No. 5 Ohio State survived a road scare Saturday, beating Nebraska 26-17 to pick up its seventh straight win and improve to 8-1 on the season. After a slow start that saw the Buckeyes go scoreless in the first quarter for the first time since their September loss to Oregon, both teams picked up the pace.
With the Buckeyes holding a 10-3 advantage late in the first half, receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba took a short hitch route from quarterback C.J. Stroud and turned it into a 75-yard touchdown. It was the kind of play that gave you the sense Ohio State was about to blow the game open, but the feeling did not last long. A couple of plays later, Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez hit Samori Toure for a 72-yard touchdown for the immediate answer.
Unfortunately for Nebraska, however, the offense struggled most of the day outside of a couple of big plays. With a chance to take the lead early in the fourth quarter, the offense stalled in the red zone and missed a 31-yard field goal attempt. While the Huskers would get another chance, you could feel the wind taken out of the sails at Memorial Stadium as the kick missed wide left. The deal was sealed when Ohio State kicked a 47-yard field goal with 1:30 left to make it 26-17.
Smith-Njigba was the star of the day for an otherwise shaky offense. His 75-yard touchdown grab was only one of the school-record 15 receptions he had on the day. He finished with 240 yards receiving — the most in school history since Terry Glenn accumulated 253 yards in 1995 — and helped out on special teams by returning two punts for 31 yards.
Toure led the way for Nebraska, catching four passes for 150 yards, but the Huskers just couldn’t get enough from the rest of their offense to pull off the upset.
Here are more takeaways from Saturday’s close call in Lincoln …
1. Ohio State’s receiver room remains unfair
Before the game began, Ohio State announced star wide receiver Garrett Wilson would miss the game. My initial reaction was that it wasn’t a big deal. That’s not meant to be dismissive of Wilson’s talent, as he’s one of the best receivers in the country and may be a first-round draft pick. Rather, it was a statement about the condition of the Ohio State receiver corps.
It’s stacked. Endlessly. Keep in mind that Jameson Williams leads Alabama in receiving yards this year, and the only reason he’s with the Tide is because he couldn’t crack the top of the depth chart in Columbus. So when Wilson misses a game, Smith-Njigba takes on a more prominent role in the offense and sets a school record for receptions in a game with 15.
No big deal! Just your standard 15-catch, 240-yard day. And he wasn’t alone! Chris Olave had a “quiet” day, finishing with only seven catches for 61 yards and a touchdown. Marvin Harrison Jr. and Julian Fleming saw some action, too, with 12 combined targets on the afternoon, though they finished with only four catches for 47 yards.
2. C.J. Stroud could afford to use his legs more often
It’s important to remember that the young quarterback missed the team’s game against Akron in September due to a shoulder injury. It’s safe to wonder if that shoulder injury isn’t still impacting the Buckeyes offense. While Stroud is not the same mobile threat that Justin Fields was, there are times when it can be frustrating to watch him turn down free yards that are available to him.
Whether he’s being instructed not to run, or he’s opting not to in order to protect his shoulder, he seems reluctant to do it far too often. There were numerous times Saturday when Stroud would roll out of the pocket and could have easily picked up five yards or more, but he instead waited for receivers to come open. Occasionally it worked out. Most of the time, however, it didn’t.
This isn’t an argument that Ohio State should use Stroud the same way it did Fields, but if he starts showing more willingness to tuck the ball and take off, it will make the offense a lot more challenging to defend. With big games remaining in the regular season, and a possible playoff berth on the line, it could be the difference between a good and great season in Columbus.
3. Nebraska refuses to get out of its way
I’ve run out of things to say about Nebraska, a 3-7 team that is much better than the record suggests. But, at some point, your record becomes who you are. While it’s still possible the Cornhuskers can get to a bowl game at 5-7, I don’t think the school would accept an invite. That means we’re looking at the fifth straight season in which they’ll miss out on the postseason.
And it has nobody to blame but itself. There were two instances today when Nebraska faced a fourth-down decision and made the wrong choice. Special teams have been a mess for this team all season, coming into the day having made only 7-of-13 field goal attempts. That made Scott Frost’s decision to twice settle for a field goal attempt all the more unforgivable — both of which were no good. This is not a results-based judgment, either.
When you’re playing at home against one of the best teams in the country, settling for field goals will not win the game so much as it’ll help you lose close. That’s what happened today, which is insulting to a Nebraska defense that did everything in its power to keep its team within range only to have the rug pulled out from under it by its coaching staff.
There was also a third-down decision by Nebraska that made little sense. Martinez had been tackled a few plays earlier on a designed run and came up with a noticeable limp. Nebraska then called a designed run for Martinez on third-and-7, which would have been a defensible call had the plan been to go for it on fourth down. Martinez picked up only a yard, but Nebraska settled for another field goal attempt instead of going for it on fourth down — at least making that one.
I don’t know what’s going to become of Frost and this coaching staff. He may be given another season in Lincoln, or he could be shown the door. Whatever happens, I cannot blame any Nebraska fan who desires a change. This is the fourth year of the Frost regime and self-inflicted wounds have been a theme of his entire tenure.