clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Nebraska’s defense could be a problem for Ohio State

The Buckeyes can run, but at some point they’ll have to pass. The Huskers will make that tricky.

Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Ohio State can score with anybody, but the No. 6 Buckeyes have largely come by their points one-dimensionally. Their 42.6 points per game are a top-10 mark nationally, and their 5.7-yard rushing average is 12th.

But their passing offense lags well behind in every relevant metric, and it became a significant problem in October.

No. 10 Nebraska visits Ohio Stadium on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC). That’s potentially bad news for Buckeyes fans who hope the passing game gets better. The Huskers give up a paltry 6.2 yards per opposing throw, and their passing defense ranks 24th in opponent-adjusted S&P+.

What’s especially tricky about the Huskers is that they don’t give up big plays through the air. Ohio State will have to be ruthlessly efficient from down to down, or the Buckeyes risk falling into a dangerous trap. If that happens, an upset’s possible.

The Huskers limit explosive passing plays better than almost anyone.

For Ohio State, that might be a real problem.

In Passing IsoPPP, an advanced stat that measures how explosive plays are through the air, the Buckeyes rank 43rd in the country. They don’t take big chunks of yardage all at once, typically. In Passing Success Rate, which measures play-to-play efficiency, they’re a miserable 86th, failing to keep up with the down-and-distance chains on more than 60 percent of their passing plays.

Nebraska’s defense can be had in the efficiency department. Teams complete almost 59 percent of their passes on the Huskers, and moving the ball in bits and pieces isn’t that hard. J. T. Barrett isn’t going to be completely shut out against a unit that ranks 66th in success rate allowed against the pass.

But what the Huskers lack there, they gain by limiting the big play. They’re fifth in the country in Defensive Passing IsoPPP, which means a big play against Nebraska usually isn’t that big a play. They’ve allowed 18 completions all season of 20-plus yards, a mark that’s tied for ninth nationally. Just two have gone for more than 40.

The Huskers haven’t faced the toughest group of QBs, but opponents like Indiana, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Wyoming all fared far below their season averages in passer rating.

Ohio State shouldn’t hope to rely on deep strikes to open up the run game or revive drives that look close to stalling. The Buckeyes are going to have to be consistent and methodical.

Urban Meyer’s offense works best when the deep ball complements the run, like it did so beautifully during 2014’s playoff run with Ezekiel Elliott and Devin Smith. Is that combination going to work against the Huskers?

(Ohio State still doesn’t have a Smith, and not having a Smith hurts.)

Wyoming v Nebraska
Kieron Williams
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Nebraska ball-hawks a ton, so the Buckeyes have to be careful.

Nebraska’s 15 interceptions are tied for the national lead. Safeties Nathan Gerry and Kieron Williams have four interceptions apiece, while another starting safety, Aaron Williams, has three. So does cornerback Chris Jones.

The Huskers are fast, and they’ve got five or six good defensive backs. The secondary is third nationally in Havoc Rate, which tracks tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and defended passes. They fly to the ball, to use a trope, and leave a thin margin for error.

The Buckeyes have done a good job staying out of trouble. Barrett’s touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio is 17-to-4. But if Barrett and coordinators Tim Beck and Ed Warinner are scared out of being aggressive, that’s still a win for Nebraska.

The Huskers’ propensity for intercepting passes helps in limiting those big plays. If Barrett doesn’t feel safe airing the ball out, or if he tries and gets intercepted once or twice, the game starts to look drastically different.

Ohio State’s security blanket is its running game.

The good news for the Buckeyes is that they can run like hell, and Nebraska can only do so much about it.

The Huskers do pretty well in bottling up most of their opponents’ carries. But when they spring a leak, they really spring a leak. They’re 124th out of 128 teams in Defensive Rushing IsoPPP, which means they’re giving up a ton of explosive carries.

Ohio State’s running strength is in its efficiency, not its explosiveness. The Buckeyes run and stay on schedule, but they don't blow past defenses most of the time.

This means an efficient, nonexplosive Ohio State run game will go up against a Nebraska front that clamps down on efficiency but gives up big plays, including 14 carries this year of 20 or more yards.

So these teams are a mismatch for each other.

It’s likely Ohio State will figure out how to be fine on the ground. The Buckeye line is one of the best run-blocking groups in the sport, and the Nebraska front seven is fine but not amazing.

Eventually, though, Ohio State’s going to need to pass. And when it does, Nebraska will get its best chance to create the kind of plays that lead to upsets.