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COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Nebraska’s 2020 football season ends at some point in December or January — and please, let’s not rush to such an end date after so much time and effort and delay and frustration and fight went into just getting to kickoff on Saturday at Ohio Stadium — the outcome forged in front of pretty much nobody except the ghosts of the Horseshoe and a national television audience will likely feel different in one way or another than it did on Oct. 24.
Will coach Scott Frost and his Husker players look back on a 52-17 loss to the powerful Buckeyes as a building block with clear signs of progress — early production from two quarterbacks, a solid outing defending the run overall and promising performances from a host of young players? Or will they look back and figure that they should have had a sneaking suspicion then of what was to come thanks to a lack of offensive playmaking, particularly at wide receiver, and a continuation of problems like penalties and turnovers that have too often cost NU during Frost’s first two years coaching his alma mater and that cropped up again Saturday?
Maybe it will fall somewhere in the middle, too, or maybe COVID-19 will prove too much to overcome and the rest of the season will proceed in a herky-jerky fashion or not at all after some point.
Many Nebraska fans will never get used to highlighting positives in a 35-point loss. It's hard to blame them.
Steven M. Sipple gives a grade report on the Huskers' performance against Ohio State.
Saturday’s game in a lot of ways will be looked back on as a data point. One whose value will be derived more from the context built on top of it over the coming two months rather than for the point itself.
The bottom line after Week 1 looks like this: Playing football just behind a cold front that turned summer into decidedly football season here was one part celebration for the simple fact that it happened, one part ordinary in the sense that all involved said it felt pretty normal and one part a reminder that, at present, the Buckeyes are a heck of a lot better than the Huskers.
“That’s Game 1, we probably got assigned the hardest assignment in the league for Game 1,” Frost said afterward. “We’ve got a really tough one again next week. We’re playing the Big Ten East champions and the Big Ten West champions Week 1 and 2. That’s the cards we were dealt, and we’re just excited to be playing football.
“But that’s one game and more than anything I’m just thrilled to be out there with the guys. I thought we matched up with them definitely better than we did a year ago.”
When game action finally did kick off, the Huskers wasted no time making their presence felt.
Nebraska marched right down the field to put an early touchdown on OSU — and got a big run from redshirt freshman quarterback (well, running back on this particular snap) Luke McCaffrey in the process — and later in the half evened the game at 14.
Nebraska held Ohio State to a field goal that gave the hosts a 17-14 lead at the 3-minute, 12-second mark of the second quarter and started at its own 25 with a chance to either tie or take the lead late in the half, knowing the Buckeyes would start the second half with the ball.
Instead, though, Nebraska had its worst drive of the first half — a penalty, a negative run and a sack marring any chance of forward progress — and then was flagged for two 15-yard penalties as Ohio State calmly covered 46 yards for a touchdown 70 seconds before halftime.
Then star quarterback Justin Fields led the Buckeyes down the field to open the third quarter, finishing an eight-play drive with a 17-yard touchdown run complete with a spin into the end zone to put his side ahead 31-14 and comfortably in control.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot with a delay-of-game penalty. That’s my fault,” Frost said. “… They score quick before half and score coming out of half, and that’s the game.”
Cam Taylor-Britt and Deontai Williams could potentially miss the first half of next week's game against Wisconsin because of targeting penalties.
The total damage over 6:48 on the game clock: A tie game at 14 turned into a three-score lead as the Buckeyes rolled up 182 yards on three straight scoring drives and held the Huskers to minus-15 yards on the final two drives of the first half.
NU's drive beginning at 3:12 of the first half was particularly disheartening. At that point, the Huskers had gashed Ohio State for 117 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns on 14 carries (8.4 per attempt). They had sprinkled in a variety of formations, used McCaffrey out of the backfield — a 47-yard run on a counter handoff powered the game-opening scoring drive — and found production from players like tight end Austin Allen, both quarterbacks and senior running back Dedrick Mills.
To start this march, though, NU took a delay-of-game penalty before its first play. Then McCaffrey got stuffed on the same look that had produced the big play early on and Martinez took a sack. Nebraska went backward and the Buckeyes capitalized in a major way.
“I thought we did a lot of good things and, unfortunately, a lot of the things that led to the game getting out of hand were self-inflicted things that we can fix,” Frost said. “We got them in a couple of second-and-really longs and gave up first downs on third-and-14s. We can fix a lot of those things as a group.
“We hung in there with them a lot better than we did last year physically and I give a ton of credit to them. That’s a really good team.”
Ryan Day's team delivered the knockout punch midway through the third quarter when Martinez fumbled the ball around midfield on a run play and defensive back Sevyn Banks scooped it up and ran it back 55 yards for a touchdown and a 38-14 advantage.
All along, though, Nebraska could not contain Fields and his dynamic set of receivers. The 6-foot-3, 228-pound junior completed his first 11 passes and saw his only incompletion of the game come on a deep ball broken up by NU senior Dicaprio Bootle at the last minute.
In the first half alone he completed 12-of-13 for 187 yards and a touchdown, and added critical third- and fourth-down conversions with his legs. He finished 20-of-21 for 276 yards and a pair of passing touchdowns to go along with 54 rushing yards and another score.
In all of the little facets, too, OSU outclassed Nebraska. The Huskers were flagged eight times for 90 yards overall, while the Buckeyes drew three flags for a total of 14 yards. OSU converted 8-of-13 third downs and both fourth-down tries, while NU was 4-of-10 on third down. Turnover margin? Plus-two for the Buckeyes.
“We have to get better at the little things,” senior outside linebacker JoJo Domann said. “We have to get off the field on third down, and we’re going to continue to be physical. Our goal is to be the most physical team in the Big Ten, and we’re going to keep striving until we become that.”
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Nebraska’s offense sputtered, too as the game progressed. The Huskers produced 176 yards and 14 points on their first four drives, but totaled just 143 and three points — plus two turnovers — over their final seven.
“I thought we did some good things still on offense after that, but we just have to produce more and keep them from scoring at the end of the first,” Frost said.
Another big challenge — albeit one of a much different type — awaits when Wisconsin rolls into Memorial Stadium on Halloween. The contracted Big Ten season is going to progress quickly, which means Nebraska simultaneously has an opportunity to get its season rolling and also must clean up the areas it can control in the next six days.
“I’m proud of our guys for continuing to fight,” Martinez said. “I believe we didn’t give up, we continued to fight there no matter who was in the game. We’ve just got to limit some of the mistakes, the small errors and work on what we did today.”