Game Preview


Ohio at NU
Ryan Field
Saturday, Sept. 20.  11:00 am CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Ohio
by Jonathan Hodges


This coming Saturday, Northwestern (3-0, 0-0) has a chance to win the first 4 games of the season for the first time since 1962 as they face what is probably the best team in the country without a win, Ohio (0-3) who has lost their first 3 games by an average of only about 5 points, including a close 12 point loss to Ohio State.  The 'Cats must not get caught looking ahead to Big Ten competition, and this game definitely presents a chance for the Bobcats to sneak up on NU.  Ohio will be hungry for a victory after getting so close on multiple occasions so far this year, and with an experienced coach like Solich leading them, expect them to be prepared to come into Evanston and fight for a win.  NU must continue doing what it has done so well this year, which is play excellent special teams, solid defense, and do what it needs to do on offense without taking too many risks.  It will be interesting to see if the Wildcat offense can finally get in sync, though, as it hasn't shown the ability to score like it did in a few games last year.

Although Ohio's starting QB to start the season, Theo Scott, was knocked out against OSU, they have found a new offensive weapon in junior college transfer "Boo" Jackson.  Thus far, he has gone 29-60 for 475 yards, 3 TDs and 3 INTs (all 3 INTs came against OSU), along with 16 carries for 103 yards in basically a game and a half.  Also adding to their offensive threat are RB Chris Garrett (who is a receiving threat out of the backfield) and WR Taylor Price.  RB Donte Harden also provides a running threat out of the backfield.  The Bobcats were expected to be solid on offense, but they are still looking for the right combination to get the ball moving the way that they want.  Last week, at home against Central Michigan, they went up early, but allowed CMU to take control of the game by the 4th quarter and had to stage a comeback attempt that was thwarted with two fumbles on the day.  On defense, Ohio is probably one of the most balanced units NU has faced so far this season; although they don't have the same talent as Duke in some positions, they have a generally tough unit that stifled Ohio State for much of that game.

Northwestern must execute on both defense and special teams, while continuing to get points on every offensive trip to the red zone to win the game.  It sounds simple, but focusing on the task at hand and executing the game plan will equal a Wildcat victory - which may be tougher than it sounds with Iowa just around the corner and plenty of other distractions approaching (like fall classes, which begin the week following the Ohio game).  The NU defense must contain a mobile QB who has looked pretty good so far, and once again prevent the big play.  The offense needs to get a little more wind under its sails to prepare for conference play, although they do have to deal with a very solid secondary which Ohio boasts.  Securing the football on offense has helped NU immensely over the past two weeks, and they must continue that trend or else risk an upset.

Expect a more physical game than NU had last week against SIU; Ohio's defense is respectable and the whole team will be striving for their first win of the year after 3 straight disappointments, including one against a top tier team in OSU.  Northwestern must maintain focus and execute to pull off the win; minimizing its own mistakes while capitalizing on the opponent's has been key to victories so far, and that trend must continue for the winning momentum to continue for NU.

Northwestern by 11.

Who Should Win: Northwestern.  If the defense and special teams plays like they have been, the 'Cats shouldn't need a whole lot on offense, but NU fans have yet to see offensive output that equals expectations given the talent at the skill positions.  Therefore, it would be nice to see the 'Cats rack up yards and put the ball in the end zone.  This is one of the last remaining things to prove before Big Ten play begins.

Upset Factor: Looking ahead.  If the 'Cats start looking ahead to the road trip to Iowa that begins Big Ten play, things could get dangerous.  And there are sure to be other distractions, like fall classes beginning next week, and possible overconfidence after a 3-0 start.  Ohio is a tough team, as it showed against OSU, and is really just a few plays from being 3-0 despite an 0-3 record.  Their offense is just getting the wheels spinning, and their defense is serviceable.  This game has the markings of an upset special, considering NU's history, so it will be up to the Wildcats to prove that this team is different.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Ohio Defense: Expect NU to try and get the ground game going a little better than it has over the past 2 games.  Yes, Sutton has 5 TDs on the ground in that span, but the running game isn't going as smoothly as it did in week one.  Hopefully NU will open up the offense a little more than it did in the rain against SIU and the 'Cats will get in sync better than they have so far this year to rack up yards.  Also, while Northwestern is perfect in the red zone this year, 5 of those scores have been FGs, and NU will need to come away with touchdowns come conference play.  Look out for Fitz to mix things up and throw Kafka out there for a series ever so often; it was unsuccessful against SIU, but Kafka needs the experience and he also provides an excellent running threat at the QB position.  Ohio's defense is solid; it boasts an excellent secondary led by CBs Posey and Parson; Parson, in particular, is considered to have next-level talent.  Also, look out for DT Hodge who can make noise not only in stopping the run but by getting into the backfield; his fellow member of the DL, DE Hartke is also talented.  While Ohio presents a solid defensive challenge, it is definitely not as much of a challenge as Big Ten defenses, so the 'Cats must get their offense running well while they have the chance.

Northwestern Defense/Ohio Offense: Ohio presents an interesting offensive threat; they have been trying to replace their departed RB star with two younger players (Garrett and Harden) but were presented with an interesting challenge when their starting QB, Scott, went down with a shoulder injury against OSU.  Junior college transfer "Boo" Jackson took over at that point and has been pretty good, especially last week against Central Michigan, where he threw for 365 yards and 3 TDs; he also provides a running threat as he's run 16 times for 103 yards.  Their biggest downfall so far this year has been turnovers, which basically cost them a chance for a win over CMU last week (2 fumbles, including one on a potential game-winning drive).  Northwestern's defense, though, has dealt with elusive QBs before (think Duke's Lewis), and should be poised to stall the Ohio offense.  NU is averaging an astoundingly low 12.3 points/game, and is doing an excellent job through the air (near the top nationally in passing efficiency defense) and not allowing any TDs through the air.  Look for the turnaround under new DC Hankwitz to continue, although I anticipate Ohio will find a way to get some points on the board.

Special Teams: All that NU special teams have done is execute in virtually every way possible through three games this year.  P/K Demos is excelling at punting and kickoffs and sticks the ball deep in opponent territory virtually every time while the coverage units have found a way to get downfield very quickly to make the tackle.  Villarreal has been perfect on the year, going 5/5 on FGs and 10/10 on XPs, including in the unfavorable conditions against SIU where he set a personal best 4/4 on FGs in one game.  Finally, while NU has still not yet broken a kickoff or punt return, they are gaining a few yards and at a minimum holdng onto the football.  Schmidt had a very nice punt block against SIU as well as a fumble recovery on a kickoff to prevent an NU turnover - it is nice to see NU getting its top athletes on the field and allowing them to contribute.  The defense is definitely being helped by this special teams unit who isn't giving opponents a chance to get good field position right off the bat.  Look for this unit to again contribute against Ohio.

- Senior WR Yarbrough was back in pads on Saturday but did not play; hopefully his return to the game field will be soon, as he adds depth and experience to the receiving corps.
- WR Brewer is apparently in the "he can play better" house (since Fitz doesn't have a "doghouse" according to a quote earlier in the year) as he was played very sparingly against SIU; he had a number of dropped passes during the first two games.  With his speed and athleticism hopefully he improves in that aspect to get on the field more often.
- NU ranks in the top 10 nationally in both sacks (3rd at 3.67/game) and sacks allowed (9th at 0.33/game) after seeing some excellent play by both lines through the first 3 weeks; the DL really turned it up against SIU with 6 sacks.
- Ohio's best statistical ranking comes on kickoff returns where they rank 19th nationally at 25.5 yds/return.  RBs Harden and Garrett lead the way in kick returns, so NU must be wary on kickoffs.
- Attendance should definitely be better for the game as most undergraduates should be on campus (new student week begins early this week, which means all students can move into the dorms), and (hopefully) weather will be much better than what happened last Saturday.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), LB McNaul (questionable, leg), LB Jeske (questionable), WR Frymire (questionable), CB Vaughn (did not play against SIU), RB Simmons (ankle injury against SIU).

Ohio: OL Stuck (suspended), QB Scott (out indefinitely, shoulder), FB Morsillo (out indefinitely, shoulder), LB Meyers (out indefinitely, knee).

NU looks to be getting a couple of guys back from injury soon (including the aforementioned Yarbrough), although the 'Cats did see Simmons get injured during special teams play against SIU (appears to be a turned ankle, the seriousness is not known at this point), and Vaughn sat out with a shoulder injury that hampered him since around the Duke game (although Mabin had won the starting job according to statements by Fitz).  RT Mattes went down for one play but came in for the following series.  Fortunately, NU has avoided the injury bug so far, and hopefully that trend will continue.  Ohio is missing its season-starting QB Scott, but has found an effective replacement in Jackson thus far.

Prediction: Northwestern 31 - Ohio 10

I predict that the Wildcats will go about "business as usual" by executing an effective game plan on defense and special teams and getting enough offense out of Bacher and Sutton to get to somewhere near their season average.  While the offense may not be churning out yards and points like we saw on occasion last season, with the defense holding teams to less than 2 TDs per game on average, there is no need to score points like crazy.  Hopefully when the offense is called upon to put points on the board, though, they can hit the "on" switch.  And while this game has ingredients of an upset (NU looking ahead, Ohio hungry for a win after 3 close losses), expect Fitz to have the team well prepared and for McCall and Hankwitz to have effective game plans laid out.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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