile, is the best in the Big Ten with a 47.5-yard average.
But beyond that, there isn’t much that stands out.
Nebraska will need to win the field position game on the road on Saturday night. Lightbourn will have to have a career night, and junior punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El will need to have a good day. K Drew Brown proved at Wisconsin he won’t buckle under pressure, which might become key if this game is close.
Two entirely different backgrounds this week.
Urban Meyer has lost all of five game in five years at Ohio State, and has never lost two games before December at Ohio State.
Riley, meanwhile, has made a living taking a program in distress and turning it around, like he did at Oregon State and is attempting to do at Nebraska. Never has he been the head coach of a team predicted to be as good as an Urban Meyer team.
Meyer and Riley have both coached up these two teams, but this week Meyer gets the edge for his dominance over the last few years.
Edge: Ohio State
Nebraska is a 17-point underdog for a few reasons.
Yes, Ohio State has looked poorly the last three weeks, but the Buckeyes still have good wins over Oklahoma and Wisconsin on the road. Nebraska’s best win right now is Wyoming.
So Ohio State has looked “beatable” recently, but it’s 19-2 over its last 21 games, while Nebraska is 13-8.
Nebraska is 0-3 at Ohio State, the last loss coming four years ago when the Buckeyes won 63-38.
All signs on paper point to an Ohio State blowout.
But it’ll likely be closer than it should be. Nebraska plays up to the competition, and if it can keep the game close going into the fourth quarter, the Huskers might just come out with a win. But if they get behind big in the third quarter, it could get ugly.
Chris Heady prediction: Ohio State 30, Nebraska 21