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Game 5: Ohio State

(J.K. Dobbins)

Sept. 28 / TBA / Memorial Stadium / TBA

First-half thoughts: Make no mistake, Urban Meyer left the cupboard stocked for new head coach Ryan Day. J.K. Dobbins is primed to be the go-to running back in the wake of Mike Weber's departure. Dobbins rushed 23 times for 163 yards and three TDs against Nebraska last season. The Buckeyes lost three of their top four receivers from last season, but the wideout crew is still loaded, led by the fleet K.J. Hill. Speaking of loaded, OSU should be better on defense, led by a front four with ample NFL talent. The offensive skill talent and defensive strength across the board should take plenty of pressure off new starting quarterback Justin Fields, who replaces first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins. All Haskins did was throw for 50 touchdowns last season.

Second-half prediction: This game will test Nebraska like no other on the schedule. If the Huskers enter the contest undefeated, Memorial Stadium will be up for grabs. Of course, Ohio State is used to these type of scenes. But how well will Fields react? The guess here is Nebraska can get just enough done on offense to pull the upset. The Huskers were close to beating the Buckeyes last season at the Horseshoe, which should give the home team plenty of confidence and motivation.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State averaged only 3.1 yards per carry in its last three games. The lack of production was one of the Buckeyes’ primary sources of concern.

Saturday, though, J.K. Dobbins led the way as Ohio State rushed for 229 yards on 40 carries — including 176 yards (7.3) in the second half.

“There were some missed tackles we had,” Nebraska senior outside linebacker Luke Gifford said. “They run hard. They’re big, physical dudes. I know there was one (tackle) on that last drive that I missed, and it ended up being second-and-short. If I make that play at the line of scrimmage, then maybe that drive goes differently.”

Dobbins rushed 23 times for 163 yards and three touchdowns, and Mike Weber rushed nine times for 91 yards.

“For sure, they’re good backs,” Gifford said. “They ran well today.”

Senior safety Tre Neal thought the Huskers held up well for the first 30 minutes but saw the results fading as the game wore on.

“We had them early and then it just kind of, guys were out of their run fits,” he said. “We’ve got to fit — don’t try to make your own play. It’s one of those things were you just have to do your job and it started to slip a little bit near the end.”

Martinez bounces back: Adrian Martinez made a big mistake early in the second quarter when he hesitated in the red zone and threw a ball late and backward to sophomore receiver JD Spielman, resulting in a lost fumble.

From first-and-goal at the 5 and a chance to cut into a 16-7 deficit to drive over, just like that.

But Martinez rebounded and made play after play to help keep his team in the game.

“I’m going to get tired of talking in superlatives about Adrian,” coach Scott Frost said. “There’s been some freshman mistakes but not very many. I’m sure (quarterbacks coach) Mario (Verduzco), in more colorful language, told him that was a bonehead play. It shouldn’t have happened.

“But he rallied and gave us a chance to win even being down two scores. He’s just such a good kid and good teammate on top of how good a player he is, and I’m glad he’s on our side.”

Said sophomore right tackle Matt Farniok, “It’s like watching a (veteran). I’m starting to question if he’s really a freshman. The way he acts, the way he holds himself. There’s never a point where I have to pick him up or anyone has to pick him up. He’s ready go. He wants to be successful and he wants the man to his left and the man to his right to be successful. He’s a fighter and I’m proud to be able to say I play with him.”

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Close calls: Every game has pivotal calls a head coach must make. Two for Frost in the second half: A fourth-and-inches from his own 13 late in the third quarter and whether to kick deep or attempt an onside kick with 2:57 remaining in the game after Spielman’s 17-yard touchdown catch cut the margin to 36-31.

Frost lamented burning a timeout trying to draw the Buckeyes offside on the first and considered going for it but “came to my senses.” Isaac Armstrong’s punt netted just 34 yards, though, and OSU scored in three plays.

As for whether to try an onside, knowing junior kicker Caleb Lightbourn executed poorly in a surprise first-quarter attempt, Frost said, “I thought about it, but we’d already tried one and it didn’t go very well.”

The margin mattered, too. Down five, a failed onside means OSU takes over, at worst, on the fringe of field-goal range.

“We talked about it for probably a minute solid after the touchdown and decided we’d give our defense a chance to get off the field so we’d get some better field position. You always question yourself when it doesn’t go the way you want.”

Bootle’s belief: There was a lot of talk about Nebraska making progress as a program after it played Ohio State to the wire.

But Husker sophomore corner Dicaprio Bootle said, “I would say that coming off the past couple weeks, we were already confident.”

NU had beaten Minnesota 53-28 and Bethune-Cookman 45-9.

“Even a loss like this will make us even more confident going forward,” Bootle said. “We have to get the things we messed up on cleaned up. But I have no doubt we’re going to keep making this climb.”

Haskins hassled: Nebraska’s secondary did its part to make life difficult for Ohio State’s sophomore quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Dwayne Haskins.

“Our DBs did a really, really good job this game,” sophomore defensive end Ben Stille said.

Haskins finished 18-of-32 for 252 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. In Stille’s mind, NU didn’t do enough to make him uncomfortable, sacking Haskins just once.

“We didn’t rush the passer well enough,” Stille said, calling it otherwise his group’s best performance of the season. “That was the missing link of the whole deal. He sat back there too comfortable.”

Promise up front: Frost complimented the way both his offensive line and defensive lines played against physical Buckeye groups.

“Our lines did a great job today against some really talented players,” he said.

The Huskers had to work hard on the ground, managing 184 net yards and three touchdowns on 49 attempts (3.8 per carry). They allowed just one sack against a talented defensive front.

“We’re understanding the schemes a little better and our technique is getting better and better,” Farniok said. “We’re coming together as a unit and we’re picking stuff up on the fly without having to talk through it. We’re mixing together and it’s awesome.”

Dixon debut: NU sophomore linebacker Breon Dixon made his first appearance of the season and played on special teams.

Dixon was not listed on the travel roster distributed to reporters, but he made the trip and saw his first action. The Ole Miss transfer can play in each of Nebraska’s final four games and still use his redshirt.

A touching tribute: As Ohio State’s marching band wrapped up its halftime performance, it gave a solemn nod to the visiting side. The band scripted out the name Tyler, a tribute to UNL junior trumpet player and accounting major Tyler Butterfield, who was killed last week in a car accident.

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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Sports writer

Parker joined the Journal Star as the University of Nebraska football beat writer in August 2017. He previously covered Montana State athletics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2012.

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