Nebraska is plenty familiar at this point with Ohio State’s fleet of standout receivers, headlined by Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.
The pair combined to do most of the Buckeyes’ damage in the passing game last year against the Huskers when the teams met to open the season, combining for 13 catches, 233 yards and a touchdown in OSU’s 52-17 victory.
Freshman Jaxon Smith-Njigba also caught a touchdown in that game.
That trio is back this year and headlines a star-studded skill group for Ryan Day’s team, one that represents a monumental challenge for the Nebraska defense Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
So far this year, here’s how the numbers shake out: Wilson leads the trio with 687 yards on 43 catches, while Smith-Njigba is second with 648 and Olave follows with 562 on 35 catches apiece. All of them average 16 or better per reception and Olave leads the way with nine of the trio’s 18 touchdowns.
Freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud, meanwhile, threw an interception in each of his first three starts this year and then missed a game. Since then, he has thrown for 15 touchdowns without a pick over the Buckeyes’ past four games, four of which have included OSU scoring 52-plus points, and has averaged a whopping 11.1 yards per attempt.
“They do a great job of being able to throw the intermediate out (route) and take that intermediate pass game and then also be able to max-(protect) and really take shots with guys that are great athletes,” NU outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson said. “The big deal for us is going to be winning one-on-one (pass-rush) battles. It’s not a deal where you can just go ahead and all-out rush them and leave guys on islands against really good receivers, so we’ve got to be able to win one-on-ones. We can’t have a deal where 'Chins' (Chinander) has to call in a perfect play in order to get a rush. We’ve got to be able to come off those big bodies.
“They’ve done a good job of keeping the quarterback clean and obviously he moves well and gets out of the way of the rush. We’ve got to keep him in the pocket, keep him caged, force him to throw from within the pocket and don’t let him scramble out of there, then be able to get off of one-on-one matchups.”
That would certainly help the Huskers’ secondary, which is a veteran group but has seen some moving pieces in recent weeks, both with the Oct. 16 injury to senior safety Deontai Williams and with sophomore cornerback Braxton Clark getting a little bit of time at corner in a rotation with sophomore Quinton Newsome.
Redshirt freshman Myles Farmer had been playing in a rotation with Williams and senior safety Marquel Dismuke, and stepped into the starting lineup against Purdue with Williams out.
“It went pretty good,” said the Atlanta native, who had six tackles and didn’t make any notable errors. “It was my first start at Memorial, so it felt good having the fans with me. I played a pretty good game, I would say that.”
“I don’t think any of us had a doubt that Myles was going to go in there and operate," defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. "Guys go in, first-time starter, everyone makes a mistake in every game. He probably made a few, right? But he operated pretty well, did a good job. But having a game under your belt helps just with operating with the other guys on the field, operating from sideline to huddle is a little different than in practice. Then obviously operating under the lights and in front of 100,000 fans is a pretty cool deal, but it’s also not something that you’re used to. So I think having a game under his belt will be useful.”
Clark, meanwhile, gives Nebraska another rangy player on the edge. At 6-foot-4, he’s got even more length than Taylor-Britt and Newsome and is a player Chinander and secondary coach Travis Fisher could continue to work in against the Buckeyes.
“Braxton deserves to play some. He’s done really well in practice," Chinander said. "Braxton’s really good in coverage and he deserves to get in there a little bit and we can rotate some of those through and obviously you’re getting toward the end of the season where those guys have played a lot of reps and you want to start rolling some guys through, especially if there’s been some long series or guys getting tired or things like that. Braxton deserves to play some football.”
A year ago, then-OSU quarterback Justin Fields and those receivers only truly got over the top on the Huskers once — a 42-yard touchdown to Wilson over cornerback Dicaprio Bootle — but Fields completed 20 of 21 passes overall, many of them to that intermediate level where the receivers are still getting chunk yards and also have the chance to work after the catch.
So far this year, NU is fourth in the Big Ten in allowing 6.2 yards per pass attempt and has surrendered 11 touchdowns vs. eight interceptions.
“The guys have got to play rules football, they’ve got to do their job and they’ve been really good at that this year," Chinander said. "Sometimes in coverage, we all know, we’re not crazy, there’s always a hole in the coverage, no matter what coverage you run, unless you’re in man every snap. The kids know that. They know that if they throw a 10-yard out cut against a certain coverage, they’re going to get it, we tackle them, we move on and then I’d better call a different coverage.”