COLUMBUS, Ohio — For Ohio State, there’s no rest for the weary.
Fresh off a three-game stretch that included road games at Wisconsin and Penn State and a home game against Northwestern, the Buckeyes (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) host No. 9 Nebraska (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten). The Huskers are one of the surprise teams of the season, having started 7-0 after having won just six games in 2015.
This game represents an opportunity for Ohio State to flex its muscles and show why it’s one of the nation’s best teams. Having already done that at various points this season, the road back to greatness isn’t complicated. Here are five keys to watch for.
1. The first drive
The win against Northwestern marked the first time Ohio State had scored on its opening drive. That was great for the Buckeyes, but they’ll have to work to repeat that act. Nebraska hasn’t allowed any points this season on opponents’ first drives.
In addition to forcing punts, the Huskers have also shown they can generate turnovers from the start. Their opportunism might be a good match for Ohio State, which has turned the ball over three times on an opening drive this season. If the Buckeyes can start the way they did against Northwestern, however, it could lead to a long night for the Huskers.
2. Pure talent/execution
Looking at the results of the two teams, thus far, it’s clear they’re not too far apart — especially based on recent play. The rosters, however, tell a different story. The Buckeyes are favored by 17 points against a top-10 team. That’s largely because they’ve run circles around Nebraska on the recruiting trail. If Ohio State executes to its full ability — as seen against Oklahoma — there’s nothing any team can do to stop it. The Buckeyes are the better team and will win, if they play like it.
3. Managing down and distance
This is stating the obvious, but possessions can’t go wasted against good opponents. Ohio State is one of the best teams in the country at converting third downs. The Buckeyes have moved the chains 50 percent of the time on third down, which is seventh nationally. This offense is at its best when the Buckeyes are gaining huge yards on first down, which allows them to take shots downfield on second down or too bully teams on third-and-short. Ohio State ran into some trouble with third-and-long situations the last two games, so avoiding that will be critical.
4. Getting defensive
The inability of the defense to make key stops was a big problem for Ohio State against Penn State and Northwestern. The Silver Bullets haven’t recently shown the same propensity for forcing turnovers as they had earlier in the season. Those big plays not only got the opposing offense off the field but often directly or indirectly led to Buckeyes touchdowns. Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong completes only 53 percent of his passes and has thrown seven interceptions. This is as good a chance as Ohio State may get to make the score that breaks its record for defensive touchdowns in a season.
5. All hands on deck
This will be Ohio State’s ninth game of the season. By now, growing pains should be vanishing. There’s an argument to be made that Ohio State should give some offensive reps to its talented true freshmen, and my colleague Jeremy Birmingham helped make it. Will Ohio State really lose anything by putting Binjimen Victor on the field for 10 plays, or for seeing what Demario McCall can do? The results of the past two weeks suggest it might be time for the Buckeyes to find out.