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“It’s about surviving and moving on.”
That was Ohio State head coach Ryan Day last week as the meat of their schedule was looming. A four-game stretch that began with Nebraska (3-7, 1-6 Big Ten) on the road on Saturday. Survive is exactly what the No. 5 Buckeyes (8-1, 6-0 Big Ten) did, as they held on to defeat the Cornhuskers 26-17.
It was hardly a Picasso for OSU, struggling to find an offensive rhythm in the midst of 90,000 at Memorial Stadium. Quarterback C.J. Stroud entered the game playing his best ball of the season. Stroud hadn’t thrown an interception since Sept. 18 against Tulsa. That streak came to an end on OSU’s second drive of the game. With a lane to run down near the red zone, Stroud made a freshman mistake, forcing one to a blanketed receiver.
Luckily for Stroud, this one was in the first quarter with the two teams deadlocked at zero. His next interception came with the Buckeyes up 23-17 in the fourth, almost costing his team. Stroud heaved one into double coverage and was picked off by Nebraska safety Myles Farmer.
Farmer’s pick set up Nebraska for a chance to go down the field and take its first lead of the day. After nine plays, Nebraska was down to the OSU 16-yard line. Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez then made his most egregious mistake of the day. Martinez missed his tight end on a crosser over the middle, sailing it over his head. A pass in stride would have moved the chains. Instead, it brought on kicker Chase Contreraz.
Contreraz couldn’t nail the 31-yarder, bringing Nebraska’s momentum to a screeching halt. It was Contreraz’s second miss of the game, the other being a 45-yarder on Nebraska’s first drive of the game. That was game, set, match for Nebraska’s offense, which ran just eight plays in the last 9:47 of the game.
Head coach Scott Frost’s defense had a chance to change their fortunes, however, on OSU’s last drive of the game. With 1:45 remaining, OSU was shockingly still passing the ball. Linebacker Garrett Nelson took advantage and was able to bring down Stroud, knocking the ball out in the process. One bounce, two bounce, three bounce, back into the hands of an OSU player. A 46-yard field goal from kicker Noah Ruggles finally put an end to Nebraska’s upset bid.
Stroud worked around two interceptions to go 36-of-54 for 405 yards and two touchdowns. Working without receiver Garrett Wilson, who was out with an injury, Stroud found a new WR1. Not Chris Olave, but rather Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Smith-Njigba had his coming out party, hauling in 15 catches for 240 yards and a touchdown. Smith-Njigba showed off his burst, taking a curl route for a 75-yard score in the second quarter.
“Jaxon is the main reason I’m here at Ohio State,” Stroud said after the game. “Just to see him prevail, I’m happy for him.”
Day’s team did survive, which is what they needed to do. How the playoff committee reacts to the Buckeyes going down to the wire against a three-win Nebraska, remains to be seen. But Day knows that in-conference games are never gimmes.
“I think it’s great to see our guys win like this,” Day said after the game. “I’m proud of our defense, proud of our special teams. … It’s hard to win in this conference, it’s hard to win on the road.”