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Football: No. 21 Northwestern brings offensive challenges to No. 6 Ohio State

Ohio State freshman wide receiver Chris Olave (17) and redshirt senior wide receiver Terry McLaurin (83) celebrate after Olave scored a touchdown in the first half of the game against Michigan on Nov. 24. Ohio State won 62-39. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

After Ohio State’s 62-39 win against then-No. 4 Michigan, the Buckeyes go into the Big Ten Championship with momentum — momentum that could lead the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff, a feat that seemed impossible just a few weeks ago.

Redshirt senior wide receiver Terry McLaurin has thought the committee has been pretty consistent on its view of Ohio State in the playoff rankings, something that has fueled the team as a whole.

“I think up until last week, I think they thought there were some inconsistencies or they want to say our defense or our offense can’t run the ball, things like that,” McLaurin said. “We’ve heard it all and we just try and focus on getting better each and every week. At the end of the day, we’ve been winning games and that’s what really matters.”

But No. 6 Ohio State remains on the outside looking in, and it needs a convincing performance against No. 21 Northwestern on Saturday to earn a place in the College Football Playoff.

This is something Northwestern has prided itself on all season long: playing its opponents close.

The Wildcats (8-4, 8-1 Big Ten) have been within 14 points in each game it has played this season, falling to ranked opponents Michigan and Notre Dame by a combined 13 points, yet narrowly defeating Nebraska in overtime and recording one-score wins against Rutgers and Illinois.

This hurt Northwestern in significant ways, losing all three of its non-conference games, including a 39-34 loss to Akron.

However, head coach Urban Meyer does not view the Wildcats as a team Ohio State will play down to, something he admits happens in the program.

“You watch them play. They’re very — they’re not averaging 55 points a game. But they’re very productive,” Meyer said.  “So, yeah, we play at the level of competition. That happens sometimes. You’d like to not have that happen. It does. That certainly is not this case.”

The Northwestern defense brings something that will not allow for the Ohio State offense to have what McLaurin refers to as a “hangover” after putting up 62 points against the Wolverines.

Despite having the 20th-worst offense in the country, the Wildcats allow 21.7 points per game, tied for No. 29 in college football. Much of this has to do with head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s pass defense strategy: perfecting the zone.

“You just don’t see big hits against them,” Meyer said. “They keep the ball in front of you. And sometimes that’s — nowadays that’s harder than a team that you know is going to be man coverage across the board.”

Despite allowing 238 yards passing per game, placing near the bottom of the Big Ten in pass defense, the Wildcats have allowed only 14 passing touchdowns all season, the same as Penn State and Wisconsin, who are the No. 2 and No. 5 pass defenses in the conference, respectively.

With redshirt junior defensive lineman Joe Gaziano, who was named as a second-team All Big Ten defense member, and sophomore linebacker Blake Gallagher, Ohio State will have to overcome a Northwestern defense that McLaurin says is “bend and don’t break.”

Redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins even said his approach to the offense will have to change when facing zone coverage instead of man-to-man coverage.

“With zone coverage, you have to complete 70 percent of your passes to be able to move the ball down the field against them,” Haskins said. “So you have to be able to pick them apart, dissect them and be able to see the coverages and zones and knowing that every pass is not going to be a touchdown.”

While the Ohio State offense faces a defensive scheme it’s not used to, the Buckeye defense will face a Northwestern offense that does not exactly stand out on paper. The Wildcats hold the 23rd-worst scoring offense in the country, averaging 23.7 points per game.

Northwestern has not found much success running the ball, recording only 114.8 rushing yards per game. However, it has found its signature back in freshman Isaiah Bowser after Jeremy Larkin announced in September that he had medically retired from football.

Bowser, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, has recorded six touchdown runs this season. The Sidney, Ohio, native has also rushed for more than 100 yards in four of his past six games, recording two multi-touchdown contests.

The passing game is led by redshirt senior quarterback Clayton Thorson, who has completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Even with underwhelming numbers, Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano views Thorson, who threw for 256 yards and ran for 44 yards with two total touchdowns against Ohio State in 2016, as an accurate passer who understands schemes very well.

“He’s an NFL quarterback,” Schiano said. “We need to make sure we understand how that all fits in their entire offense.”

Prediction

On paper, it’s clear who has the advantage in this game. Northwestern’s numbers do not stand out on the page and do not have any advantages personnel-wise over Ohio State.  

But that has not kept the Wildcats from playing these games close. Northwestern led then-No. 14 Michigan 17-0 prior to allowing 20 unanswered points from the Wolverines. Even with the collapse, Northwestern still had a very close deficit when the clock hit zero.

Now, the Wildcats go into its first Big Ten Championship with something to prove: that it can overcome a ranked Ohio State team that has arguably the most momentum heading into a conference championship game than any other team in the country.

But even if a loss is not in the future for Northwestern, it is likely the Wildcats will play a game similar to the other ranked opponents it has faced this season, keeping with Ohio State until the very end.

The Wildcats can do this by limiting Ohio State’s success in the passing game, erasing any big-play ability for Haskins and his wide receivers by limiting the Buckeyes to short slant and crossing routes. This may not keep the Buckeyes off the scoreboard, but would take time off the clock and take away an important part of the Ohio State passing attack.

Ohio State is favored and likely will win this game. But Northwestern will not become the 59-0 example that the Buckeyes got in Wisconsin during the 2014 season.

Colin Gay: 42-24 Ohio State

Wyatt Crosher: 30-13 Ohio State

Edward Sutelan: 34-17 Ohio State

Rachel Bules: 54-21 Ohio State

Amanda Parrish: 35-14 Ohio State

 

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