COLUMBUS, Ohio - No. 10 Nebraska had an opportunity to make a major statement on a national stage and take a huge step in holding onto first place in the Big Ten West when it traveled to take on sixth-ranked Ohio State on Saturday night.
Instead, the Huskers ended up enduring one of their most lopsided defeats in program history.
A pick-six on just the third play of the game started an avalanche that never lost steam and finally ended in a 62-3 loss in front of a sellout crowd of 108,750.
The 59-point differential marked the Huskers’ largest margin of defeat under head coach Mike Riley and the worst loss since a 70-10 drubbing at Texas Tech back in 2004.
The game also dropped NU to 7-2 overall and 4-2 in league play, moving it to second in the West Division behind Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2), which owns the head-to-head tie-breaker after last week’s win in Madison, Wis.
“What it looked like to me was, which was very strange, I didn’t feel we played very loose,” Riley said. “I thought we were tight early. But the fact of the matter is we really couldn’t do a lot offensively and we couldn’t get them off the field defensively…
“This game came out of the blue for me.”
Nebraska’s nightmare started when a third-down pass by Tommy Armstrong - his first of the night - was tipped by linebacker Raekwon McMillan, bounced off the hands of receiver Stanley Morgan and cornerback Marshon Lattimore, and floated into the arms of safety Damon Webb, who took it 36 yards for a touchdown.
The play marked Armstrong’s fifth tipped pass in the past five quarters, and the third of which that resulted in an interception. It was also OSU’s fifth pick-six of the season, setting a school record.
Unlike their opening drive, the Huskers got a bit of luck to go their way on their ensuing possession. Nebraska converted four third downs - including another tipped ball that ended up as a 27-yard completion to Morgan - en route to a 15-play series.
The drive only resulted in a 20-yard field goal by Drew Brown to cut the deficit to 7-3 with 7:45 left in the first quarter.
Ohio State’s offense came right back an answer of its first drive of the game. After converting a third-and-20 with a 22-yard completion to the NU 9, quarterback J.T. Barrett found receiver Terry McLaurin in the back of the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-3.
The Buckeyes pushed their lead to 18 early in the second quarter on a 23-yard touchdown run by by running back Mike Weber.
Ohio State nearly reached the end zone again on its next series when a bobbled catch by Binjiman Victor in the end zone was ruled incomplete, but Tyler Durbin still extended the lead to 24-3 on a 39-yard field goal with 8:22 left in the half.
Things got even worse for the Huskers with six minutes remaining in the half. As Armstrong took a rush around the left end, he was hit as he was going out of bounds and fell with the side of this head hitting hard on the turf.
Armstrong lied motionless on the field for several minutes before being carted off the field and taken to a Columbus hospital. He did give a thumbs up as he was carted off, and he eventually walked back onto the sideline in sweats in the third quarter.
“It’s too early to tell exactly what his situation is for next week playing football, but the good situation was that he came back out,” Riley said. “Probably we’ll find out what kind of plan we should make like that tomorrow. I don’t know that right now, but (Armstrong missing next week’s game vs. Minnesota) could be very likely.”
In his absence, senior Ryker Fyfe took over at quarterback for the most extensive game action he’d seen since last season’s loss at Purdue on Oct. 31, 2015.
Things didn’t go much better for Fyfe, and a botched fourth-down conversion attempt by the Huskers led to another Ohio State touchdown on a one-yard pass from Barrett to Curtis Samuel with just three seconds remaining to send NU into halftime down 31-3.
The Buckeyes out-gained Nebraska 237-123 in total offense, posted a 16-6 edge in first downs, and covered 7-of-8 third downs in the opening half.
On the first play of the third quarter, Barrett connected with Samuel again for a 75-yard touchdown to make it 38-3. Five minutes later, Barrett hit six-yard touchdown toss to Noah Brown to extend the lead to 45-3.
Durbin added another field goal from 29 yards out to give OSU a 48-3 lead. Ohio State then added its second pick-six of the night when Malik Hooker intercepted Fyfe and ran it back 48 yards to the house, making it 55-3 going into the fourth quarter.
Backup quarterback Joe Burrow ran in from 12 yards out with 7:19 remaining to increase the lead to 62-3.
Nebraska returns to action on Saturday when it plays host to Minnesota for a 6:30 p.m. kick on Big Ten Network.
“My thought is this team will respond," Riley said. "It’s pretty raw right now to say that, and I know it probably doesn’t look very good. But we’ve played through hard games, hard times, and played our best ball in the fourth quarters of games. I’m just going to continue to believe that’s going to be the case about how we’ll respond to get ready for the next ball game.”