COLUMBUS, Ohio — Brief, intense worry, followed by relentless misery.
Worry for quarterback Tommy Armstrong, whose helmet slammed on the turf in Nebraska’s 62-3 loss to Ohio State.
Briefly unconscious, Armstrong awoke and saw his father and fiancee. He talked and moved his extremities as trainers strapped him to a stretcher, fitted him with a neck brace and carted him to an ambulance, which took him to a hospital across the street from Ohio Stadium. He dramatically returned to the arena — in his hospital scrubs — to rejoin his teammates.
After the game, Armstrong hugged family members. He was OK.
The Huskers weren’t — not by any stretch of any morbid imagination that could’ve conjured up this nightmare.
Nebraska’s play before and after Armstrong’s second-quarter injury kicked up a graveyard of familiar ghosts. NU suffered its largest margin of defeat since Texas Tech took Nebraska to the 70-10 woodshed in 2004. The Huskers were outgained by 296 yards and outscored by Buckeye backups.
“That was real bad,” coach Mike Riley said. “And we’re all responsible for it.”
“It was the team’s fault,” backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe said. “Not just one person’s fault.”
On a prime time stage against the kind of star-studded talent that wins national titles, No. 10 Nebraska (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) puckered like its collective mouth got stuffed with lemons. The offense turtled into a shell. The Blackshirts tackled as if the Buckeyes (8-1, 5-1) were covered in hot grease. The Huskers had whole chunks of the Horseshoe heading home a quarter early — out of boredom.
In front of 108,750 bemused fans, No. 6 Ohio State took a swift sledgehammer to all the flaws in Nebraska’s football facade. You saw the cracks. You acknowledged their presence.
Now, amid the rubble of this loss, you know how significant the structural weaknesses really were.
The Huskers’ hit-and-miss pass attack? Ohio State exposed that on the third play of the game when safety Damon Webb returned a deflected Armstrong pass 36 yards for a touchdown.
Nebraska’s patchwork offensive line and middling ground game? OSU bullied it about, holding the Huskers to 78 rushing yards.
“Making sure we’re having success with something we can hang our hat on, that’s part of the deal,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “It’s changed kind of weekly.”
NU’s average pass rush? OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett exposed that, biding time in the pocket or prancing around outside of it as he converted seven out of eight third downs in the first half as the Buckeyes pieced together three touchdown drives. Barrett wasn’t even particularly sharp — he overthrew one sure touchdown and missed open receivers. But Nebraska’s defense barely rattled him.
“I thought he was poised,” safety Nate Gerry said of Barrett, who completed 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and four touchdowns before leaving the game. “He’s a big-time quarterback and made plays. Their offense runs through him. If he has a good day, the offense has a good day and he had a real good day. I thought he had some time back there — especially on his passes — and we couldn’t stop the run, either.”
And then there is the talent gap. It’s not something any coach or program wants to concede. But Nebraska’s top-30 national recruiting classes, when pitted against OSU’s top-five recruiting classes, lost too many one-on-one matchups Saturday night. It triggered an avalanche of big Buckeye plays and three hours of Big Red malaise.
When OSU running backs Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel needed an extra yard or an extra dose of speed, they found it. Samuel, a true speedster, streaked right by safety Aaron Williams for a 75-yard touchdown catch to start the second half.
“They didn’t really do that much different than anybody else we really played,” Gerry said. “They’ve just got some talented athletes over there and, like I said, we didn’t come to play football today.”
Did Gerry know why that was the case?
“I don’t,” Gerry said. “Not right now.”
When defensive end Tyquan Lewis needed to wreck a Husker fourth-down play by shucking aside blocker Devine Ozigbo, he did that, then harried Fyfe into a mistake.
When Ohio State’s speedy kick coverage defense needed to run down NU freshman kick returner Tre Bryant, it did so repeatedly. Nebraska’s field position, after kickoffs, was generally lousy. Once, NU started at its own 5.
All of OSU’s talent forced Nebraska’s offense into long, fruitless throws into the night. Here, Nebraska figured it could win — its wideouts against the Buckeyes’ defensive backs. Not hardly. OSU’s talent won those matchups, too. NU’s desperate throws — indicative of little plan other than heaving and hoping — underscored the gap between the programs.
“We just didn’t hit our throws and catch it,” Fyfe said.
Nebraska’s quarterbacks combined to complete just 9 of 33 passes. NU ran the ball just 24 times.
“It was only part of the plan,” Riley said of the constant deep fade passes. He added that Ohio State played a lot of man-to-man press coverage. “It does eventually look like — when you’re not hitting them — a last, not-very-good resort. That really wasn’t the plan, though. That’s just how it turned out and how it looked. I realize it looked just like that.”
Especially when one of those heaves from Fyfe turned into OSU’s second Pick Six of the game, which gave the Buckeyes a mind-numbing 55-3 lead.
The Buckeyes’ backup offense came in — and went 98 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown. That made it 62-3. After a Husker punt, OSU could have tacked on a final touchdown, but instead ran out the last six minutes on 10 plays.
Nebraska players quietly filed toward the locker room. One Ohio State fan yelled “trash!” at the NU players. Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, walking briskly, offered a handshake to a reporter as he walked by.
Riley didn’t shirk from questions in his brief postgame interview, nor did he offer immediate answers, beyond needing to run the ball better.
“We haven’t been consistent at it for a while, and that’s been the crux of the problem,” Riley said.
This loss, Riley said, was “out of the blue” for him. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he didn’t see it coming.
But the Ohio State train just hit Nebraska football right in the gut. What now?
“We lost in a bad way,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “The most important thing now is the mental health of this team — to make sure we don’t have a hangover come next week.”