LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska had lined up in the I-formation with two running backs.
It caught Ohio State by surprise.
“There was some throwback stuff there,” Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said. “They were coming downhill.”Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
Late in the first quarter of a game Saturday night, the Cornhuskers, who usually rely on a variation of the spread offense under second-year coach Scott Frost, reverted to some of their more time-honored looks.
On the drive late in the first quarter, quarterback Adrian Martinez, who was lined up under center from the I-formation, handed the ball off quickly or kept it on designed runs.
The offense almost seem to mirror the triple-option run by Frost when he was quarterback for the Cornhuskers in the 1990s. The sellout Memorial Stadium crowd roared as loudly as ever.
After an 8-yard run by Martinez, color commentator Kirk Herbstreit noticed the abrupt change during the ABC broadcast.
“That is old-school Nebraska,” he remarked.
When the drive reached the Buckeyes’ 26-yard line, after amassing 49 yards, Day called a timeout. His team was leading 14-0, off to a fast start, but his assistants asked for one.
No one had expected to see vintage Nebraska. It was ranked 24th in the nation in total offense through four weeks because of an up-tempo spread offense that Frost had first learned as an assistant for Chip Kelly, the innovative coach at Oregon earlier this decade.
The change prompted a wave of adjustments by the Buckeyes.
“We took the timeout and got together and explained, 'OK, here's what's happening, here's what we have to do,” said Greg Mattison, the defensive co-coordinator. “We got them stopped and then we had time on the sidelines to be able to go through it some more.”
The Buckeyes got them stopped on the first play after the timeout when cornerback Jeff Okudah picked off a pass by Martinez. It was a turning point in the Buckeyes’ 48-7 win over the Huskers.
“It's smart guys who trust us and pay attention,” said Jeff Hafley, who runs the defensive with Mattison. “The fact they can adjust that fast is awesome. It's a credit to the players, because we hadn't seen it, hadn't practiced it, and it was a good game plan for them.”
The Cornhuskers were prompted to revert back toward their more-modern offense, with a passing emphasis, as the game wore on.
Ohio State’s offense kept scoring. Nebraska needed to keep pace and overcome a mounting double-digit deficit. It required passing.
“I don't think it was going to be a two-back run game when we were up,” Hafley said.
The Buckeyes scored 48 unanswered points and did not punt until the fourth quarter.
Day and the rest of Ohio State’s players and coaches sidestepped questions about their long-term potential after the game. Most likely realized it was too early to think about the national championship picture.
But if the Buckeyes are to remain a College Football Playoff contender, or even win the Big Ten for the third consecutive season, it will be because of the in-game adjustments made by their staff and players, holding off creative upset-minded teams.
Day knew it could have taken far longer to adjust to Nebraska.
“It was a good job by our defensive staff by adjusting and getting that under control,” Day said, “because there have been games I've been in that somebody throws that on you and you can't adjust, you're not ready for that kind of stuff. Our guys did a good job of adjusting on the move.”
It was the defense’s biggest test, and it passed on the fly.