Ohio State survives fight from Nebraska 26-17 behind big days from Smith-Njigba, Ruggles
LINCOLN, Neb. — Forget Nebraska's record, Ohio State coach Ryan Day said all week.
The Cornhuskers were 3-6, but none of their losses were by more than eight points against a schedule that has included top-10 teams Oklahoma, Michigan State and Michigan.
Game video doesn't lie, Day said, and it showed that Nebraska was formidable on both sides of the ball.
That's often coach-speak, but Day wasn't wrong. The Buckeyes had every reason to feel fortunate escaping Memorial Stadium with a 26-17 victory.
No. 5 Ohio State overcame a stagnant run game, trouble scoring touchdowns in the red zone, two C.J. Stroud interceptions and some ill-timed penalties. Running back TreVeyon Henderson didn't have a carry for longer than 6 yards until the Buckeyes' final drive.
But Ohio State prevailed anyway.
It did so because its defense, with the exception of two big pass plays, was stout. Nebraska converted only 2 of 13 third-down chances and ran for only 113 yards on 34 carries.
It did so because Jaxon Smith-Njigba caught an Ohio State-record 15 passes for 240 yards, 75 of which came on a second-quarter touchdown, to pick up the slack left by the absence of Garrett Wilson. Smith-Njigba accounted for more than half of Stroud's 405 passing yards.
It did so because Nebraska (3-7,1-6) missed two field goals while Ohio State's Noah Ruggles kicked four field goals to remain perfect this season.
"It's great to see our guys win like this," Day said. "I'm very proud of our defense, proud of the special teams. There were really a lot of great performances."
Ohio State (8-1, 6-0 Big Ten) never trailed, but the Buckeyes didn't secure the victory until late. Nebraska had the ball trailing 23-17 with 6 minutes to play. After one first down to the Huskers' 31, Ohio State forced incompletions on three straight plays, though Nebraska fans wanted an interference call on the last one.
The Buckeyes got the ball back at their 13 with 5:17 left. Henderson finally found some daylight with carries of 11 and 22 to move the ball into Nebraska territory. On first down from the 34, Stroud fumbled while sacked, but center Luke Wypler recovered at the 45. Completions to Smith-Njigba and Henderson got the ball to the 29, and Ruggles nailed a 46-yard field goal into the wind with 1:29 left to clinch the win.
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Ruggles, a transfer from North Carolina, has made all 15 of his attempts this season.
"Every kick is the same to me," he said. "Even in those pressure situations, I try to just make it seem like any other kick. I think that's why it works."
A transfer provided much of Nebraska's offense as well. Twice, Montana transfer Samori Toure beat OSU's Lathan Ransom on deep balls over the middle for the biggest Huskers plays of the game. The first was a 72-yard score that answered Smith-Njigba's touchdown. The second went for 53 yards to set up a 1-yard score by quarterback Adrian Martinez.
"The two big plays we got hit on were bad (coaching) calls," said secondary coach Matt Barnes, who makes the calls. "Didn't put our kids in position to be successful on those plays."
Excluding those plays, Ohio State's defense yielded only 236 yards in 63 plays. The Buckeyes' defensive line continually harassed Martinez, sacking him five times.
"We go out there with the mentality of getting three-and-out or a turnover," said senior defensive end Tyreke Smith, who had one of the sacks. "That's our whole mentality every time we get out there. The defense has definitely been jelling. The chemistry has been going up every weekend."
While the defense has made unmistakable progress since its early-season struggles, the offense is regressing in some ways. For the second straight game, the Buckeyes failed to score in the first quarter. For all of Stroud's yardage, he forced a few passes into coverage, something he avoided doing in recent games.
The run game sputtering again is of particular concern. Henderson hasn't had much daylight lately. Part of the issue is that the Buckeyes had to juggle their line right before the game when right tackle Dawand Jones felt ill and had to miss the first two series. Nebraska also blitzed frequently.
"I think we can do a better job with the runs," said Day. "Right now, we're not getting as much as we'd like on it. We'll go back and figure that out. But when they blitz a lot, there's going to be an extra guy in the box, and that opens up opportunities for the pass game."
But Day didn't view Saturday as a glass-half-empty victory. This time of year, it's all about survival.
"It's hard to win in this conference," he said. "It is hard to win on the road. Coming off of an emotional game, a late game two weeks in a row, coming in here with an 11 a.m. (Central) kick, it was going to be a challenge. We knew it.
"We're just not clean in some areas. But anytime we're talking about this after a 9-point win on the road, that's a good thing."