Commentary: The Big Game
by Jonathan Hodges

Before the year began, many 'Cats fans circled a date on that calendar, which was November 8th, when Ohio State was scheduled to roll into Evanston.  Many fans, myself included, expected Northwestern to be 7-2 or better heading into that matchup, and that's the precise record that the Wildcats have heading into the game against the Buckeyes.  The game will be a sellout (as announced on WGN Radio preceding the Minnesota game) and the atmosphere should be electric heading into a matchup against a highly rated opponent.

If the situation seems familiar, one only has to look back to 2000, when the Wildcats also headed back to Evanston following a last-second road victory at Minnesota (the victory right game) where they defeated Michigan in the 54-51 classic to propel NU to its highest ever BCS ranking on the way to a co-Big Ten championship and a trip to the Alamo Bowl.  This season, NU has all but locked up a bowl berth with its 7-2 record and has 2 win-able games left on the calendar against Michigan (2-7) and Illinois (5-4); but first, the Buckeyes.

One may consider the game against Ohio State "unwinable," but then again one only has to look back at the Minnesota game to see how Northwestern has responded to adversity this season.  Just a week ago, NU was reeling after an upset loss to Indiana (3-6), as the 'Cats lost both their starting RB, senior Tyrell Sutton (for the year) and their starting QB, senior CJ Bacher, who had made 26 consecutive starts until this past week, and that was just a week after losing senior starting MLB Malcom Arrington.  Things were looking grim for Northwestern, and some pessimists were wondering if NU could even win another game this season.  Yet the team responded in a big way, putting together a complete game in all 3 phases of the game to pull off the big road win against a solid Minnesota squad (7-2).

Now, it will be difficult for Northwestern to compete against Ohio State in the same way that it defeated Minnesota; Ohio State's defense is very good (top 10 nationally in both total defense and scoring defense), and don't think that the Buckeyes will let NU's backup QB run for over 200 yards.  But, hopefully Northwestern will have CJ Bacher back healthy and can utilize both QBs as effective weapons to move the ball against OSU.  On offense, meanwhile, Ohio State hasn't exactly been spectacular; while they have very talented dual-threat QB Pryor and pro-caliber RB Wells, the Buckeyes are averaging just 24.6 points/game and haven't exactly been explosive on that side of the ball.  Overall, OSU is just a solid, well-coached team that wins the games that it should and provides a tough opponent for all (just ask Penn State, who squeaked by a couple weeks ago by a final score of 13-6 in Columbus).

So, while Ohio State will be the big favorite in this game, it will also be the "game of the year" for Northwestern as they try to pull off an even bigger upset and match the highest win total by a Wildcat squad this decade.  The Wildcats of 2008 have shown the ability to do things that other squad haven't been able to accomplish for decades (garnering the longest winning streak (5) since 1996, beating all nonconference opponents for the first time since 1963, starting the season 5-0 for the first time since 1962) and overcoming adversity with the help of backups and young, but talented, players.  This team, like the Big Ten championship squads in 1995, 1996, and 2000, hasn't lost consecutive games.  There is no doubt that this is a special year for Northwestern, and all 'Cats fans should be excited for this coming Saturday in Evanston as NU looks to continue this season's success.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.