Last week against Wisconsin, Nebraska for some reason went away from its running game late in the first half and decided to throw the ball on nearly every play. Obviously we all know how that worked out. The Huskers should learn their lesson this week, and there should be a heavy dose of running backs Rex Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah and Aaron Green.
The real X-factor for Nebraska's offense is the running ability of quarterback Taylor Martinez. The Buckeyes have yet to face a quarterback as fast around the edge as Martinez, and if they focus too much on stopping Burkhead and Co., there could be some big plays available for the sophomore signal caller.
One of the strengths of Ohio State is its defense, especially against the run. The Buckeyes come in boasting the third-best rushing defense in the Big Ten, giving up an average of just 93.6 yards per game. However, Nebraska's No. 9 nationally ranked running game will be unlike anything OSU has seen this season.
NU Pass Offense vs. OSU Pass Defense
This could very well be where the game is won or lost for Nebraska tonight. Martinez has been under heavy scrutiny for his three interceptions against Wisconsin last week, and there's no doubt Ohio State is going to make him beat them with his arm. Martinez has looked shaky throwing the ball all season, and it will be interesting to see how the pressure he's been under the past week impacts his play.
It doesn't help that the Buckeyes bring a tough pass defense to town that's given up an average of just 191.6 yards per game through the air. The good news for the Huskers is OSU's best pass rusher, defensive end Nathan Williams, was lost for the season with a knee injury earlier this season, which should take some of the heat off Martinez in the pocket.
Against the Badgers, Martinez had a number of chances to check down to shorter routes and move the football, but instead locked in on deeper routes that rarely proved effective. If he can find a way to go through his reads and find open receivers and running backs, Nebraska's 104th-ranked passing game should be much better off. The Huskers would also be well served to utilize the screen pass game more often, particularly to get the ball in leading receiver Jamal Turner's hands. If that doesn't happen, Martinez could be in for another very long night.
Edge: OHIO STATE
OSU Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
With the problems Ohio State has at quarterback at the moment, it's no secret that its offense will be based around the running game tonight. The problem is the Buckeyes' running game hasn't been that much better. The suspensions to running back Dan Herron and offensive tackle Mike Adams have played a big part in OSU's early offensive struggles, and while Adams returns this week, Herron will be out again.
Last week against Michigan State, the Spartans loaded up the box with as many as nine and even 10 defenders, essentially daring the Buckeyes to throw the football. Ohio State couldn't keep MSU's defense honest with the pass, and the running game was completely overwhelmed all day long.
Also suspended for OSU is starting right guard Marcus Hall, which is the last thing it needed going up against Nebraska's front seven, particularly defensive tackle Jared Crick. If the Huskers can shut down the Buckeyes on the ground, it will make life much, much easier for the entire defense.
OSU Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
After opening the season with senior Joe Bauserman as the starting quarterback, Ohio State quickly handed the reigns to true freshman Braxton Miller. While Miller was one of the most highly touted quarterback recruits last season, he's been playing a true freshman so far.
Neither quarterback has done much of anything in the passing game, which in turn has made OSU's running game a non-factor. The Buckeyes rank dead last in the Big Ten and 111th nationally in passing offense, putting up a measly 154 yards per game, and Bauserman and Miller are both completing just 51 percent of their passes on the season. Like Herron in the running game, the suspension of last year's leading receiver DeVier Posey has been a huge loss, as Ohio State has yet to find a true go-to receiver.
Nebraska's secondary was torched by Wisconsin last week, but tonight will be a completely different and far less intimidating challenge. As long as the Huskers can avoid getting burned by the deep ball and make OSU's quarterbacks have to sit in the pocket, it shouldn't be much of a problem winning this match-up.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
With all the problems Ohio State has had offensively, maybe its best chance of scoring could be in the return game. Return men Jordan Hall and Chris Fields have the Buckeyes ranked No. 16 nationally in punt returns and No. 6 in kickoff returns. Behind Hall, OSU is averaging 29 yards per return this season, which also ranks second in the Big Ten.
The one team ranked ahead of Ohio State in kickoff returns? Nebraska. Abdullah has been brilliant on kickoffs, constantly giving the offense great field position and even running back a 100-yarder for a touchdown this season. Abduallah's role on punt returns has decreased over the past few weeks, but the Huskers still average 12.6 yards per return, good enough for fifth in the conference and 23rd nationally.
The big difference in this match-up comes down to Brett Maher, who comes in as one of the leading scorers in the Big Ten, hitting 9-of-11 field goals and all 23 of his extra points. His punting has been huge all year as well, and Fields likely won't get many good return opportunities.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can run the ball consistently and effectively and Martinez can find a way to step up as a passer. As long as the Huskers can score some points, they should be in good shape considering how badly Ohio State's offense has played in recent weeks. Avoiding giving up big plays, especially in the passing and return games, will also be key.
Ohio State Will Win If:
It can shut down the run and force Martinez to move the ball through the air. The Buckeyes will also have to find some way to move the football, which will likely come down to a big game from the quarterback position. Ohio State should have some chances to stretch the field, and it has to be able to covert a few times if it's going to pull off the upset.
This week has been one of the most stressful of Martinez's young career, and how he responds to the adversity will not only play a huge role in who win's this game, but how the Huskers' season plays out from here on. If he comes out and silences his critics with a big game, it could be a jumping point for the rest of the season. If he struggles once again, things could get really messy in Lincoln.