COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the eyes of the crowd went downfield Saturday at Ohio Stadium, expecting to see the ball fly toward the waiting arms of Johnnie Dixon, the ball was nowhere to be found.
Most kickoffs, even squib kicks, tend to move away from the kicker in the direction he is facing. This kick, however, squirted off Caleb Lightbourn’s left and just a single yard forward on what Nebraska coach Scott Frost said was an attempted onside kick that his team didn’t execute.
Ohio State, a 36-31 winner, did nothing with the gift of starting field position at the NU 31-yard line. However, after turning the ball over on downs, the Buckeyes forced Nebraska’s punting unit to emerge. Surely, that would find more success moving the ball down the field than the kicker.
It did not. Isaac Armstrong’s punt made it a few feet above his foot before it was batted back by Ohio State linebacker Keandre Jones, who coasted past the intended blocker, Wyatt Mazour. The ball rolled out the back of the end zone for a safety.
Nebraska stayed with the Buckeyes most of the game. But special teams blunders — the rest not quite as extreme as its first two chances of the game — helped keep Ohio State one step ahead.
“Special teams have been a battle all year,” Frost said. “We’re getting better with it, but it certainly didn't go in our favor. Even, gosh, their punts bounced down to our 1 and our punts bounced backwards, and it seemed like the clouds were out half the time and not the other time.”
Nebraska's later punt attempts had the yardage desired, but only upward. Instead of moving out, the punts gave Ohio State premium field position, netting an average of just 38.6 yards (not including the blocked punt).
When it came time for the Huskers to receive the kickoff, the 25-yard line was as far as they went. Calling for one fair catch and watching three touchbacks proved the most effective strategy for Nebraska. The two times Jaron Woodyard and Maurice Washington returned kicks from inside the 10-yard line, they were met inside the 20 by defenders.
On the flip side, Ohio State punter Drue Chrisman had no problems sending the Huskes farther back, averaging 47.8 yards per punt, with two of the punts traveling more than 50 yards and landing inside the 20-yard line.
Senior safety Tre Neal said the line is "really thin" between a good outing by the special teams and a poor one. One player can make all the difference.
“He can make a splash play, but if he does the wrong thing, that thing can go for 100 yards on a kickoff,” Neal said. “That’s one of those things where you think if he makes that play, special teams is great. If he doesn’t, you know, special teams is horrible.”