The roller-coaster ride that is the 2011 Ohio State football season had a couple of highs Saturday night at Nebraska, but it ended with a frightening dip. The Buckeyes lost freshman quarterback Braxton Miller to what appeared to be a right ankle injury subsequently blew a 21-point lead in a 34-27 loss to the No. 14 Cornhuskers.
“I don’t know that I’ve seen a game change like that that I’ve been involved in,” a somber OSU head coach Luke Fickell said after the game.
The game turned when Miller’s ankle did the same in the third quarter. When the freshman left the game, Ohio State held a 27-13 lead. After he departed the playing field, the Buckeyes did little on offense under fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman as Nebraska gained traction with the ball behind the efforts of quarterback Taylor Martinez and tailback Rex Burkhead. Martinez cut the OSU lead to 27-20 with 1:44 left in the third quarter with a 36-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Enunwa and tied the game on a 30-yard strike to Burkhead with 7:35 left in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska took the lead for good after turning a Bauserman interception into a game-clinching score. A Bauserman deep pass attempt was easily picked off by Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste and the Cornhuskers quickly made OSU pay. Burkhead capped a four-play, 78-yard drive with a 18-yard touchdown run. Brett Maher’s successful extra point boot gave the Cornhuskers a 7-point advantage with 5:10 remaining. Ohio State never threatened after giving up the lead.
Nebraska’s comeback – the largest in program history – overshadowed an impressive first half for the Buckeyes. Miller and his mates set the tone early, taking the opening kickoff and marching 56 yards on 13 plays in 7:44. Drew Basil’s 41-yard field goal gave the Buckeyes a 3-0 lead at the 7:16 mark of the first quarter.
The Cornhuskers answered on their first drive, helped in large part by a 37-yard kickoff return by Ameer Abdullah. Nebraska only gained 21 yards in four plays, but that was enough to allow Maher to boot a 50-yard field goal that tied the game with 5:15 remaining in the opening stanza.
Ohio State dominated the rest of the half, reaching the end zone twice and added another Basil field goal. A week after the OSU offense showed little diversity in its play-calling, the Buckeyes retook the lead with 1:51 left in the first quarter on a back screen from Miller to junior tight end Jake Stoneburner. Miller faked a handoff, faked a run and toss the ball to Stoneburner, who went untouched until he reached the end zone. The 32-yard scoring strike gave OSU a 10-3 lead.
Sophomore tailback Carlos Hyde then showed off his speed with a 63-yard touchdown run at the 12:46 mark of the second quarter. Hyde had plenty of open space on the touchdown run, as junior tight end Reid Fragel helped give Hyde a huge hole. Hyde took care of the rest, running right up the sideline for a score that helped OSU take a 17-3 lead.
Nebraska, hosting a Big Ten game for the first time, answered that score with a 34-yard field goal by Maher. Yet Ohio State went into the break with the momentum thanks to a Martinez miscue. The Nebraska sophomore QB had a throw picked off over the middle picked off by OSU safety Orhian Johnson near midfield. The Buckeyes cashed in on the turnover, taking over at the Nebraska 47-yard line and driving for a 35-yard Basil field goal. Miller scrambled 29 yards to set up Basil’s boot.
Ohio State kept the momentum after the break, holding Nebraska to a three-and-out and after starting with good field position at the Nebraska 47 went on a seven-play drive that was capped with a 1-yard touchdown run by Hyde.
The Hyde touchdown gave Ohio State a 27-6 lead with 10:53 left in the third quarter. The Buckeyes would not score again. Meanwhile, Nebraska went on to score four unanswered touchdowns to post the biggest comeback in school history.
The rally started before Miller’s injury. The freshman QB had the ball stripped away by Nebraska standout Lavonte David in the third quarter, setting up Nebraska for its first second-half score. The Cornhuskers started at the OSU 24 and needed only two plays to reach the end zone. After a 6-yard Burkhead rush, a Martinez keeper went 18 yards for a score that made it 27-13 with 7:23 remaining.
“Football game is a game of momentum and when you lose it you just have got to make a play,” Fickell said. “We just didn’t do it.”
Miller’s injury came on the ensuing drive. When he attempted to make a cut in the backfield on a second-and-7 play from the OSU 37, his right ankle appeared to roll. Miller came off the field and never returned. Bauserman stepped in and struggled. He completed only one of his 10 pass attempts, a 13-yard connection with Philly Brown. He was sacked one and picked off once.
Miller completed 5 of 8 passes for 95 yards with a touchdown before his injury. Hyde led OSU’s rushing attack with 104 yards on 12 carries. Miller added 91 rushing yards on 10 carries, while junior tailback Jordan Hall carried 17 times for 48 yards.
Nebraska was led by Martinez, who finished with 293 yards of all-purpose yards. He threw for 191 yards on 16-of-22 passing and added 102 yards on 17 carries. Burkhead added 119 yards on 26 carries. He also caught five passes for 59 yards.