COLUMBUS, Ohio — Anyone who ever hit the reset button on a Nintendo will understand how No. 6 Ohio State played Saturday night against No. 10 Nebraska. For three games, the Buckeyes looked as if they would play in Tampa, all right: on Jan. 2 in the Outback Bowl, not a week later in the Outfront Bowl — or the College Football Playoff Championship Game to you.
Ohio State struggled to beat Wisconsin in overtime, lost on a blocked kick at Penn State and hung on to beat Northwestern. So the Buckeyes hit reset. They pretended October never happened and picked up where they left off in their last game in September, the one when they were ranked No. 3 and embarrassed No. 12 Oklahoma, 45-24.
It felt like September, what with a full day of tailgating in brilliant sunshine warm enough that one parking lot attendant on the west side of Ohio Stadium wore shorts. The Buckeyes even dressed for a reset, although one from September 1916. They wore scarlet jerseys with gray vertical stripes, plain gray britches and plain dark gray helmets, all as a tribute to the Buckeyes’ first Western Conference (the Big Ten to you) championship won a century ago.
By the time the Buckeyes took the field on Saturday night, No. 4 Texas A&M had lost at Mississippi State and left open the final spot on the playoff dance card. By the time No. 5 Washington faced California in the Pac-12 After Dark, Ohio State had made a compelling case for leapfrogging the Huskies.
Compelling as in a final score of Buckeyes 62, Cornhuskers 3. As in the Buckeyes scoring on 10 of 12 possessions. As in the Huskers getting four first downs on their opening possession and five in the rest of the game. As in Ohio State’s biggest margin of victory over a ranked team ever.
Ohio State defensive end Sam Hubbard described the sense of urgency that gripped the Buckeyes over the past week, how they repeated plays at practice to eliminate mistakes, how he watched more video, how he awoke early to come in for treatment to freshen his legs.
“I think we were just taking stuff for granted,” Hubbard said. “Taking Victory Meal [on Sunday night] for granted. Taking the success we had, since there’s so much here at Ohio State, for granted. The young guys had really never experienced a loss. They were thinking we were just going to win every game just because we were Ohio State.
“People were taking it for granted, myself included. Everyone was. We just needed a wake-up call, and we refocused ourselves.”
Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett played like the Heisman candidate he once resembled, completing 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 39 yards. This was the Barrett we expected to see all season: calm in the pocket, able to run or pass, moving but never panicking, even when he missed sure touchdown throws two times in three snaps in the first half.
“I was comfortable, and I knew we were on the edge of it to really break through,” Barrett said. “I wasn’t surprised, if that’s what you want me to say.”
Barrett doesn’t have any trouble finding Curtis Samuel, which is more than you can say for the Huskers’ defense. Samuel caught two of those touchdown passes, including a 75-yarder on the first play of the second half, and finished with 178 all-purpose yards. Neither Barrett nor Samuel touched the ball in the fourth quarter.
The Buckeyes’ defense contributed two scores, with its fifth and sixth pick-sixes of the season; the fifth one set an Ohio State season record.
And the Huskers scored one lousy field goal. If you wish to move “lousy” three words earlier in the previous sentence, the facts would back you up. After a 7-0 start to the season and a gutty overtime loss at Wisconsin last week, Nebraska showed up before 108,750 fans utterly unprepared for what awaited them. It took Ohio State only three plays to let the Huskers know.
On third-and-3 at the Nebraska 31, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. took a three-step drop, looking left. Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan followed Armstrong’s eyes, then deflected the pass to safety Damon Webb, who returned it 36 yards for the record-setting touchdown 94 seconds into the game.
That would not be the worst thing that happened to Armstrong on Saturday night. In the second quarter, two drives after Armstrong broke Taylor Martinez’s school record for career total offense (10,233 yards), he came around left end for an 11-yard run. At the left sideline, Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker hit Armstrong at his hip and swept his legs out from under him. Armstrong came down on his right shoulder and slammed his head into the FieldTurf.
Armstrong left the field strapped to a board, with his left thumb up to let everyone know he could move something. And with 10 minutes left in the third quarter, in the TV timeout after Ohio State extended its lead to 45-3, Armstrong emerged from the visitors tunnel in a black sweatsuit and jogged across to the Huskers sideline, where he embraced his fellow seniors — tight end Trey Foster and then wide receiver Alonzo Moore.
Armstrong’s recovery removed the only cloud over Ohio State’s night and probably even took some of the sting out of Nebraska’s performance. A little bit of perspective, and all that. Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer began his comments after the game by saying, “Wow, I didn’t see that one coming.” Then he took the long view, explaining that these are teenagers, in the process of maturing.
“We’ve all been around this sport long enough [to know] that when that youth grows up, it’s kind of cool to watch,” Meyer said. “And I’m hoping that’s what’s happening here. I’m not saying it is yet, because we’ve got a lot left.”
Nebraska coach Mike Riley, for his part, sounded more mystified than downcast.
“It looked very strange to me,” he said. “I didn’t feel like we played very loose.”
Meyer called it an “A to Z very good performance by our guys,” as in from the first minute to the last. As the Buckeyes’ offensive backups drove downfield in the final minutes, punter Cameron Johnston kicked a few in the net at the south edge of the Ohio State team area. But the scrubs kept moving the chains. Though Johnston held for eight extra points and two field goals, he never got onto the field for a punt. That begged one question to Johnston after the game:
Would he shower?
“Probably not,” Johnston said with a laugh, and then he ran to join his teammates.
Ohio State makes compelling playoff argument by dominating Nebraska – ESPN