Rob Oller: Ohio State football program rolls along while Nebraska rolls over

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State has a 7-1 all-time record against Nebraska, including a 48-7 win last season during which linebacker Malik Harrison (39) and defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton celebrate Harrison's sack of Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez.

Nebraska coach Scott Frost spoke this week of being in lockstep with Ohio State over the Big Ten’s return to fall football.

If only the Cornhuskers could attach themselves to the Buckeyes in a return to fall glory. In comparing the two programs, Ohio State is what Nebraska once was. In a word: relevant.

If the Buckeyes are to football what Bryson DeChambeau is to golf — a big name with a giant-sized game — then the Huskers are Jordan Spieth, a former force whose game has fallen off a cliff. (Michigan is in similar shape to Nebraska, though more in the Rickie Fowler category of all show.)

Those of a certain age will recall when Nebraska was one of college football’s bluebloods, a program admired for a) its coaches, specifically Bob Devaney followed by Tom Osborne; b) innovation in weight training and nutrition; and c) ability to recruit top talent to the Plains.

True, the Cornhuskers have a history of generational fluctuation — 40 years of impressive success mix with 20 years of struggle — but their “up” decades put them near the tip-top of the sport.

Nebraska won back-to-back national titles under Devaney in 1970-71 and went 255-49-3 (.836) with three national titles in 25 seasons under Osborne. Then came the 20-year lull, when the simple “N” on the helmet could be mistaken for Nadir.

Ohio State, meanwhile, is football gold even if the helmet is silver. The Buckeyes, who will host to Nebraska on Saturday in a near-empty Horseshoe, continue to set up shop in a factory of success the Cornhuskers once enjoyed in Memorial Stadium.

Ohio State is a 26-point favorite, indicating how far the mighty have fallen. The 1971 Cornhuskers did not allow 26 total points in their first three games, while the 1994 and 1995 teams allowed 26 only once in each of those two seasons.

Ohio State has been a consistently strong program over the past 70 years. Slumps? No way. Only three times in the past 73 seasons has Ohio State lost as many as six games (it’s happened to NU 16 times). Not since 1922-24 has OSU suffered consecutive losing seasons. No other school can match that over the long haul. 

Nebraska does not come close. Disappointment over the Huskers’ downfall — they have more losses the past three seasons (23) than during the entire 1970s (20) — comes both from within the Big Red fanbase and from the outside. Nebraska fans are among the most loyal and nicest in the nation. But even their kindness and patience has been tested.

Externally, from the perspective of the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers were supposed to bring added cachet to the conference. Instead, their addition has been, if not subtraction, at least a huge disappointment.

Listening to Nebraska players talk about Ohio State on Monday was a reminder of how things have changed. Most spoke of the Buckeyes as football elite, which coming from a former elite comes off as slightly pathetic.

“Those are the type of guys you want to play and kind of test your strength against,” Huskers offensive lineman Matt Farniak said of OSU.

Sad. It's hard to imagine Tommy Frazier, Broderick Thomas or Frost, who as quarterback led Nebraska to the 1997 national title (coaches poll), saying anything similar back in the day.

A dejected Nebraska fan watches the third quarter of Ohio State's win last season. The Cornhuskers have more losses the past three seasons (23) than during the entire 1970s (20).

Lee Barfknecht, who for decades covered Nebraska for the Omaha World-Herald, pinpoints why the Huskers are now rankings has-beens.

“Because of lower population, Nebraska had to scramble and innovate and find ways to have an edge, but TV money has leveled things to where everybody has eight nutritionists and 30 strength and conditioning people,” he said.

Barfknecht also blames NU’s woes on administrative bungling, including the hiring of Bill Callahan to replace Frank Solich as coach in 2004. Among other missteps, Callahan de-emphasized the walk-on program, which trampled tradition and hurt morale. Next came Bo Pelini, who never lost fewer than three games in his seven seasons, followed by Mike Riley.

“Hiring Mike Riley at Nebraska is like hiring a short-order cook at a five-star restaurant,” Barfknecht said. “And now they’re paying the price.”

Compare Nebraska’s coaching moves to Ohio State, which followed Woody Hayes with Earle Bruce, then John Cooper, Jim Tressel, interim Luke Fickell, Urban Meyer and Ryan Day.

“The question is whether Scott Frost can flip things around,” Barfknecht said. “But things are so different.”

Not at Ohio State, where winning seasons roll along like nothing ever happened.

roller@dispatch.com

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