On the first viewing, I felt like Ryan Day made things harder on himself than he needed to by calling too many passes in Ohio State’s 26-17 win at Nebraska.
Upon further review, that seems to be true.
Here are seven thoughts on the game after watching it again:
1. The Cornhuskers typically had one more in the box than Ohio State had blockers, but the Buckeyes still had plenty of success running the ball.
The Huskers might not have attacked the line of scrimmage with the abandon Penn State did, but that extra guy in the box was able to reduce the likelihood of TreVeyon Henderson breaking off a long one — as he did against the Nittany Lions to offset numerous runs for little or nothing. To that end, Nebraska’s plan was a success, but it did more than that.
2. The pursuit of the big play through the air ultimately made Ohio State less efficient overall, a double win for the Nebraska defense.
It also led to two interceptions and a nearly catastrophic fumble for the Buckeyes, who averaged fewer yards per play, scored fewer points and had only one more explosive play despite many more opportunities against the Cornhuskers than the Nittany Lions, who statistically have a better unit.
3. The deeper one dives, the more perplexing it gets. Ultimately, Ohio State averaged more yards per carry on first down against Nebraska (4.7) than Penn State (2.8) even though Henderson had a 68-yard run on first down against the Nittany Lions.
Ohio State also had a better stuff rate (percent of runs stopped for no gain or loss) at Nebraska (17 percent vs. 26) and was better in short-yardage against the Huskers (3 for 4) than against the Nittany Lions (1 for 8), but Day still abandoned the run (or more likely just never really intended to run it).
This decision is all the more curious because Day let Oregon kind of goad him out of running early and Ohio State ended up in the same vicious cycle the Buckeyes were in Saturday in Lincoln. They threw it too much early so Day apparently didn’t feel comfortable going to the run when it was needed to later. Day said after the Oregon game he wanted to be more balanced and that he was happy to avoid that problem with the play-calling against Penn State, but apparently that was forgotten last weekend.
4. In both the Oregon and Nebraska games, this put a lot on the shoulders of C.J. Stroud, who as a redshirt freshman probably should not throw 54 passes in any game, let alone one Ohio State has the lead the whole time.
Overall, he played well in both games, but dropping back 50-plus times invites more problems than doing it 30-some. And problems did arrive in both games, which also happen to be the lowest-scoring games Ohio State has played even though Penn State has the best defense they have faced.
There were more plays called that could have been runs, but Stroud pulled the ball on a handful of RPOs and threw it for solid gains. He seemed to generally make the right decision in those circumstances, though one or two might have worked either way.
5. When Ohio State did have unsuccessful runs, typically it was because of a missed block, not because the Huskers had outnumbered them at the line of scrimmage.
And yet Henderson on several occasions also got extra yards after breaking a tackle or making a man miss, another example of why just letting him go is sometimes the best policy even if it’s not what analytics might tell you.
Maybe Day did not have faith in the offensive line, but that is curious, too, considering when all was said and done Henderson still averaged an acceptable 4.4 yards per carry, Ohio State is sixth in the country in average line yards per FootballOutsiders.com and the ranked fourth in the country in run blocking by Pro Football Focus.
6. On the other side of the ball, things played out about as expected.
I thought Nebraska would be able to hurt the Buckeyes with the option, and they did so in both halves.
Straight handoffs worked fairly well, too, but like Ohio State, Nebraska probably did not run the ball enough based on the success it was having. This is especially true because their tackles could not handle the Ohio State pass rush, which was not surprising if you have watched both teams prior to Saturday.
Ohio State’s pass rush has been coming on for more than a month now, and the Husker offensive tackles just aren’t very good.
The Ohio State defense has certainly improved, but the Buckeyes (like most teams) have trouble with the option out of the spread because, well, it’s hard to defend but also this is still not the most disciplined team or the most athletic at linebacker.
7. Nebraska did some good things, and they were again undone by some crucial mistakes.
I would not say they sold out to win this one, though, as that would have required going option, option, option until the Buckeyes stopped it. Yes, I’m biased toward the option, and I understand there is a limit to how much you can run the quarterback, but do you want to win or not?
Day left the door open with wonky play-calling, and the Nebraska defense did an admirable job of keeping the Huskers in it (yes, giving up lots of yards but less than 30 points qualifies as admirable in college football these days, especially against a team with weapons like Ohio State), but the hosts could not sustain enough offense to take advantage and the Buckeyes lived to fight another day.