For the past three weeks, opponents of Ohio State football have had to prepare to play two different quarterbacks given the uncertainty of whether junior quarterback Braxton Miller would return from his MCL sprain to play, or whether redshirt-senior quarterback Kenny Guiton would start in his place.
Miller is back healthy and atop OSU’s quarterback depth chart, after playing every snap at the position in the Buckeyes’ 31-24 win against Wisconsin Saturday. This week, OSU (5-0, 1-0) is the team preparing to play two quarterbacks as the Buckeyes head to Evanston, Ill., to play Northwestern (4-0) in the Buckeyes’ second road game of the season.
Unlike OSU, who played Guiton because of the injury to Miller, Northwestern has used both of its top quarterbacks, senior Kain Colter and redshirt-junior Trevor Siemian, in each of their four games this season.
Colter, the starter, is a dual-threat quarterback who has more rushing attempts (39) than passing attempts (35) so far in 2013. He has completed 27 of his 35 passing attempts for 264 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions, and has rushed for 237 yards and three touchdowns.
Siemian’s profile is closer to that of a traditional pocket passer. He has completed 47 of 70 passes for 671 yards and four touchdowns this season, with two interceptions, while he has only rushed the ball 10 times for 35 yards.
Preparing for two quarterbacks is not going to affect OSU’s game plan, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday.
“(Colter) is a very good thrower as well and the thrower (Siemian) … he’s an athletic guy that can get out of trouble and also run their base plays,” Meyer said. “One’s a little more run-heavy, and you have to be aware of that, and the other one’s more pass-heavy, but it’s not drastically different as far as their (abilities).”
Nothwestern’s senior running back Venric Mark, who ran for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on 226 carries in his junior season, is expected to be back for Saturday’s game after sitting out since the opener against California with a foot injury.
Meyer said he is most concerned with how Mark could impact the game on special teams.
“He’s one of the best punt returners, kick returners in America,” Meyer said.
Redshirt-senior safety C.J. Barnett said Wednesday stopping the Wildcats offense on third down will be key to OSU’s success Saturday.
“I think we get good pressure, guys up front do a great job getting pressure, forcing the ball out quick and we’re able to make a few plays,” Barnett said of OSU’s success at defending third-down conversion attempts.
Colter said OSU’s defense has “athletes all over the board” who are well-coached, but said Northwestern has the athletes to match up successfully.
“They’re a great team and a great defense, but I feel like we’re a great team and a great offense,” Colter said Monday. “It’s going to be a good challenge and something that I’m looking forward to.”
On the other side of the equation, Northwestern will host an OSU offense that ranks sixth in the FBS with 48.2 points per game.
“There’s an all-Big Ten player at every position on their offense,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Tuesday.
That offense includes the 2012 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in Miller, who accounted for 281 total yards against Wisconsin in his first game back from injury.
“He’s just a dynamic athlete and he can score from anywhere on the field,” said Northwestern redshirt-senior defensive end Tyler Scott. “We just got to be really gap-disciplined … how we’re going to get him down is if we have everybody flying to the ball and really getting after him.”
Northwestern’s defense ranks 88th nationally with 426.5 yards allowed per game, but redshirt-junior safety Ibraheim Campbell thinks his defense will match up “just fine.”
“They’ve got athletes all over the field, but that’s something you see all throughout the Big Ten,” Campbell said. “It’s just another obstacle that we’re going to have to overcome.”
Making big plays on defense and preventing big plays by OSU’s offense will be key to overcoming that obstacle, Campbell said.
“Ohio State thrives on the big play,” Campbell said. “That’s something that we just need to take away from them and turn those into big plays for the defense that will bolster the offense.”
No. 16 Northwestern won its first four games by an average of 17 points, and it not only has home-field advantage Saturday, but also the advantage of coming off a bye week.
“That’s usually when, it’s a little bit like a bowl game, you see something new,” Meyer said of facing an opponent coming off a bye week.
Campbell, however, said the bye week advantage has less to do with extra preparation time and more to do with extra rest for injured players, such as Mark, to get healthy.
“We’re going to be prepared either way, whether we have a week to prepare or we have two weeks,” Campbell said. “It was more beneficial for the fact that we got to rest a little, get off the feet and just come back fresher in preparation for this week.”
As for the home-field advantage, Fitzgerald said he expects a “very solid home-field advantage,” but acknowledged that OSU fans travel well.
“You’ve always got to tip your hat to the Buckeyes fans,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve been some of the best in the country.”
Saturday’s game is coming with no shortage of national attention — ESPN’s College GameDay will be present in Evanston, and the game will be nationally televised on ABC with an 8 p.m. kickoff. Even so, Campbell said the Wildcats are not feeling additional pressure as a result of the national spotlight.
“The fact is the big game is something that’s created by the media and people outside the program,” Campbell said. “It’s just another game for us, and we got to come out and do what we do because we can’t control the hype or whatever else goes into it.”
Colter, however, said this game has been circled on his calendar all year.
“You dream about this when you’re young, playing big-time games like this but at the same time, we don’t want to over-hype it,” Colter said. “We don’t need to play out of this world. I feel like we just need to play our game in each phase of the game to be able to win.”