Ohio State exited the field to boos at halftime Saturday.
Two weeks after an ugly loss to Purdue and after an off week devoted to fixing the many deficiencies that finally caught up to them against the Boilermakers, the Buckeyes looked like they might be headed to an even more humiliating defeat.
Nebraska, after all, was winless until two weeks ago when it beat Minnesota. The last two years, Ohio State had whipped the Cornhuskers by a combined margin of 101 points.
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So when No. 10 Ohio State trailed by 5 at halftime, Buckeyes fans showed their displeasure. It took a long-awaited revival of Ohio State’s run game for them to depart Ohio Stadium relieved with a 36-31 victory.
The Buckeyes (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten) overcame a subpar passing game by Dwayne Haskins Jr., three turnovers and often-shaky defense because they got back to doing what the program has traditionally done best.
“The purpose of this game was to show people we can run the ball,” right tackle Isaiah Prince said.
Ohio State had barely averaged 3 yards per carry in its last four games.
“We were tired of hearing the criticism about us not being able to run the ball and be physical,” Prince said. “We took that to heart, and it showed today. To be honest, schematically we didn’t change anything. It was just the attitude of being violent and physical. No new plays. No new blocking schemes. Just a different attitude.”
J.K. Dobbins ran for 163 yards and three touchdowns in 23 carries. Mike Weber added 91 yards in nine carries, though he did fumble twice. Of the Buckeyes’ 229 rushing yards, 166 came after halftime.
That compensated for an inconsistent passing game. Haskins completed 18 of 32 attempts for 252 yards. That was his lowest yardage total this season other than the blowout of Rutgers in which he was a spectator in the second half.
When he threw an interception in the end zone on Ohio State’s first possession of the third quarter, the Buckeyes looked to be in serious trouble. The Cornhuskers led 21-16 at halftime after converting fumbles by Haskins on a sack and K.J. Hill after a reception into second-quarter touchdowns.
Nebraska’s offense, which features freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, kept the Buckeyes off-balance throughout the first half. Compounding Ohio State’s problems was a targeting ejection against safety Jordan Fuller. He is the best player and leader of the secondary, which was already without safety Isaiah Pryor (shoulder) and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah (groin).
But the defense, aided by several key drops by Nebraska receivers, held the Cornhuskers scoreless for the first 22 minutes of the second half. That allowed the Buckeyes to take control with its run game.
Neither Weber nor Dobbins had had a run longer than 21 yards since the season opener. But Weber broke a 27-yarder on an 80-yard touchdown drive capped by a 3-yard Dobbins run to put Ohio State ahead 23-21 in the third quarter. Later in the third quarter, Weber shed a couple tackles on a 37-yard carry to set up a 9-yard shovel pass for a touchdown by Parris Campbell.
Nebraska settled for a field goal that made it 30-24 after Ohio State stopped the Cornhuskers at the 1 midway through the fourth quarter.
When Dobbins broke a 42-yard touchdown run, the victory looked to be clinched. But Nebraska went 75 yards in two minutes to make it 36-31 with 2:57 left.
Ohio State wouldn’t let the Huskers get the ball back. Dobbins ran for two first downs to run out the clock.
“We came in this week trying to run the ball,” Weber said. “We didn’t care how many guys were in the box. That was the motto this week.”
A 5-point victory at home over a 2-7 team won’t impress many people, but Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer wasn’t dissatisfied.
“I get it that that was a two-win team,” Meyer said. “But that's a two-win team that people don't want to play right now.”
But with games ahead at Michigan State next week and against Michigan in three weeks, the Buckeyes will have to be significantly better.
“I think we're close,” Meyer said. “We better be when you see what's coming up next week, but I liked the effort today.”