COLUMBUS, Ohio — On a night when Mike Riley’s revival train came to a screeching halt, the sheer volume of disheartening plays makes it almost impossible to focus on one single moment.
Third-and-2 at the Ohio State 43. J.T. Barrett hands the ball to tailback Mike Weber, who’s stuffed at the line of scrimmage by linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey. This is a big play because Nebraska trails only 14-3. It’s a big play because the struggling Blackshirts need an ego boost after a rough first quarter.
Rose-Ivey, who’d missed two relatively easy tackles in the backfield early in the game, finally steps up and nudges momentum in NU’s direction.
One problem: He didn’t finish the play. The senior 230-pounder tried to wrap up Weber above the waist and the freshman 212-pounder dragged him across the 45-yard line for a first down. Four plays later, Weber dashed into the end zone from 23 yards — 21-3 Buckeyes.
Goodnight, Irene. Goodnight, top-10 ranking. Goodnight, Big Ten West Division lead. Goodnight to all the good will built up over the past two months.
As the Huskers limp back to Lincoln and assess the psychological damage of the second-worst loss in school history, they won’t think much of one split-second in the second quarter.
But that failure — that moment — perfectly encapsulated Nebraska’s futility. The Huskers were humiliated on the biggest stage of the season. They entered the Horseshoe understanding the stakes. They recognized that an upset of Ohio State would be the crowning achievement of their careers, the biggest moment for the program since Stuntz to Crouch, vaulting them into the national title picture.
They couldn’t handle it. Not physically, where the Buckeyes proved far more talented and disciplined. Not emotionally, where the Huskers couldn’t find the fire that propelled them to a 7-0 start. It was a flashback to the Pelini Era, when Nebraska frequently felt the heat of the national spotlight and crawled under the covers with a high fever.
Bo’s teams would stir a little hope early in big games. This was a nightmare from the opening drive, when Tommy Armstrong locked in on a receiver — with no awareness of the defense — and Ohio State took the interception back for a touchdown. Back home, a few million Husker hearts dropped into their stomachs.
All week, the national buzz seemed bigger than local anticipation. Unusual, right? There were Nebraska promos on ESPN. There was Chris Fowler interviewing Mike Riley. There was serious game analysis on “College GameDay.” And yet, Nebraskans maintained a cautious optimism to the whole showdown, a reluctance to climb the ladder and step onto the emotional tightrope. What if we fall?
Their instincts were right.
The offense was awful. The special teams were dreadful. But the failure of failures was Mark Banker’s defense and its complete inability to get off the field on third down. You want this night in a 60-second, gut-punch montage? Scroll through your DVR this morning and watch Ohio State’s third-down attempts in the first half.
Nine chances. Eight conversions.
Conversion No. 1: Nebraska calls timeout before Ohio State’s third-and-20. Whatever Banker draws up doesn’t work. Barrett steps up and hits a crossing Dontre Wilson down to the 9-yard line.
Conversion No. 2: Goal to go at the 7-yard line. Barrett escapes the pocket, rolls left and finds Terry McLaurin for a touchdown.
Conversion No. 3: Rose-Ivey vs. Weber, which resembled Bo Jackson vs. Brian Bosworth on “Monday Night Football,” circa 1987.
Conversion No. 4: Barrett beats a blitz on third-and-8 and finds Curtis Samuel on a slant. Chris Jones should be able to stop him before the marker, but Samuel falls forward.
Conversion No. 5: Jones, Nebraska’s best cover man, is flagged for holding, wiping out a short third-down completion short of the sticks.
Conversion No. 6: Total confusion up front and Barrett shoots up the middle for 20 yards on third-and-9.
Conversion No. 7: A nifty pick play by Ohio State nets 6 yards on third-and-5.
Conversion No 8: Barrett gets two on third-and-1, leading to another touchdown and a 31-3 halftime lead.
That’s your ballgame right there. And that was before the first snap of the second half, when Barrett connected with Samuel for a 75-yard touchdown. That was before a second pick-six. Yes, somehow it got worse after halftime.
“I thought at times we were a little tentative,” Banker said. “Just not absolutely attacking things. … If I had an explanation, maybe we could’ve either amputated somewhere or at least stopped the bleeding. Never solved that riddle.”
Said linebacker Josh Banderas: “We helped out a really good team and we didn’t need to.”
It makes you wonder if Riley’s 7-0 start was just a magic trick enabled by a soft schedule and several fortunate bounces. It makes wonder how wide the talent gulf between the Huskers and the Buckeyes truly is. It makes you wonder if Nebraska can recover these next three games, finish 10-2 and feel good about 2016. Or will the Huskers slump to the finish line and enter the offseason with white-knuckle anxiety?
Based on where things stood eight days ago, it’s hard to fathom that the big-picture debates are even on the table. But look at that scoreboard again. Try to wrap your arms around those numbers.
These are supposed to be two of college football’s best programs. They’re supposed to peers. Rivals. Over the past 50 years, Ohio State and Nebraska are 1-2 in national win percentage. But twice the Huskers have come to The Shoe since 2012 and twice they got stomped.
There are quaint, old campuses in the Big Ten, idyllic college towns in Indiana and Pennsylvania and Iowa. Ohio State is not one of those places. The home of the Buckeyes is massive and modern. It’s intimidating.
Husker fans are famous for making their presence known on road trips. Showing up 20,000 to 30,000 strong and taking over the scene. As I walked around campus and through the stadium Saturday, I was struck by all the scarlet. How its sheer volume eliminated Nebraska’s precious identity. Usually, you can spot Husker fans a mile away. Saturday they just blended in, humbly and quietly.
Swallowed in a sea of red they didn’t fully understand.