Any number of snapshots from Memorial Stadium on Saturday night could encapsulate the futility of Nebraska’s effort against No. 9 Ohio State.
There’s redshirt freshman Dicaprio Bootle, starting at safety instead of cornerback, committing pass interference to avoid being beat twice for touchdowns, then getting toasted for a score in the second quarter.
There’s Mikale Wilbon, barely securing a screen pass before being clobbered for a 3-yard loss.
There’s J.T. Barrett putting on a clinic in quarterback mastery, throwing and running through, around and past the overmatched Blackshirts.
There’s a crowd that started at 89,346 but dwindled to maybe two-thirds of that by the time the third quarter began and was down to less than half at game's end.
There’s a big, gray stadium that has seen a lot in its history, but not a beatdown as bad as Ohio State's 56-14 rout since 1949.
For as many snippets that could tell the story, though, the cold, hard numbers do the job just fine.
Consider the first five drives for each team. The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on each of theirs, racking up 366 yards (8.7 per play) and 22 first downs while converting all six of their third downs. The Huskers did not score, managed just 85 yards (3.5 per snap) and converted three first downs.
OSU scored on eight straight series before finally failing on downs with 4 minutes, 7 seconds to play.
"It certainly does paint a picture of where you have to go if you really want to do what everybody wants to do here," NU coach Mike Riley said. "The competition with that team, those players, that talent. That's the realism of it. It's a measuring stick."
OSU overwhelmed the Huskers from the start, forcing a three-and-out, then marching 96 yards in nine plays the first time it had the ball.
Nebraska couldn't stop freshman J.K Dobbins (12 carries for 106 yards) when he ripped a 52-yard touchdown run down the left sideline on the game’s first drive. It couldn't slow Barrett, who, in the rare instance in which he didn't have an open receiver or plenty of time, used his legs to keep the Buckeye offense humming at full-speed.
NU couldn't slow an offense that eclipsed 50 points for the fourth straight week and had set the Nebraska opponent record for first downs before the fourth quarter even began. The Buckeyes finished with 633 yards, 41 first downs and the most points ever surrendered by NU at home to a conference opponent.
"We really just had a hard time, obviously, keeping up with what they were doing with the totality of their offense," Riley said.
All told, the Buckeyes' eight scoring drives looked like this: nine plays and 96 yards, nine and 85, eight and 80, eight and 71, eight and 59, nine and 75, seven and 75, and 15 and 66.
They looked like a program hell-bent on competing for a national title despite an early season loss to Oklahoma, beating up a program short on depth and short on progress.
The Husker offense sputtered early, picking up just one first down on its first four drives. None of the three-and-outs lasted more than 1 minute, 54 seconds before putting the Buckeye offense back on the field. Trailing 14-0 late in the first quarter, NU moved across midfield for the first time, but promptly had the drive stall when a Devine Ozigbo run to the OSU 25-yard line was negated by a holding call.
"Playing against a tough team like that, you've got to be able to take advantage of all those big plays," quarterback Tanner Lee said. "It's plays like that that we really needed, especially at that point in the game, so we can finish with points. It's our job to take pressure off the defense and continue to score and move the ball. That was tough. That was really tough, because we had a little life there."
It would have been easily the best run of the night for the Huskers, who mustered just 44 yards on 16 rushes.
Barrett, meanwhile, played nearly flawlessly, completing 27 of 33 passes for 325 yards and five touchdowns, while also rushing for 48 yards and two more scores. On 11 third-down chances, he converted three through the air and four with his legs. The Buckeyes overall converted nine of their first 11 third downs and picked up the other two on fourth down.
His last pass, fittingly, came on a 6-yard, fourth-down touchdown to K.J. Hill with 14:20 remaining. From there, he handed the clean-up work to Dwayne Haskins and Joe Burrow, son of former Husker Jimmy Burrow.
"What we couldn't do or get to tonight because of the threat of the run and the fact that they're pretty darn good blockers, too, we couldn't make (Barrett) uncomfortable throwing the ball," Riley said. "I know what they did running the ball and all that, but that's a pretty clean pocket he had to throw in, so that's where we would have liked to have made him more uncomfortable."
Perhaps the brightest spot for the Huskers: Freshman receiver JD Spielman, who hauled in 11 catches for a school single-game record 200 yards, including a 77-yard score for NU’s first points early in third quarter. He eclipsed the former mark, set by Matt Davison against Texas A&M in 1998, with a 7-yard catch early in the fourth quarter.
Lee found receiver Stanley Morgan later in the quarter for a 17-yard score and finished 23-for-38 for a career-best 303 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Those marks, though, were mere footnotes on an evening dominated by a team in a different stratosphere than the Huskers.
"(The players) are going to expect me and the coaches to have something Monday that they can use to have some real confidence going forward that we're going to go win," Riley said. "This is what I like about our profession. This is where the whole teaching part comes in."
Dating to Aaron Williams’ interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter against Wisconsin last week, the Huskers have surrendered touchdowns on 11 of 12 drives, save only a two-play UW possession that ended that game.
Overall, the Huskers (3-4, 2-2) lost to two of the Big Ten’s best by a combined 63 points. They enter a bye week searching for direction and solutions to questions that may not be fully answered over the season’s final five games.
"I've got tons of faith in the guys we have in this locker room," senior linebacker Chris Weber (15 tackles) said. "We can finish this season strong, we can be a resilient group that can change the narrative. I really believe that."
Riley insisted, though, that this is not a program in need of rebuilding.
"I don't want to use 're,'" Riley said. "But every season and every team should build. The actual goal is to win all the games, but as you go, you'd like to think you're getting better through the year and playing your best ball as you go. Like I said, I know this didn't look like that."