Well, that wasn’t exactly the bounce-back game that most Buckeye fans were hoping for, but when you control your own destiny, a win is a win. The two biggest issues that led to the upset loss to Penn State last week, offensive line and special teams, were much improved; quarterback J.T. Barrett was only being sacked once, and, despite a partially blocked punt, there were no major breakdowns in the third facet of the game.
While the 431 yards of total offense didn’t set the world on fire, the fact that nine Buckeyes caught passes and five carried ball is encouraging after fans had been lulled to sleep with a never-ending cycle of zone-reads over the past three weeks.
However, the Ohio State defense continued to give up big chunks of yards on Saturday. Northwestern wide receiver Austin Carr caught eight balls for 158 yards, and the Wildcats totaled 401 yards of offense. So, while the 24-20 win certainly didn’t cure all of ills haunting this inexperienced Buckeye team, it showed that the potential to get right is there.
Blue chip stocks
Curtis Samuel, H-back: After getting only two carries last week in Happy Valley, Urban Meyer was happy with his H-back’s balanced touches against Northwestern. He said, “(I) love the way he runs the ball. And he had seven catches and seven rushes … that's what we want -- 50/50, seven, I wouldn't mind eight each. Eight catches, eight handoffs. We've got to block a little better for him. He should have more yards than that.”
With 68 yards in the air, and 33 on the ground, in addition to a touchdown, there were certainly missed opportunities for bigger gains, as Meyer alluded to, but 14 touches for the best playmaker on the team is certainly a step in the right direction to making plays like this happen more often:
Malik Hooker, S: While he continues to be tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions, Hooker proved that he is more than just a ball-hawking DB. He led the team with 14 tackles, including six solo. However, perhaps his most impressive play of the day came on 2nd-and-6 with just under two minutes to go in the first quarter; Hooker sprinted across half of the field to knock Wildcat quarterback Clayton Thorson out of bounds for a short gain at OSU’s nine-yard line. Granted, NU went on to score on the drive, but Hooker displayed a closing speed that made everyone watching sit up and take notice.
J.T. Barrett, QB: Look, I know that many people (myself included) are rightfully perturbed by the lack of a deep passing game as of late for the Buckeyes, but at some point we are probably going to have to collectively accept that that’s just not in the cards for this quarterback-wide receiver combination.
Once we get over that, we will probably begin to appreciate just how lucky we are to have Barrett guiding this young team. The QB went 21-for-32 against Northwestern for a respectable 65.6%, and accounted for 223 yards through the air, and another 77 on the ground; nearly all in the second half, including the 35-yard sprint that put the game out of reach late in the fourth quarter.
Barrett might not have the skill set to thrill a crowd of 107,000 or generate jaw-dropping highlights, but he is the ultimate grinder. He will dink and dunk his way down the field, more often than not making the most out of what the defense gives him. Once you accept that, it is easier to realize just how good J.T. is.
Noah Brown, WR: With five catches for 51 yards, Brown had his most productive game since he went crazy for 72 yards and four scores against Oklahoma. Brown proved to be a valuable outlet on third down for Barrett, and he had two key blocks to spring the QB on his game-icing 35-yard run. In a normal situation, I might have graded him out as a blue chip stock, but with Ohio State’s inability to go downfield, it’s probably not a smart move to let too much ride on an OSU receiver.
Raekwon McMillan, MLB: Coming into the season, McMillan was expected to be one of the most dynamic defensive players in the country. However, coming into the Northwestern game, he ranked just 36th in tackles amongst Big Ten defenders. But, it would be foolish to think that McMillan’s only value is in the stat column. In the Buckeyes 4-3 scheme, it is the outside linebackers who are often free to make big plays, with McMillan anchoring the middle of the defense.
With all of that being typed, McMillan deflected a first quarter pass that was then intercepted by Damon Arnette, which led to a field goal, and he turned in nine tackles on the day. Not a bad day for the heart of the Buckeye defense.
Mike Weber, RB: Having Carlos Hyde and Ezekiel Elliot at tailback for the past four years has probably not done the freshman from Detroit any favors this season. He is on pace for over 1,250 yards, but he hasn’t been the difference maker that Buckeye fans were expecting.
However, against Northwestern, he proved that he has the skills to break tackles and make people miss, even if he hasn’t done it routinely yet this season. However, as the weather gets worse, conventional wisdom suggests that the Buckeye running back will touch the ball more often. If that is the case this year, there is plenty to be optimistic about from 25.
Downfield passing: Despite accounting for the aforementioned 223 passing yards, Barrett only attempted one pass of more than 20 yards, which was poorly thrown to James Clark. At this point, it’s unclear whether or not the Buckeye offensive coaches will be able to figure out how to get that part of the pass tree working, but honestly, it can’t get much worse.
Ohio State’s Big Ten cross-over schedule: To quote the 16-time world champion, and recent College GameDay guest picker, Ric Flair, “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. Wooooo!”
After years of getting dunked on by the SEC, it still feels weird to type the phrase, “Ohio State’s Big Ten cross-over schedule is pretty rough,” but when you look at it, the Big Ten offices couldn’t have made it much more difficult on the young Buckeyes this season. Coming into yesterday’s game, OSU’s cross-overs opponents averaged a 29.6 ranking in the S&P+; Northwestern 57, Wisconsin 10, Nebraska 22. Only Minnesota (39) and Iowa (42) are currently better than the Wildcats.
What happened to Ohio State’s protected rivalry with Illinois? Does the Illibuck mean nothing to to Jim Delany? But, if you are a “glass half full” kind of fan (is there such a thing?), playing the tougher in conference schedule could be a needed feather in the team’s cap if it comes down to the Buckeyes and another team for Final Four berth from the playoff committee.
SELL: Parris Campbell’s sprained ankle. His offensive numbers certainly aren’t where anyone would like them to be at this point in the season with just 128 yards from scrimmage, but Urban Meyer has routinely singled out Campbell for his leadership and special teams prowess. With 326 of the team’s 401 kick return yards, Campbell is a steadying force on the kick team. However, if Ohio State’s offensive coaching staff ever gets serious about rediscovering a downfield threat, Campbell would have to be in the mix. He also accounted for 42 yards of offense against Northwestern on two carries and one catch.
BUY: Land-Grant Holy Land’s Christopher Jason. Last Thursday, Jason warned Buckeye fans that Northwester’s Austin Carr was “the best receiver in the Big Ten.” After Saturday’s game, there likely won’t be much argument coming from Columbus. As I mentioned above, Carr lit up the Ohio State secondary for 158 receiving yards on eight catches.
SELL: Jalyn Holmes postgame attire. After the Northwestern game, the defensive end wore a t-shirt from Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion line. The shirt featured an airbrushed picture of the rapper’s late mother, Donda West, on the front, and the face of his wife’s dearly-departed father Robert Kardashian on the back. The shirt is currently going for upwards of $120 on eBay, and I assume Holmes thought the shirt would be a funny homage to Kim and Kanye’s daughter North West, but I’m afraid that it is going to haunt my dreams worse than David S. Pumpkins.