With no postseason goals to strive for, Ohio State can focus all of its collective energy on becoming the best team in the Big Ten.
Looking to remain undefeated, the No. 12 Buckeyes try to avenge last season's gut-wrenching loss at Nebraska when they host the 21st-ranked Cornhuskers in a conference matchup Saturday night.
Coming off a 6-7 season and playing under the cloud of NCAA violations from the watch of former coach Jim Tressel, Ohio State (5-0, 1-0) has played well for new coach Urban Meyer. Though the Buckeyes haven't been dominant, a 17-16 road win over then-No. 20 Michigan State last Saturday showed that they might be the class of an underachieving conference.
"It's been a team that's been pushed around for a while,'' Meyer said. "A lot of things have happened, a lot of things I'm probably not even aware of. But I could tell that it wasn't a close team. It was a team with a lot of excuses. But (the togetherness) materialized over the weekend.
"I'm not saying we're a great team. We at least have a chance of going to do some good things together."
That type of collective effort helped the Buckeyes hold bruising Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell to 45 yards on 17 carries. Offensively, sophomore Braxton Miller continued to improve by going 16 of 23 for 179 yards and hitting Devin Smith for a 63-yard, go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter. Miller also ran 23 times for 136 yards.
"I think we've got really, really good players," Meyer said. "Do we have great players? We have a few of them.''
Some of those, including Miller, won't need much incentive to prepare themselves for this contest.
Ohio State led by 21 early in the third quarter Oct. 8 in Lincoln before Nebraska scored the final 28 points to win 34-27. Miller rushed for 91 yards and threw for 95 with a TD before suffering a third-quarter ankle injury, ending his night and sending the Buckeyes into a tailspin for the rest of the game.
Junior Carlos Hyde, who ran for 49 yards on 11 carries at Michigan State after missing the previous two games with a sprained knee, had 104 on the ground versus Nebraska.
Cornhuskers star Rex Burkhead ran for 119 yards, caught five passes for 59 and scored twice against the Buckeyes, while Taylor Martinez went 16 of 22 for 191 yards with two TDs and an interception during that improbable victory.
After a shaky start last Saturday, Martinez rallied Nebraska (4-1, 1-0) from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to defeat Wisconsin 30-27 at home. He had 107 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries while throwing for 181 with two scores.
Two fumbles and a roughing-the-kicker penalty plagued the Huskers early in that game - the kind of mistakes they might not be able to get away with this weekend.
"If we want to win the Big Ten, we can't do things like that,'' offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. "We learned from it, and we have to move forward from it.''
The Huskers are making their first trip to Columbus since 1956, when they suffered a 34-7 loss. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini played for Ohio State from 1986-90, with Meyer a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes for the first two of those seasons.
"It would be a special win for him," Burkhead said. "It was a big win for him last year. At the same time we have to approach it like another game.''
Though the Huskers need to be more consistent despite last weekend's outcome, they did hold the Badgers to seven second-half points in winning their third straight.
"It's going to be the team that gets better week to week,'' Pelini said, "and that's the challenge in front of us. We have a heck of a challenge in front of us.''
This contest begins a stretch in which Nebraska plays three of four on the road, with No. 24 Northwestern up next weekend and a trip to Michigan State on tap for Nov. 3.
"(Wisconsin) was a big game, but (Ohio State) is an even bigger game,'' said Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell, who has 15 receptions for 330 yards and four touchdowns. "You look at games like these - big, big and big."
- Ohio State
- Urban Meyer