The Cornhuskers (4-1, 0-1) have been facing questions about their underperforming defense after an embarrassing 48-17 loss at Wisconsin. Then quarterback Taylor Martinez went public with his frustration over growing criticism of his play.
“This week,” Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell said, “we’re going to find out a lot about our football team.”
Same goes for Ohio State (3-2, 0-1), which is coming off a 10-7 loss at home to Michigan State. The Buckeyes thought they would get back four top players who were suspended for their involvement in the cash-and-tattoo scandal. But two of those players have to sit out at least the Nebraska game for accepting summer job money.
“When things happen, when we lose a game, when other adversities happen, the circle becomes tighter and tighter, and you have to pull closer and closer,” Buckeyes coach Luke Fickell said.
Nebraska’s defensive shortcomings have been a concern for weeks, but they were exposed like never before by Russell Wilson and the Badgers. Coach Bo Pelini, who will be facing his alma mater in Ohio State, figured to spend the week looking for a fix.
But a distraction cropped up Monday when Martinez lashed out at fans and media who panned him for throwing three interceptions against Wisconsin. Martinez complained he gets “ripped” no matter what he does. Pelini laid into reporters after practice Thursday, saying they had created a firestorm around his sophomore quarterback.
“You guys trying to get a reaction from him?” Pelini said. “Is this a deliberate thing?”
Teammates spoke in support of Martinez and said it was unfair for people to pile on the quarterback.
“Next person to say anything about my QB to me, I’m slapping in the face. No warning,” Bell tweeted.
The Huskers can’t afford a loss to the Buckeyes if they hope to control their fate and get to the Big Ten championship game. They were the preseason favorites to win the Legends Division and are a game behind Michigan and Michigan State.
“Just like last year, we lost to Texas and still got to the Big 12 championship game, so we know that it is still out there,” receiver Brandon Kinnie said. “That’s why I believe guys are not giving up at all, pointing fingers or doing anything like that. Staying together is another key thing this week as well. All we have to do is win out and we’ll be fine.”
The Buckeyes had been pointing to the Nebraska game since December, when five-game suspensions were announced for players who accepted cash and free tattoos from a Columbus, Ohio, tattoo parlor owner.
The suspensions were supposed to end Saturday. But only two of the four players they expected to get back, offensive lineman Mike Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, have been reinstated. Receiver DeVier Posey and running back Daniel Herron will have to sit out at least one more game, along with offensive lineman Marcus Hall.
Injuries also have left the Buckeyes short-handed. Defensive tackle Nathan Williams remains out after arthroscopic knee surgery four weeks ago. Receiver Verlon Reed is done for the year after tearing a knee ligament in last week’s loss.
The Buckeyes hope receiver Corey “Philly” Brown can play after missing four games with an ankle sprain.
Linebacker Andrew Sweat said the season is testing the Buckeyes’ wherewithal.
“Even if it isn’t today or tomorrow, I think it makes us stronger as men, as individuals,” Sweat said. “Even if it’s not just football, I think the adversity we’re facing makes us stronger people. Our strength coaches in the offseason preach mental toughness and try to do things to make you mentally tough. I just think you have to move forward and let the adversity make you stronger.”
Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller will make his third start and first on the road. The Buckeyes’ offense generated just 178 yards and allowed nine sacks against Michigan State. Had they not scored with 10 seconds left, they would have been shut out at home for the first time since 1982.
“Braxton is just going to keep getting better every week,” center Mike Brewster said. “He’s in a tough spot. It’s hard for a young guy, but you’d like to see him just keep growing and getting better. Hopefully this is the week for us to take that step.”