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What you need to know about Northwestern before Ohio State plays them

Last year, the Wildcats were more lucky than good. What about this season?

Outback Bowl - Northwestern v Tennessee Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

The Ohio State football season will be here before you know it, and even if you’ve only been paying semi-close attention this offseason, you’re probably aware of the major storylines with the program. This is going to be an exceptionally young, but talented and athletic team. There’s a lack of proven production at wideout, running back, and defensive back. They return the best QB in the conference, and should at least compete for a Big Ten title.

But you may not know a lot about the specific teams on Ohio State’s schedule. We’ll get into a lot more detail before the actual games, but you may want a primer so you can sound smart at the bar, or at the barbecue, or in the grocery store checkout line.

So take a look at Ohio State’s opponents this year. Next up, a battle with the Northwestern Wildcats.

What was the deal with Northwestern last year?


The most interesting thing that happened to Northwestern was their devious invention of body clocks, the justification used to explain why Stanford could have played so poorly in Northwestern’s unlikely Week 1 upset. Northwestern spent the rest of the season winning close games against mostly uninspired opposition, and then getting blasted by the quality teams on their schedule. When the dust settled, Northwestern had an impressive looking 10-3 record, even though they didn’t even crack the top 50 of the S&P+. Mentioning this is a good way of making Northwestern fans mad on the internet.

How’s Northwestern going to look on offense?

Probably at least a little better than they looked last year, but that is hardly high praise. The Wildcats finished a horrible 113th in offensive S&P+ last season, thanks to inexperience at skill positions, bad quarterback play, and a revolving door of offensive linemen.

If you’re an optimistic sort, you’d note that almost everybody of consequence is back. Clayton Thorson, a former blue-chip recruit, is back for his sophomore season at quarterback. Justin Jackson, another blue-chipper, is back at running back, and should be one of the very best in the conference. Six linemen with starting experience are coming back. There are some pieces there.

But Thorson was also awful last season, and even if he takes a big step up, that might just be a step towards being average. The pass-catching options are thin, and depth all along the offense isn’t great. If Northwestern is unlucky with the injury bug again, this unit could struggle mightily. And even if they stay healthy, it’s hard to see this being a legitimately good group, outside of Jackson’s heroics. If anything happens to him ... woof.

Okay, but what about the defense?

That’s better! Actually, that’s selling it short. It was really damn good (11th overall in S&P+), thanks to exceptional secondary play and huge steps forward up front. Anthony Walker at linebacker is the name you’ll want to know here, as he morphed into a complete tackling machine that will challenge for end of year hardware as one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten, if not beyond.

Northwestern’s pass rush may take a step back (their top two defensive ends are gone), but Ifeadi Odenigbo returns, and he can certainly get after a quarterback. Godwin Igwebuike headlines a solid group in the defensive backfield, a unit that returns some contributors from last year, but may lack in depth a little bit.

What’s the Ohio State-Northwestern series like?

Nothing but pain for our purple-clad friends in Evanston. Historically, Ohio State holds a massive 60-14-1 edge, a trend that has continued in recent memory. I was born in 1987. Northwestern has beaten Ohio State exactly once in my lifetime. In fact, they’ve only won once since 1972.

Sometimes those games are close, like Ohio State 40-30 win in 2013, but most of the the time, they haven’t been, even when Northwestern has been decent.

Is Northwestern going to be any good this season?

Feel pretty good about stepping out on this ledge: Northwestern isn’t winning 10 games again in 2016. Their schedule is tough, with road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State, and a season opening game against a solid Western Michigan team (not to mention a rematch with Duke on the road at home). Their defense is highly unlikely to replicate their performance last season, and their offense, while likely to improve, still hinges on the significant improvement of an underclassman who was very, very bad last year.

I think they’re probably still a bowl team. But this should not be a team that seriously challenges Ohio State unless the Buckeyes give them lots of opportunities.

So, not really feeling an upset here, huh?

There’s always a risk that this paragraph will come back to haunt me. But as a fan, I am not very concerned about this game unless Ohio State is nursing some serious injury problems. Northwestern is highly unlikely to score enough points to win, especially at Ohio State, after the Buckeyes finished an emotionally exhausting road trip. It would take a lot of luck, a lot of Buckeye miscues, and flawless defensive execution for the Wildcats to spring a rare Buckeye upset. I don’t see it happening this season.