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Northwestern at a Glance: Previewing the Buckeyes’ Week 7 Matchup

With the first of the bye weeks behind them, the Buckeyes turn their attention towards a rematch of last year’s Big Ten Championship.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 01 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Alright, before diving into the nitty-gritty of Ohio State’s game versus Northwestern this Friday, it is imperative that we acknowledge there was a ~60 minute window on Wednesday where it looked like this game was going to be on FOX Business.

Not FOX.

Not FS1.

Not FS2.

FOX freakin’ Business was on deck to broadcast a college football game in a Friday night time-slot that Jim Delaney had so desperately coveted for the promotion of the Big Ten:

At this point during the day, Big Ten Network already had arrangements to broadcast the Indiana/Maryland soccer game and a Wisconsin Women’s Volleyball match on Friday night. With FOX already devoted to WWE Smackdown and FS1 now obligated to the ALCS, that meant Big Ten football fans across the country were on the verge of an unprecedented television event...

Fox Business Presents: The Ohio State vs. Northwestern STONKSBOWL

Alas, it was not meant to be:

Buckeye Offense vs. Wildcat Defense

Northwestern’s team identity this season has been entirely on the defensive side of the ball. Unfortunately, for a team that plays in the Big Ten, that doesn’t do much to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. While the Wildcats rank 30th nationally in total yards allowed per game (311.2) and 54th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (142.8), these marks both rank in the back half for all Big Ten conference teams.

Where Northwestern’s defense has really shined through their five games is in defending the pass. Their average of only 168.4 passing yards allowed per game ranks 20th nationally and 6th overall in the Big Ten. However, it’s fair to wonder just how talented that pass defense really is given the Wildcats haven’t necessarily yet faced the task of defending an air attack as dynamic or dangerous as that of Ohio State.

Northwestern’s lone win this season came against a UNLV team that heavily favors running the football, and each of their losses have come against teams with passing offenses ranging from pedestrian to flat-out terrible (Stanford, MSU, Wisconsin, and Nebraska). Moreover, among those aforementioned top 20 teams in college football against the pass, the Wildcats rank next to last in both sacks and interceptions with 10 and two, respectively. But to their credit, they have done a good job of limiting big plays through the air so far, as Northwestern is one of the only teams in college football this season that has allowed more rushing touchdowns (six) than passing touchdowns (four).

With an extra week of preparation to study this defense, and given Northwestern hasn’t seen a team with nearly as much talent in its receiving corps, it’s fair to expect Justin Fields has a big game on Friday night. I wouldn’t find it surprising at all if J.K. Dobbins rumbles to yet another hundred-yard rushing performance (he quietly still has the second highest rushing total in college football this season), but it’s probably outside the realm of reality to assume Dobbins steamrolls the Wildcats to the point that Master Teague III spells him for the entirety of the second half. Northwestern hasn’t faced a dual threat QB in a full game all season—Adrian Martinez was injured for much of their game versus Nebraska—and Fields is likely to capitalize on that lack of experience early and often in this contest.

(NU) Wildcat Offense vs. Buckeye Defense

It’s difficult to put into words just how laughably inept Northwestern’s offense is this season. Never mind the fact that they currently boast the highest point total that any team has posted on Wisconsin’s juggernaut defense in 2019, because the Wildcats are just a full-blown embarrassment when it comes to trying to move the football. They rank 125th nationally out of 130 teams in total yards per game (272.4), and their mark of only 120 passing yards per game ranks dead last in the Big Ten. That’s a full 26.5 yards less than a Rutgers team that just became the first college football team in over 25 years to lose their first four conference games by 30 or more points each.

Put simply, if the Wildcats go down early, there’s no way they can throw themselves back into the game. The Northwestern recipe for “success” this season is to choke the life out of their opponents in a 3-and-out grudge match until the other team simply wants to stop playing a game of such unpalatable football. That’s not likely going to work against an Ohio State team that hanged 34 points and 323 rushing yards on a superior Michigan State defense merely two weeks ago. If you’re an Ohio State fan and you’re genuinely nervous about a funky Friday night road upset brewing, I want to reassure you that there is a significantly greater chance of Northwestern getting shut out at home in this one than there is of an upset that would likely end without either team exceeding 20 points.

If you haven’t had a chance to listen to my podcast Burn Down the Big Ten yet this year, I highly recommend checking out this week’s episode. My co-host Ben Goren is lifelong Northwestern fan, and he is more than happy to dump the bucket of cold water on any Wildcat upset hopes this Friday given NU’s offensive coordinator—Mick McCall—is the worst in college football. You can listen to the full episode below, and our discussion of the OSU/NU game starts around the 31 minute mark:

The Bottom Line

In the latest installment of Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings that so prominently features Ohio State as the top team in the sport, Northwestern stands out as perhaps the most enigmatic team in the country at 62nd overall. They rank fifth nationally in SP+ defensive rating, but 124th in SP+ offensive rating out of 130 teams. On paper, there is simply no reason for any confidence that this latest installment of Northwestern is going to be able to score enough points to run alongside Ohio State for the duration of the game.

Dobbins will get his numbers, Fields is in position for an impressive performance, and the Buckeye secondary is going to have another outstanding showing feasting on whatever NU quarterback has the unfortunate pleasure of getting the start in this one. The Wildcats also boast an offensive line with some extremely unimpressive surrendered sack rates, so I would expect Chase Young and the rest of Ohio State’s pass rush to make a lot of noise in the backfield all night long.

In retrospect, this game probably does belong on Fox Business.