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Scouting Nebraska: Shucking the Huskers

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Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (4) runs down the field against the UCLA Bruins on Dec. 26, 2015. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (4) runs down the field against the UCLA Bruins on Dec. 26, 2015. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

 

The No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes and the No. 10 Nebraska Cornhuskers meet in primetime on Saturday night at Ohio Stadium for the first time since 2012. The Buckeyes will be wearing throwbacks uniforms from 1916, honoring OSU great Chic Harley for the military appreciation game.

For the second time this season, the Buckeyes and OSU coach Urban Meyer have a top-10 matchup on its conference schedule. A loss by either team would likely see the end of Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff hopes.

Saturday is big-time college football.

Offense

Nebraska coach Mike Riley is in his second season on the sidelines of the Huskers, and it’s also his second season of riding senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. Since his freshman year, Armstrong has been a key contributor to the Nebraska offense, even more so when he became a starter his sophomore year.

Armstrong’s ability to run, create plays and throw downfield makes him one of the more complete quarterbacks in the country. He ranks third in the nation in passing yards per completion with just over 15 yards and has accumulated 419 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. For the season, Armstrong has 1,764 passing yards for 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf likes to take shots over 30 yards through the air, which could spell out several opportunities for the OSU secondary.

Armstrong is coming off of his worst performance of the season against No. 8 Wisconsin, where he completed just 38 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions. Despite that, cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said Armstrong will be one of the toughest challenges yet for the secondary, citing the quarterback’s arm strength.

He’s a very dynamic football player,” Coombs said. “He does everything well. We know we have to do everything we can do to contain him in the pocket.”

Nebraska receivers Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Riley each average more than 20 yards per reception. Last week, Northwestern receiver Austin Carr gashed OSU for 158 yards on 8 receptions. Redshirt junior cornerback Gareon Conley said that the OSU defense made adjustments this week in practice to prevent chunk plays, including a special game plan in place for third downs.

Defense

Known as “The Blackshirts,” Nebraska’s defense in the past couple years has been fairly pedestrian. In his second season as the Huskers’ defensive coordinator Mark Banker has his defense among the best in the country in total defense and scoring defense.

Nebraska ranks fourth in the country with almost two interceptions per game, which could spell trouble for an OSU offense that hasn’t performed up to par in the passing game the last four weeks. Redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett said that a lot of the passing game has been the adage of taking what the defense gives him. This week, Nebraska could throw multiple looks at the Buckeyes.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” said redshirt sophomore wide receiver Noah Brown. “They play some off, they play some press. It just depends on the situation we are in during the game, what they like to do.”

Brown said the offense has been working on the deep ball this week in practice, hoping to impose its will against The Blackshirts on Saturday. To do so, Barrett will have to be conscious of senior safety Nate Gerry and junior safety Kieron Williams who are both tied for first in the Big Ten with four interceptions this year.

Concerning the rushing game, senior defensive end Ross Dzuris leads the Huskers with 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss. He also, without question, has the best facial hair on the team.

Breakdown

OSU finally gets a night game at home and will try to take advantage of a rowdy home crowd to make a statement to the college football universe. Whether Barrett and the offense can succeed in the passing game like they did in the first four games of the season still remains to be seen.

However, the combination of redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber and junior H-back Curtis Samuel could provide the edge for OSU in a game that will be won in the game of field position.

“In games like this — time of possession, field position — all of those things are going to be critical,” Coombs said. “It’s imperative that our defense wins first down. We have as many three-and-outs as we can … that’s been a focus all week for our group.”

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