COLUMBUS -- While the Ohio State offense is looking to shore up some aspects of its operation this week, the defense faces a bigger question.
Was its month of improvement real, or did the Buckeyes mostly look better because of a slide in competition?
Until last week, the Ohio State defense had been on the upswing, but Penn State consistently moved the ball the way the previous four opponents could not. Quarterback Sean Clifford threw for 361 yards, and the Nittany Lions were nearly unstoppable on third down.
Nonetheless, Ohio State forced two turnovers and sacked Clifford four times while coming out on top 33-24.
“There were a lot of positives,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said this week. “When you create the turnovers (we) did and get defensive scores, you put our team in a much better position to win. It is continuing to build, so we have to stay disciplined and stay on it.”
The offense the Buckeyes will face Saturday is an enigma.
Nebraska is 16h in the country in total offense but just 53rd in scoring (and fourth and second, respectively, in Big Ten in those categories).
The Cornhuskers are also No. 2 in the Big Ten and ninth nationally in yards per completion while ranking 27th in rushing, but they have been plagued by inconsistency and turnovers.
Coach Scott Frost returned to his alma mater four years ago regarded as an offensive guru, and he quickly signed his quarterback of the future in Adrian Martinez.
They had a strong first season together in 2018, but things have been rocky since as Martinez has not looked much better than he did as a freshman.
Martinez is coming off a four-interception game against Purdue, but offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said he is not in danger of losing his job.
“We have a lot of confidence in Adrian Martinez,” Lubick told reporters in Lincoln this week. “It is an unfortunate thing when you are losing the quarterback takes a lot of the blame. That is football but it is really unfair because it is not him. It is everybody.
“First we look at ourselves as coaches and then it is every position and making sure he has the guys around him doing the right things to put him in the best position so he can be successful. He has made a lot of plays this year to help us move the football. He has made some mistakes too just like everybody else. But that is kind of the nature of the position that he is in and he handles it like a champion. Adrian Martinez is our quarterback and that is who we are going with.”
Martinez might draw the wrath of Nebraska fans at times for his mistakes, but he is the Huskers’ all-time leader in total offensive yards per game (273.5), 400-yard total offense games (5), 300-yard total offense games (18), 250-yard passing games (15) and pass completions (631).
This season, he is second in the Big Ten in points responsible for and yards per completion, and with more than 2,000 career rushing yards he is a true dual-threat quarterback.
Martinez has the ability to put a team on his back, but he can also hurt his team with mistakes.
Adding to the challenge for Ohio State this week: Steele Chambers is ineligible for the first half after being ejected for targeting last week, leaving the majority of the snaps to Teradja Mitchell, Cody Simon, Tommy Eichenberg and Palaie Gaoteote.
While Mitchell and Simon started the past five games, coach Al Washington has rotated his players heavily much of the season, and Chambers has seen his playing time increase over time.
He was a running back this time last year, but Chambers has proven a quick study and looked like Ohio State’s best linebacker at times.
His speed and athleticism could come in handy against Martinez, and Chambers’ absence could open the door to more playing time for Gaoteote, the former five-star recruit who transferred in from USC over the summer.
“Palaie will have to go in there and step up,” Day said. “Tommy will have to step up. Coach Washington will move those guys around, and then we will get Steele back in the second half.”