Game Preview


Ohio State at NU
Ryan Field
Saturday, Nov. 8.  11:00 am CDT
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Ohio State
by Jonathan Hodges


Northwestern (7-2, 3-2), ranked 25th in the Coaches' Poll and 24th in the BCS, will have its toughest test of the year as Ohio State (7-2, 4-1), ranked 12th in the Coaches' and AP Polls (11th in the BCS), travels to Evanston to take on the Wildcats.  OSU's only 2 losses of the season have come against current top 10 teams Penn State and USC, and the Buckeyes seem to have a legitimate shot at making a 4th consecutive BCS bowl appearance (6th in the last 7 seasons) as they feature a top 10 defense (both in yards allowed and scoring).  The Buckeyes haven't put up gigantic numbers on offense but feature a number of playmakers, such as true freshman QB Pryor, RB Wells, and WRs Robiskie and Hartline.  And, of course, OSU always executes on defense and special teams to give themselves a chance to stay in every game.

For Northwestern, again, what a difference a week makes.  Just one week ago, the 'Cats were left for dead by many after losing to a bad Indiana team and, more importantly, losing RB Sutton for the regular season and QB CJ Bacher for at least a game or two.  But after an upset victory on the road over then #20 Minnesota and a breakout performance by backup QB Kafka (217 rushing yards, 12 of 16 for 146 passing yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs), NU seems to have completely reversed its fortune and now has a bowl berth all but locked up and will now be fighting for a better bowl position.  While the 'Cats will be a big underdog for this football game, if college football has taught us anything, it's that anything is possble; Northwestern will be looking to pull a rabbit out of a hat as they attempt to upend Ohio State in what would be a big upset for NU.

Remember that after Northwestern upset Ohio State in a true night game at Ryan Field back in 2004 by a final score of 33-27 in OT, the Buckeyes have extracted a large amount of revenge, winning the last 3 contests by an average final score of 53.3 to 8.0.  Those games were all dominated by the OSU defense and special teams who stonewalled NU's spread offense (even when Basanez was at the helm in 2005) and put its offense in an advantageous position.  The Wildcats will once again face an uphill battle against a Buckeye team that has an extremely strong defense and has executed when necessary on offense to rack up a 7-2 record this season.

After an exciting road victory, Ryan Field should be packed and ready to rock, despite an early 11AM start time, and with nothing to lose, expect to see the 'Cats ready to compete.  OSU will be looking to avoid the bye week letdown that has infected just about every Big Ten team this season (Minnesota has been the only team to avoid a post-bye letdown so far this year), and will undoubtedly be prepared to face whichever NU QB plays in the game after seeing Kafka in action against Minnesota.  Northwestern's defense is still looking vastly improved (only allowing 10 points to the Gophers' offense), and that in itself should help make the game a little more even than it has been in recent seasons.  NU will be riding a wave of emotion and must focus that on executing the game plan, just like the 'Cats did on that Saturday night back in 2004.

Ohio State by 11.

Who Should Win: Ohio State.  Their defense is amazingly good, ranking in the top 10 nationally in total defense (267.1 yards/game, 8th), scoring defense (13.3 points/game, 8th), passing efficiency defense (8th), pass defense (163.0 yards/game, 9th), and are just slightly worse in rushing defense (104.1 yards/game, 14th).  And on offense, while they haven't put up huge numbers, they have a number of weapons in QB Pryor, RB Wells, and WRs Robiskie, Hartline, and Small.  Tressel always has the Buckeyes taking care of business on defense and in special teams, and that gives them a chance to win almost every game.  Their only 2 losses on the year have come at the hands of top 10 teams, and that most recent loss against PSU was only by 7 points and came thanks to some turnovers from the true freshman Pryor.  They know that their goal is to reach a BCS game, and they know that they must win out to accomplish that task; the Buckeyes will be hungry for a big win.

Upset Factor:  Despite losing its starting RB and QB, and sustaining some injuries during the game (with 2 DEs and a RT going down, although 2 of those players returned), Northwestern responded from a loss to a bad Indiana team to beat a tough Minnesota squad on the road thanks to a gutsy performance from the backup QB and the team as a whole (with the entire special teams and defense contributing).  In college football, anything can happen, and NU will need a perfect game to keep it close and keep the upset as a possibility, but it is still plausible.  Remember that back in 2000, NU came home to face a perennial Big Ten power (Michigan) after a surprising last-second upset at Minnesota only to put on one of the best shows all-time in its 54-51 win.  Northwestern also hopes that the bye week letdown of Big Ten teams continues with Ohio State; it has affected all conference teams except for Minnesota who have had a bye so far.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Ohio State Defense: Nobody really knows what to expect out of the NU offense as CJ Bacher could be available to play, which leaves a huge question for the coaching staff: how to incorporate both Bacher and Kafka into the offensive game plan.  Bacher is the more experienced passer and is a senior leader of this Wildcat squad; he has shown time and time again that he can make the passing offense go.  But after his performance running the ball last week, Kafka is an obvious dual-threat out of the backfield, and his presence on the field will give the Buckeye defense something else to think about - which could open up some things downfield.  Either way, the OL must have one of its best performances of the year and must focus on the run blocking, which has been lacking in recent weeks; most of Kafka's success running the ball was thanks to dropping back and getting sufficient pass blocking, then finding a hole and taking off after the secondary was cleared out by the receivers.  Ohio State's defense, with LBs Laurinaitis and Freeman, has quickness in the middle; CB Jenkins could have gone to the NFL for this season, and DBs Chekwa, Coleman, and Russell have played against some of the nation's top offenses and have shown they can run with just about anyone.  Up front, the Buckeyes' DL is probably the weakest link of their defense, and was hurt substantially with the loss of Wilson to a knee injury earlier in the year, but they still present problems with Heyward in one of the DT spots and Rose and Gibson on the outsides.  As noted earlier, this defense as a whole has put up a ton of impressive numbers in terms of points and yards allowed, despite not dominating the line of scrimmage (OSU ranks 72nd nationally in sacks with 1.7/game and 98th nationally in TFLs with 4.7/game).  Like NU's last opponent, OSU has thrived on turnovers, and is 14th nationally with 21 takeaways; the Bucks boast a +1.1 turnover/game margin, good for 10th nationally.  OSU's pass protection is good (they've intercepted 12 balls on the year), and they hit hard (have taken away 9 fumbles).  So, once again, for the 'Cats to be successful on offense, they must protect the football.  Last week, Kafka had one telegraphed throw that everyone wants back (it was returned for a TD), and one bad lofted throw that was intercepted but didn't hurt as much as it was in Minnesota territory.  So, the more that NU can acoomplish on the ground, the better; the issue is that OSU's fast NFL-caliber LBs won't let Kafka pull all of those tricks he did against Minnesota, so either Kafka or CJ better be ready to throw the ball and throw it accurately.  The OL will have a huge test as it tries to open up some running holes and hold back a strong defensive front.  It will be interesting to see which Northwestern QB comes out to start the game on Saturday morning as they both provide different threats, but they will both have to confront a rock-solid D that will be waiting to hamper NU's efforts.  The 'Cats' ability to move the ball will go a long way to determine the winner of this football game; don't expect to see a short field too often against OSU, so NU would benefit greatly from some big plays as a way to get downfield against a strong D.

Northwestern Defense/Ohio State Offense: OSU's offense hasn't put up big numbers this year (9th in total offense, 318.3 yards/game; 69th in scoring offense, 24.6 points/game), but they have some big weapons at their disposal with QB Pryor (2nd on the team in carries and rushing yards with 97 for 417 yards, 1st on the team in rushing TDs with 5, 65.2% completion rate with 6 TDs and 3 INTs), RB Wells (124 carries for 674 yards (5.4 ypc), and WRs Robiskie (30 catches for 298 yards, 5 TDs) and Hartline (16 catches for 302 yards, 2 TDs).  Also, don't count out Ray Small, who is both a threat on returns and as a receiver.  Ohio State has home run potential at every position (inexperienced but talented QB with his arm and legs, explosive NFL-caliber RB, and talented WR corps) and has used quick strikes and good starting field position to rack up points and wins.  Most recently, the offense struggled against top 3 team Penn State, who forced Pryor to throw (only 9 carries for 6 total yards; he went 16 of 25 passing on the day for 226 yards, no TDs, and 1 INT that helped cap the game for the Nittany Lions) and contained wells to 55 yards on 22 carries.  This bodes well for NU, who has, to this point, done a good job of containing mobile QBs they have faced (Jackson from Ohio and Weber from Minnesota) and have what is shaping up to be a solid run defense (NU ranks 26th nationally in rushing defense, giving up only 109.3 yards/game on the ground).  First off, the 'Cats must keep an eye on Pryor (likely in the form of MLB Williams) and use the interior line play of Gill and Bryant to stop Wells.  That is a large task, but with a questionable OSU OL and a running game that has been slowed down before, the 'Cats must give it a shot to stay in reach.  Following that, Northwestern must put pressure on Pryor (Mims and Wootton have been doing a good job of that so far) and force him to make mistakes, which, as a true freshman starting QB, will come.  The secondary will have its hands full with Hartline, Robiskie, Small, and the other OSU receivers, and will be helped significantly by good pressure up front; NU ranks 14th nationally in sacks with 2.9/game and 21st in TFLs with 7/game.  Once again, the NU defense will likely be called upon to keep the 'Cats in the game as OSU's D will likely keep NU out of the end zone for much of the game; hopefully the mantra that "turnovers come in bunches" will ring true for NU, as they went over 7 quarters without a takeaway but yielded 2 in the final 30 seconds against Minnesota (the Smith INT that was returned for a TD, and a fumble recovery on the final play of the game, which didn't really have an effect on the game except for ending it).  The NU defense has thus far exceeded virtually every expectation as it now ranks 22nd in the nation in scoring defense, giving up 18.1 points/game - and if it keeps up the trend, the Wildcats will have a chance to pull off the upset over the Buckeyes.

Special Teams: This is where Ohio State wins games - great execution in special teams.  If one remembers last year's game, OSU started drives in NU territory on 9 of 15 drives, including one at the NU 1 yard line after a blocked punt.  The Buckeyes always have some of the nation's best kickers and punters, and that trend continues with senior FG kicker Pretorius, junior kickoff/FG kicker Pettrey, and senior P Trapasso, as OSU is 23 of 24 on XPs and 18 of 22 on FGs (Pettrey has made all 5 of his FG attempts) and Trapasso is 26th nationally with a 42.3 yard/punt average.  Small is also dangerous on punt returns as he ranks 14th nationally with a 13.2 yards/punt return average.  The fact is that a team that is as awash in talent as OSU always has speedy players to put on special teams, and the Buckeyes use that to make plays and put themselves in a position to win games in this important phase; some call this "Tressel-ball."  Northwestern, meanwhile, must counter with a solid performance, much like they did last week at Minnesota.  Villarreal handled kickoffs and his kicks coupled with the coverage team helped stick the Gophers deep in their own end every time: their best starting position after a kickoff was at their own 21, and NU tackled them inside the 20 3 out of 5 times.  Demos also had some excellent punts; he had a 42.8 yards/punt average and hit 3 inside the 20 with one more that should have been downed near the goal lne.  These two trends must continue.  Villarreal, while not as automatic as some would like, has hit on 16 of 20 FG attempts this season and has helped NU to translate red zone trips into points when the 'Cats haven't found the end zone.  Finally, Simmons had a few respectable kick returns against Minnesota and, most importantly, held onto the ball.  The highlight of his collegiate career occurred on his 99 yard kickoff return for NU's only TD of last year's game at OSU, and a great return would be more than helpful to jumpstart NU's upset bid.  Overall, NU would be best served by avoiding any errors in special teams and could benefit greatly by breaking a big play - although that will be a tough task against OSU's always-talented special teams units.

- Attendance:  According to Northwestern, the game is officially a sellout, and expect the stands to be packed and the crowd to be hopping with a matchup of ranked teams (at least according to the Coaches' Poll and BCS).  This will be the first 11AM sellout NU has had in some time; recent sellouts against OSU and Michigan have been 2:30PM starts or true night games.
- Bowl Positioning:  Some may argue that NU may be better of in terms of bowl positioning if it lost this game, as OSU seems to be on track for an at-large BCS berth if it wins out, but the fact is that if NU can pull off the upset and win out (which seemed to be crazy thinking just a week ago), the 'Cats could challenge for an at-large BCS spot (don't worry, my fingers are crossed - which makes typing rather difficult).  Starting now, each win NU racks up basically moves the 'Cats up one rung on the bowl ladder.
- 3rd Down Completions:  NU now ranks 25th nationally with a 46.1% 3rd down conversion rate and OSU isn't far behind, ranking 38th nationally at 43.0%.  On defense, NU is 25th, allowing a conversion rate of only 32.6%, while OSU is a bit further down at 53rd, allowing a 37% conversion rate.  NU can put itself in a good spot by getting manageable 3rd down situations, which will be tough against a staunt defense.
- TV Respect (or lack thereof):  The NU/OSU matchup, the only matchup of two ranked teams in the Big Ten this week, has been relegated to the 11AM ESPN2 timespot (which was kind to the 'Cats last week, mind you).  PSU @ Iowa took the 2:30PM ABC timeslot, while Michigan @ Minnesota (both teams currently unranked) got the 11AM ESPN slot.
- NU 2-deep notes: The biggest change is the starting QB listed as Bacher OR Kafka; although Fitz indicated that if Bacher is healthy, he will get the starting nod.  Obviously NU will try to mix things up to keep OSU on their toes as much as possible, but CJ is obviously the more proven commodity.  The next biggest change is something that we've already seen on the field, which is Villarreal OR Demos on kickoffs; after Demos handled kickoff duty for the previous 7 games, Amado took over against Minnesota and did an excellent job.  Also, with backup DE Browne out for the regular season, DiNardo will shift over to that backup slot (Watt is backing up the other side), and Marshall Thomas will be looking for more playing time in the middle.  Finally, Ebert and Simmons are listed as the kick returners (with Simmons replacing Conteh), which is the look that NU showed last Saturday.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), CB Vaughn (out for season, shoulder), LB Rejae Johnson (out for season, shoulder), LB Arrington (out for season, knee), RB Sutton (out for regular season, wrist), QB Bacher (probable, hamstring), DE Browne (out for regular season, knee).

Ohio State: T Adams (out for season, shoulder), DE Wilson (out for season, knee), RB Herron (questionable, concussion), T Shugarts (out for season, shoulder).

Northwestern's slew of injuries continued as Browne got injured early in the Minnesota game on kickoff coverage (knee), Taylor went down later in the game, and NU also saw key defensive components Wootton and Peters come out, although both did return to finish the game.  The biggest question mark going into the OSU game is, of course, will Bacher's hamstring be healed enough for him to play, and if so, which direction will NU go after Kafka's amazing performance against Minnesota last week as it would be a shame to keep him on the bench the whole game.  Fortunately, RT Mattes, with 1+ years of starts under his belt at that position, can always play in place of Taylor on the OL.  And on the DL, while Browne will be missed after losing him on a kickoff early in the game, Wootton and Mims did an excellent job on the line last week in Minneapolis and NU fortunately has some level of depth at DL - hopefully Browne, who has already garnered Big Ten player of the week honors this year, will get healthy for next season (and possibly a bowl game) as Mims will be graduating.  Don't be surprised to see the 'Cats play Watt more often and also rotate DiNardo to the outside more often to make up for any lost time with Browne gone.

Meanwhile, OSU has avoided the big injury, outside of Wells' foot problem earlier in the year.  Their OL is a bit banged up and appears to be the weak link of their team, although the speed and elusiveness of Pryor and Wells can more than make up for any deficiencies there (as they have shown for virtually the entire season).  OSU also lost Wilson on the DL who was supposed to be a major player, but the rest of the defense has more than made up for his absense.  Don't expect injuries to be a major factor for the Buckeyes on Saturday as they'll have their stars in action.

Prediction: Northwestern 17 - Ohio State 21

I expect a much closer matchup in this year's game than NU has had against OSU the past 3 years, not only because the Buckeyes' offense isn't excelling, but primarily due to the quality showing of the NU defense throughout this season.  The 'Cats are getting good pressure up front and have a solid secondary that should be able to hold back the OSU attack for much of the day.  And with some good special teams play, NU should put itself in at least a neutral position (instead of getting behind the 8-ball like in recent years).

Unfortunately, though, OSU's D is one of the best in the nation, and won't let CJ torch them with his arm and/or Kafka shred them with his legs.  The 'Cats won't find many scoring opportunities, and on the flipside Wells and Pryor will find ways to get into the end zone, if only from a few explosion plays.  Ohio State is focused on a goal, and that is heading to a BCS game and fighting for their national reputation after losses in the last 2 national championship games.  While it will be much closer than recent meetings, the Buckeyes will likely find a way to pull this one out.

Do note that I picked the exact same final score that I did one week ago, which worked out well for NU.  I believe the Wildcats have a much better chance to upset OSU this year than in recent years, when they faced a Buckeye team that was fighting its way to Big Ten titles.  OSU's offense has playmakers but hasn't found a way to consistently put it together, and that's the weak link that NU must attack if it wants to have a fighting chance.  Expect an entertaining game on Saturday, and...

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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