COLUMBUS — In last season's tilt between Ohio State and Nebraska out in Lincoln, the Buckeyes jumped to a 27-6 lead midway through the third quarter — powered by an incredibly dominating performance from then-freshman quarterback Braxton Miller.
However, with five minutes to play in the third, the Buckeyes' do-it-all star was forced to leave the game after suffering a painful ankle injury on a QB keeper. Miller would not return to action ... and apparently, neither did any of his teammates.
From that point on, the Huskers smelled blood in the water and attacked like a shiver of sharks, scoring 28 unanswered points to defeat the Buckeyes, 34-27.
This season in Columbus, however, sees a Buckeye team with a whole different mindset. They are a team that has come together under new head coach Urban Meyer. They are not completely dependent on Miller any longer — although he still remains their most dominating force. Last week in East Lansing proved that.
Although Miller had another game of more than 300 total yards, including a huge 63-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith to put the Buckeyes ahead for good in the third quarter, he was physically banged up for much of the game and needed his teammates to help finish off a tough Michigan State squad on the road.
The defense held the Spartans — and their ultra-talented tailback Le'Veon Bell — to a season-low 34 yards rushing, while Buckeyes tailback Carlos Hyde picked up a critical first down late to give the Buckeyes a 17-16 win.
"If that team wasn't together, that team loses that game," Meyer said of the win against the Spartans. "No doubt."
Meyer said the Buckeyes, who have gone through hell and back in the past year and a half, are beginning to mature as a unit.
"It's been a team that's been pushed around for a while," Meyer said. "Lot of things have happened. Lot of things I'm probably not even aware of. But I could tell that it wasn't a close team (when I arrived). It was a team with a lot of excuses, and it materialized over the weekend.
"It was really interesting to watch it happen. We pushed the envelope as a coaching staff and they bought in."
Of course, the No. 12 Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) will have another test of maturity this Saturday night in Columbus, as the 21st-ranked Huskers (4-1, 1-0) come calling to the "Horseshoe" — a team with essentially the same roster that made the improbable come-from-behind win a year ago.
The Huskers are led by a talent dual-threat player of their own in junior quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Martinez is third in the Big Ten in all-purposed yards — one spot behind Miller — combining for 1,357 yards and 14 total touchdowns. He is also the most efficient passer in the conference with a QB rating of 169.6.
Add in runners like Ameer Abdullah and Rex Burkhead — who have combined for 759 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground — and it's no wonder why the Huskers score a Big Ten-best 44.8 points per game.
The Buckeyes have been pretty stout against the run this season, but the pass defense have had some serious issues with quick hitters and screen plays — something the Huskers will be looking to exploit quite often come Saturday night.
"With all the bubbles and everything, they spread the receivers way out there and throw the bubble screens," Meyer said of Nebraska's offense. "I think we're better now. But this is a tough one. This is a dynamic offense. It's one thing when you make a mistake and it's an 8-yard gain. If this one's a mistake, it's an 80-yard gain.
"This is the big difference that I see with Nebraska's offense."
I agree with Meyer that the Buckeyes are beginning to come together. They are certainly buying in to what the coaching staff is selling. However, against a team like Nebraska — in a primetime setting at home — Miller has to remain healthy if the Buckeyes are to move to 6-0.
Miller is a dynamo. He is a game-changer in every sense of the word, as the nation witnessed last season in Lincoln when Miller went down. That was about as "game-changing" as it gets.
In order to keep Miller healthy, others must step up and take some of the load. Most notably on the edges. With Nebraska almost certain to play man-coverage — so they can keep more players up front to defend the run — the Buckeyes must take chances vertically like they did with Smith on the game-winning touchdown last week in East Lansing.
I don't believe that the Buckeyes can win a grind-it-out 17-16 game with Nebraska like they did against Michigan State. They have to loosen the Huskers' defense with big plays through the air or they will lose ... PERIOD!
I believe Meyer and the offensive staff understands that.
Prediction: OSU 34-30