There was a point during the second half last week where it appeared Ameer Abdullah had supplanted Rex Burkhead as the team's lead back, at least until the latter fully recovered from his MCL injury. Then Burkhead ripped off a run during which he stiff-armed a defender for 15 yards and reminded Memorial Stadium what he was capable of. He and Abdullah give the Huskers the Big Ten's, and maybe that nation's, best one-two punch at running back.
Opposing them this weekend will be an Ohio State unit that allows just 3.6 yards per carry and has surrendered only three rushing touchdowns in five games. The Buckeyes are led by defensive linemen John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, both of whom will be in contention for conference awards at season's end. Linebacker Ryan Shazier leads the team with 48 tackles and his 2.5 tackles for loss are tied for tops on Ohio State.
These are two strong units that are prepared to butt heads like a pair of rams Saturday. So far, no one has been able to slow the Huskers' rushing attack, as they've gained more than 200 yards on the ground in each game so far. Until someone stops NU's ground game, they figure to be favorites here just about every week.
NU Pass Offense vs. Ohio State Pass Defense
Taylor Martinez got off to a bit of a shaky start last week that certainly contributed to Wisconsin's early lead. The junior fumbled the opening snap, missed several open receivers and coughed up the ball on a blindside sack that gave the Badgers a 17-point lead minutes into the second half. But to his credit, Martinez turned it around and was tremendous after that point. He finished with 288 total yards and three total touchdowns. He still has just one interception this season.
The Buckeye secondary boasts some talented players but the results have been uneven so far. Ohio State ranks 11th in the Big Ten in passing defense, but the defenders have a way of getting their hands on the ball. The Buckeyes have allowed just five touchdowns through the air while picking off seven passes, including three by cornerback Travis Howard. Fellow cornerback Bradley Roby and safety C.J. Barnett are also dangerous and must be watched.
A key to this match-up could be yards after catch, which would take some pressure off of Martinez. Bottom line - any secondary that gave up more than 245 passing yards to UAB, Cal and UCF has some proving to do before they become a feared unit.
Ohio State Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
As does so much of Ohio State's offense, this match-up revolves around quarterback Braxton Miller. The sophomore has been fantastic to this point, averaging 6.4 yards per carry and scoring seven touchdowns. The running game is somewhat one-sided - Miller has more than double the rushing yards of the next highest Buckeye, Jordan Hall, who is listed as doubtful for the game. If he can't go, Carlos Hyde will take his place.
Nebraska provided a performance last week worthy of receiving the vaunted Blackshirts. Wisconsin, known as a power-running team, picked up just 56 yards on 1.4 yards per carry. Tackles Baker Steinkuhler and Chase Rome may have had the best performances of their careers, while the linebacking crew picked up any tackles that duo missed.
But this Buckeye running game is a different beast than the one NU saw in Lincoln last weekend. Ohio State relies more on speed and the Badgers didn't have a quarterback that can run through defenses like Miller can. He shredded Nebraska before an injury last year and now has offensive guru Urban Meyer calling his plays. This is still a defensive group with a lot to prove this week.
Edge: OHIO STATE
Ohio State Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
Miller hasn't been as efficient passing as he has running, but he's been far from a disappointment. He is completing 62 percent of his passes and has eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Philly Brown gives the Buckeyes a solid possession receiver and Devin Smith supplies the big plays (18.5 yards per catch). Tight end Jake Stoneburner is one of the Big Ten's best.
Nebraska's coverage has been solid all year and the Huskers lead the conference in sacks with 19. But the last quarterback NU faced that was near Miller's caliber was UCLA's Brett Hundley, and he shredded the Huskers through the air. The continued healing of Mohammed Seisay will go a long way toward determining just how good this unit can be.
Nebraska has to avoid the pass interference penalties it suffered on deep passes a week ago. The Huskers also haven't seen many receivers with the big play ability of Smith. In the end, this match-up will come down to whether NU can make Miller uncomfortable while keeping him in the pocket.
Edge: OHIO STATE
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Brett Maher was named as the conference's Special Teams Player of the Week and made three field goals last week, but the rest of the special teams were a mess. The blocking on returns was poor, save for one long return by Abdullah, and a boneheaded roughing-the-punter penalty gave Wisconsin a free first down.
Ohio State has been average on both returns and coverage this year. The strength of their special teams is Drew Basil, who has only attempted two field goals this year but connected on 16 of 19 as a sophomore.
Despite NU's special teams struggles last week, Abdullah and Maher give the unit a spark that Ohio State likely can't match. However, one bad punt by Maher or a fumble on a return could totally swing both this match-up and the game.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can hold onto the ball (the Huskers fumbled six times against Wisconsin) and contain Miller. The latter is easier said then done, but Miller is essentially the Buckeye offense, especially if Hall doesn't play. Slowing Miller would bog the entire offense down.
Ohio State Will Win If:
Miller can put on the same performance he did before getting injured against Nebraska last year. NU was powerless to contain him in the running game, and when it tried, Miller hit them with passes over the top.
Whether or not Pelini comes up with a scheme to put the clamps on Miller. I hate to keep hitting this point over the head, but Miller's impact will determine the game. There are few scenarios where Miller plays poorly and Ohio State comes out on top.