Stryker: Early Husker retreat fails to ward off home-field massacre
Going into Saturday night, Ohio State had never won a game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, but it really didn’t take long to change that once the game kicked off.
Within the first ten minutes of playing time, it was clear to anyone watching the game that Nebraska was a thoroughly beaten team, simply waiting for the inevitable outcome. It was as though the Buckeyes marched into the historic old venue expecting a battle, only to find the field of combat already surrendered by the Cornhuskers.
Playing at their usual fast tempo, senior quarterback J.T. Barrett and the Buckeye offense did literally anything they wanted, anytime they wanted. It took Ohio State only three quarters to break the all-time record for most first downs by a Nebraska opponent. By game’s end, OSU had ripped the Blackshirts for 41 first downs and 633 yards of total offense in a brutal 56-14 beatdown that really could have been worse. Ohio State passed for 354 yards and ran for 279. Surprisingly, Urban Meyer took his foot off the throttle. Perhaps he figured he’d already earned enough College Football Playoff style points and was already looking ahead to a real showdown with Penn State.
This was one of those games when it’s hard to fathom if Mike Riley has a master plan, and if so, what that plan might be. Can you see the pieces coming together? I’m having difficulty finding convincing evidence. Since their 7-0 start last season, the Huskers have lost eight of their last 13 games. Those losses have come by an average of 22 points.
The Huskers somehow started the game with both possession of the football and the wind at their back, but that didn’t seem to matter much. The Huskers looked unfocused and unprepared from the opening kickoff. With just over five minutes left in the first quarter, they trailed 14-0 and had been outyarded 166-5, but were doing pretty well at “Name That Tune” on the gigantic video boards, which apparently made for an Excellent Fan Experience.
Or, as Riley so eloquently put it during his Husker Sports Network postgame interview, “I don’t think our guys were all that confident at the start of the game. We didn’t start off well offensively. I think we felt overwhelmed or nervous and didn’t threaten them at all early. If we had the attitude we showed in the second half, it could have been more fun than that.”
Yeah, I can see where guys would run through a brick wall to play for a coach like that.
It was a discouraging night for the Blackshirts, who were without their top three safeties, and got thoroughly pummeled. They never even slowed down Barrett, or the freshman-sophomore running back tandem of J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, who routinely rushed for six to nine yards on simple inside zone plays. Eight times the Buckeye first-team offensive unit started drives in its own territory. Eight times those drives ended in touchdowns. On one occasion, Barrett had to decide which of two embarrassingly-wide-open receivers he would throw a touchdown pass to. Coach Bob Diaco’s charges were not doing much “block destruction” on this night. The Ohio State offensive line sliced through the Huskers unabated.
Meanwhile, the Husker offensive line was faring little better than its teammates in the defensive front. Nebraska rushed 16 times for 44 yards. No, not on a single third-quarter drive, but in the entire game. That’s all you really need to know about the current state of the Nebraska offensive line under coach Mike Cavanaugh. I guess the alternative would be to get excited that Husker quarterbacks were not sacked a single time in 47 passing attempts.
Maybe that’s the plan. Dumb down expectations for a running game and pretty soon the natives will be thrilled whenever the Huskers rush for more than 100 yards as a team. Just like New York Giants fans. Riley’s assertion that he wants to be the third-best rushing offense in the Big Ten is fading far, far into the background as our memories of the connection between “physicality” and “Nebraska football” become fragmented and disjointed.
Even Herbie Husker lost his will to fight. Perhaps disoriented by Nebraska’s 3-to-1 pass/run ratio, and figuring, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Herbie was making nice with Brutus Buckeye in the fourth quarter, posing for photos with Ohio State fans as they smiled their way through a stress-free night in Lincoln as their team, a 24-point favorite, easily beat the spread.
The biggest Husker hero on this night was 5-foot-9 redshirt freshman receiver J.D. Spielman, who caught 11 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown — a beautiful crossing route that Spielman caught in stride and outran the Buckeye secondary for a 77-yard scoring play that cut Ohio State’s lead to 42-7 in the third quarter. Spielman left the game late in the fourth quarter with what appeared to be an injured shoulder.
The Huskers showed some signs of life beyond Spielman in the third quarter. Most noteworthy: they executed a screen pass without mishap when a Jerald Foster block sprung Devine Ozigbo for a 32-yard gain in the third quarter, just before Tanner Lee threw a perfectly lofted touchdown pass to Stanley Morgan in the right back corner of the end zone. Lee, who did his best work long after the game was decided, with fewer than 500 students hanging around to watch him from “The Boneyard,” completed 23 of 38 passes for 303 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
It was a big night for Ohio State, which tied Nebraska at 892 victories for No. 4 on the all-time wins chart for major college football. The Buckeyes soon will pass Nebraska and set their sights on Texas (holding at 894 all time wins after their loss to Oklahoma Saturday). Is there a compelling reason to believe that Nebraska under Mike Riley will gain any ground on Texas under Tom Herman in the next year? No, there is not.
It used to be fun for Husker fans to anticipate big games, But these days, what passes for Nebraska football is getting very hard to watch.
In 2015, the encouraging thing was that although the Huskers lost seven games, they were competitive in each of them. No more. In Riley’s third season, when Nebraska plays ranked teams, Husker fans are reduced to hoping they can find an occasional encouraging sign to grab onto. This week’s encouraging sign: losing to Ohio State by only 42 points this year instead of 59. Progress!
About half of the 89,346 fans in attendance — possibly failing to discern those encouraging signs — left at halftime, So for the third time this season, good seats were easy to obtain all over Memorial Stadium during the fourth quarter. You could move down dozens of rows, find an abandoned seatback and get a close view of the beaten-down Huskers taking a thrashing. This is not a sustainable scenario. After a bye week, this team needs to get healthy — fast — against Purdue, Northwestern and Minnesota.
A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org