COLUMBUS, Ohio — Big stage. Big hits. Big mistakes. Big plays. Haymakers at the Horseshoe.
Under a black, starless sky on this sprawling campus, Nebraska's offense threw heavy punches. But Ohio State's whole team — led by its virtuoso quarterback, Braxton Miller — landed knockout blows in a 63-38 win that puts fresh splotches of paint on a Husker canvas of doubt.
Splotch. Four turnovers — including one Taylor Martinez errant pass returned for a touchdown.
Splotch. Nine penalties.
Splotch. A defense that gave up 498 yards on just 62 plays — 371 yards on the ground — and the most points in Bo Pelini's college coaching tenure. Anywhere.
A defense that missed tackle after tackle in the fourth quarter. Splotch. A defense not remotely up to Pelini's gamble of putting an extra safety in the box to stop Miller, which led to a proverbial gold rush of huge Buckeye runs. Splotch.
“We killed ourselves,” said Pelini, who believes his teams prepare well for road games. “We've been here before. We've done it before on the road. That's the most disappointing thing. We talk about it and talk about it and talk about it. Believe me — I'm frustrated. I'm disappointed.”
Why did it happen?
“I don't know,” Pelini said. “I wish I knew.”
And why did it happen with so many seniors on the roster and in the starting lineup?
“You watched it,” Pelini said. “You gotta execute. You can't just talk about it. What just happened, happened.”
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It's the Huskers' fourth double-digit loss away from home in 15 games, and this game bore striking resemblance to the 31-, 28- and 17-point losses to Wisconsin, Michigan and South Carolina. A decent start. A sharp turning point. And an eventual collapse brought on by penalties, turnovers and defensive breakdowns.
Here, No. 21 NU took a 17-7 lead three minutes into the second quarter. To that point, the Huskers had forced three OSU punts and a turnover on downs and gained more than 140 yards on offense.
“It was a dark day there for that first quarter,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
So Miller flipped the script, running 72 yards through the teeth of Nebraska's stuck-to-a-spot secondary. NU defensive coaches agreed that OSU in the second quarter adjusted to the extra safety the Huskers deployed to stop Miller, and Nebraska defenders didn't read blocks, get off blocks, pursue or tackle very well in response.
“That turned the momentum on us,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said of the 72-yard run. “The quarterback-run game, we didn't play it well. Bad coaching. Bad execution.”
That run was the beginning of a 25-play, 242-yard, 28-point second quarter for the No. 12 Buckeyes. Miller — who ran for 186 yards on just 16 carries — threw a touchdown pass and ran for a decisive 31-yard score on fourth down just before halftime that gave OSU a 35-24 lead.
“We had about four guys there to make the tackle,” Pelini said of Miller's score. “To his credit, he made some people miss. And you gotta make those plays. You gotta take those shots.”
In the second half, Ohio State (6-0 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten) got a 76-yard punt return from Corey “Philly” Brown and scored easily on touchdown drives of 75, 62 and 26 yards. Nebraska's defense, gassed, appear to provide little resistance in the fourth quarter.
Miller said his coach, Meyer, even lost track of how many points the Buckeyes scored as OSU running back Carlos Hyde — who finished with 140 yards — barreled through one-armed flails.
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“I watched the UCLA game and their running back had 200-plus yards,” said Hyde, referring to NU's 36-30 loss to the Bruins. “So I knew there would be opportunities.”
Asked how he felt about the defense's effort in the fourth quarter, Papuchis paused and said, “I think things had kind of snowballed on us a little bit. We were just trying to survive.”
Martinez and the offense tried to keep pace, racking up 437 total yards. Rex Burkhead — who left in the third quarter after re-aggravating a knee injury — ripped off a 73-yard run to set up one touchdown, while Kenny Bell caught a 74-yard pass to set up another. The Huskers had a 77-yard touchdown march to start the second half and tacked on an 11-play, 70-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
But Martinez threw three interceptions — including one returned for a touchdown — lost a fumble and took two bad sacks. He committed the turnovers that Miller did not, and lacked consistent protection from his offensive line. For the game, NU converted just 5 of 14 third downs.
“We gave them points,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “We gotta do our part. We gotta score more than the opponent, whatever that is. We can't turn the ball over and give them short fields and give them touchdowns. It's been the story of this season. We gotta fix it.”
Asked to describe the offense's performance, Martinez said: “Well, we scored 38 points. So I think that's pretty good.” Martinez added that, at halftime, the offense sensed it would have to score every time it had the ball in the second half. Penalties didn't help; the school record crowd of 106,102 at Ohio Stadium seemed to rattle the Huskers' offense into several false start calls.
Martinez, too, didn't know why NU now struggles to keep its poise in road games.
“I'm not really sure,” Martinez said. “Couldn't answer you.”
“I don't know,” Beck said. “We're maybe going to have to — I don't know. We'll see.”
What Pelini does know: To get to the Big Ten championship game, he thinks the Huskers must win the rest of their games. Or “win out,” as he said. He told the team so after the loss. The plan for a bye week: “Go back to work.”
Martinez, whose offense at least kept punching until the end of the game, remains confident.
“We had a lot of people dinged up for this game,” he said. “We all know that we can still go to the Big Ten championship and still play in the Rose Bowl.
“So this game really didn't matter a lot. But we lost. Too bad that we lost. We could have won. But we can still go to the Rose Bowl.”
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>> Video: NU's Bo Pelini after the Nebraska-Ohio State game:
>> Video: Postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust:
>> Video: The Huskers arrive at Ohio Stadium: