Even if Ohio State plays No. 6 Wisconsin next week, the Buckeyes said they aren’t looking past Northwestern, despite the fact that they rank No. 128 in the nation on offense.
No. 4 Ohio State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) waves goodbye to its bye week and enters Evanston, Illinois, to play Northwestern (1-4, 0-3) Friday, a week ahead of its showdown with the Badgers.
“This week, we’ve talked about having a white-belt mentality, which is a mentality that you’re starting from scratch and that you don’t take anything for granted. You don’t make any assumptions, and if we do that, then we’ll be fine,” head coach Ryan Day said. “If we start to look ahead or start to let our egos get in the way, then we’re in trouble.”
The Wildcats rank No. 128 out of 130 teams in Division I scoring offense, with Ohio State’s No. 4 scoring defense taking the turf at Ryan Field.
Through the air, Northwestern is the only Big Ten team without a quarterback that completes at least 50 percent of his passes through more than 10 attempts. Northwestern’s top receiving threat — senior wide receiver Bennett Skowronek — has 141 yards on the season, which would rank No. 5 on Ohio State’s receiving corps.
Northwestern ranks higher on the ground at No. 9 in the Big Ten. The team’s top rusher from 2018, sophomore running back Isaiah Bowser, has missed two games with injury and won’t play Friday, leaving redshirt freshman Drake Anderson with a heavier workload in the backfield.
On the season, Anderson has accumulated 366 yards at 4.9 yards per carry in 2019. No other healthy Wildcat has rushed for at least 100 yards this season.
Ohio State ranks No. 2 and No. 3 in pass and run defense, respectively, in the Big Ten.
Despite Ohio State’s overwhelming statistical advantage, senior defensive end Jonathon Cooper said the defense is locked in on Northwestern.
“We make sure that we take every single opponent seriously and focus on them that week, then worry about the other teams when they come,” Cooper said.
Day said defensively the Wildcats are just as formidable as they were in 2018, when the team made a run to the Big Ten title game.
Northwestern is allowing 3.4 fewer points per game than it did in 2018, and while it ranks No. 10 in the conference for pass defense, it ranked No. 12 the past year and still managed to win the Big Ten West division.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald predicates his defense on a zone scheme that allows chunk yardage in the passing game, but doesn’t allow big plays, as it tends to stifle receivers once they’ve caught the ball.
“They’re there. It’s the same defense, and they’re playing just as hard. They’re just as good,” Day said.
Ohio State could match up better on the ground. Northwestern’s defense is No. 10 in the Big Ten against the run, giving up 144 yards per game. Michigan State, which Ohio State played prior to its bye week, entered the contest allowing 56.4 rushing yards per game and still allotted 323 yards on the ground to the Buckeyes.
Junior running back J.K. Dobbins is No. 2 in the country with 826 rushing yards, complemented by redshirt freshman running back Master Teague at 416 — still more than any Northwestern rusher — and sophomore quarterback Justin Fields at 283. All average at least five yards per carry, with Dobbins leading the way at 7.1.
Dobbins credits his largest runs to his offensive line, which continues to open holes and hand-deliver them to the second level. Redshirt sophomore center Josh Myers said their success stems from their chemistry as a unit.
“I think camp was huge for that,” Myers said. “You have no choice but to spend all day together for a good two weeks straight. We just are a group of guys that click well together.”
When Northwestern is stopping the Ohio State attack, it will likely rely on its steady trio of starting linebackers.
Junior Paddy Fisher returns after a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2018, and in five games this season has accumulated 37 tackles, which ranks No. 3 on the team. He’s joined by freshman Bryce Gallagher, who’s enjoying a breakout year with 33 tackles, and junior Chris Bergin, who ranks No. 2 on the team in both tackles and tackles for loss.
In the backend, another key piece to the Wildcats’ defense is junior defensive back Travis Whillock, who leads the team in tackles and fumble recoveries.
Senior defensive end Joe Gaziano leads the charge on the defensive line. His 3.5 sacks nearly double his second-best teammate, and his 6.5 tackles for loss lead the team as well.
“Their guys up front are strong and powerful. It’s very hard to single block. It’s hard to hang on for very long,” Day said. “Their linebackers see things. They’ve been in a defense that’s been in there for over a decade now. Defensively, they know the answers to all the issues.”
Ohio State and Northwestern kick off at 8:30 p.m. Friday. The Big Ten Network will carry the game on television, after it was moved from FS1.