The No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes have had a bye week to rest after their 34-10 win over then-No. 25 Michigan State. With the win, the Buckeyes improve to a perfect 6-0 record -- one of just 12 undefeated teams remaining in the FBS. Now, Ryan Day’s squad prepares to face the Northwestern Wildcats in a rare Friday night matchup on the road in Evanston that also happens to be a rematch of last year’s Big Ten Championship.
The Wildcats’ 1-4 record has been something of a disappointment for Pat Fitzgerald and company, especially since Northwestern’s surprising run to a Big Ten West title last year positioned the squad as an upstart heading into 2019. The lone win this season came over UNLV in week two, and the Wildcats have lost three-straight to Michigan State, No. 6 Wisconsin and Nebraska since. Most recently, Northwestern dropped a heartbreaker on a last-second field goal to fall to the Huskers 13-10.
In 2018, Fitzgerald’s team went 9-5 overall, including 8-2 in conference. But what was especially impressive about that sqad was that it went from a 1-3 start, during which the Wildcats lost to Duke, Akron and Michigan in succession, to finish the season with a win in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl over Utah.
Through six games, the Buckeyes have shown few points of weakness this season. All signs point to an Ohio State victory. But the Buckeyes have a big matchup against Wisconsin next week. And it is all-too easy to look ahead.
First, some history…
Ohio State holds a 62-14-1 all-time advantage over Northwestern, and is currently riding a seven-game win streak dating back to 2005. However, the Wildcats have not been a frequent opponent of the Buckeyes as of late, as the programs have only squared off three times since 2013 -- including once in last year’s Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. In that matchup, Ohio State brought home a 45-24 win to earn a conference title and a bid to the Rose Bowl behind Dwayne Haskins’ 499 yards passing and five touchdowns.
The last time the Buckeyes lost to Northwestern was back in 2004. Coincidentally, that loss came on the road after a bye week for Jim Tressel’s squad. Spooky.
Friday night lights
In a rare scheduling anomaly, Ohio State plays Northwestern on a Friday night, which has been the new Thursday night for college football this season. But even Thursday night matchups have been rare for the Buckeyes in the past. In fact, the last time the Buckeyes played a mid-season (i.e., not a season opener or bowl game) non-Saturday game was way back in 1959, when Woody Hayes’ 14th-ranked Buckeyes traveled to No. 11 USC to face the Trojans on a Friday night. On that occasion, Ohio State fell 17-0 to the Trojans. Such games are rare for the Ohio State program, which has played just three non-Saturday regular season games since the turn of the century.
Bye, bye, bye
Both Northwestern and Ohio State are coming off bye weeks last week, giving each side a chance to rest and recoup. Northwestern had two byes on the schedule this season, including one after its season opening loss against Stanford. Last year, the Wildcats also fell against Michigan after their early bye. In 2017, Northwestern also fell to Wisconsin following a bye in September.
Ohio State, meanwhile, hasn’t seemed to have had trouble when it comes to staying on track after bye weeks (though, realistically, the Buckeyes haven’t lost all that many games in the last decade, so identifying a pattern among these losses becomes more difficult).
Running down a dream
Running back J.K. Dobbins has continued to impress this season -- and not just within the Big Ten. The junior back is second in the NCAA in rushing yards with 826 this season (one yard more than Wisconsin’s Jonathon Taylor, whom the Buckeyes will face off against next week) and is averaging more than seven yards per carry while scoring six touchdowns for the Buckeyes. If Dobbins has the kind of day Friday that he had against Michigan State or Nebraska, he could top 1,000 yards on the year just seven games into the season. Such a feat would mark Dobbins’ third-straight 1,000 yard season at Ohio State, and would set him nearly on pace to overtake Eddie George’s single season rushing yards record set in 1995 (1,927 yards).
Dobbins and the offensive line will have their hands full, however, when they face Northwestern’s linebackers, which held Taylor to 119 yards and one touchdown on the day (more on that later).
Dobbins’ touchdown total might seem lower than expected given his yardage (Wisconsin’s Taylor, by comparison, has 14 touchdowns on the season). But that’s because the running back is part of a highly-balanced offense. And frankly, things have continued to go just about perfectly for quarterback Justin Fields in his inaugural season in Columbus. Fields has thrown for 18 touchdowns while tossing only a single interception all season. For his efforts, Fields has been recognized as a top Heisman contender along with LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts (and Taylor). More impressive is the fact Fields is the sole first year starter on the watch list.
Coincidentally, Fields was recruited early on by Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern, which was the first Big Ten school to offer him back in 2016. It certainly has to be something of a frustration for the Northwestern offense, whose quarterback struggles have been a source of consternation through five games.
Not so wild offense
Eight: The total number of touchdowns Northwestern has scored this season on offense. By comparison, Ohio State has recorded 39 offensive touchdowns in six games. There have certainly been injury issues to several key position groups (including at quarterback), but the fact remains the Wildcats have the 128th-ranked scoring offense in the NCAA. For clarity’s sake, that’s out of 130 teams. They’re also 125th in yards per game, averaging a mere 292.8. Even more unfortunate is the fact the Northwestern defense is actually really good and has been able to force turnovers -- but the offense has simply been unable to convert, totaling just six points off eight turnovers this season.
Fighting for air
On that note, Northwestern has struggled immensely on offense this season, especially when it comes to the Wildcats’ passing situation. Three quarterbacks have combined for just 702 yards in five games. The trio has a mere two passing touchdowns and (here’s the sad part) eight interceptions. Northwestern ranks in the bottom 10 nationally in several major passing statistics, including completion percentage, passing touchdowns and total passing offense.
Redshirt junior Aidan Smith took over starting duties for the Wildcats when they took on Nebraska last week. In that matchup, Smith went 19-for-32 for 136 yards and a pick. Sophomore Hunter Johnson had started the previous four games of the year for Northwestern, but had left the Wisconsin game with a knee injury. The sting of Fields coming to Evanston hits even stronger considering Johnson, a five-star dual threat quarterback recruit who initially attended Clemson, transferred to Northwestern in 2018.
A tale of two receiving corps
It makes sense that, when one quarterback has thrown for nearly twice as many yards as the collective quarterback room for another team, the spread to different receivers would be similarly distributed. So it’s no surprise that, while Northwestern has just a single receiver who has caught the team’s only two touchdown passes this year, Fields has thrown scoring passes to 10 different receivers.
For Northwestern, receiver J.J. Jefferson has managed to stand out despite the Wildcats’ struggles through the air. Jefferson has had 10 catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns. The sophomore will need to play an even bigger role Friday, given senior receiver Bennett Skowronek, who leads Northwestern in receiving yards, is out for the foreseeable future after undergoing surgery.
Ohio State, meanwhile, has no shortage of targets for Fields, but three have emerged this season as leaders on the outside. Senior K.J. Hill, senior Binjimen Victor and sophomore Chris Olave all have more than 250 receiving yards and have caught multiple touchdowns this season.
A mixed bag on special teams
Northwestern is at rock bottom in the Big Ten when it comes to punting, averaging less than 38 yards per attempt. Given the Wildcats’ difficulties finding their way to the endzone, that average can be a problem when it comes to playing for field position.
Despite the offensive struggles, Northwestern has the top kickoff return game in the Big Ten, averaging 28 yards per return. Quarterback-turned-receiver Riley Lees has been solid in this space, leading the Big Ten with 33.3 yards per kick return.
Down to defense
In a game which features such lopsided offenses, the true test might just come down to defense. And when it comes to total defense, both Ohio State and Northwestern are among the best in the Big Ten and nation. The Buckeyes are No. 2 in the NCAA in total defense, allowing just 234 yards per game, while Northwestern has surrendered a mere 318.8 yards per game (26th in the country). When it comes to scoring, Ohio State is allowing less than nine points per matchup. Though the Wildcats have given up nearly 20 points per game, they still boast the 30th-ranked scoring defense in the country, which is impressive considering they’ve faced one of the NCAA’s top scoring offenses (again, Wisconsin).
More about that…
The Wildcats may have won only a single game this year, but they haven’t gone down without a fight as they’ve boasted a surprisingly stout defense. Of their four losses, only their 31-10 loss to Michigan State could be considered a blowout. In fact, Northwestern’s defense held Wisconsin to just 10 points on the road in Madison (the Badgers’ defense scored 14 of the team’s 24 points). Northwestern’s red zone defense is particularly strong, allowing opponents six touchdowns on 10 red zone attempts (T-19th in the NCAA). Additionally, opposing offenses have only made it down within the Wildcats’ 20-yardline 14 times this season.
One of the strong points of the Northwestern defense has been its ability to force turnovers -- particularly fumbles. Through five games the Wildcats have forced six fumbles, led by defensive lineman Joe Gaziono and defensive back Travis Whillock.
But then there’s the sack situation
Ohio State is the top team in the nation when it comes to total sacks, totaling 28 this season. ICYMI, the Buckeyes are led by junior defensive end Chase Young, who himself is tied for second in the country with 8.5 sacks on the season -- which puts him well on pace to obliterate Vernon Gholston’s single season sack record set in 2007 (14 sacks). Also impressive is the fact Young is not alone. Ohio State linebackers, which have shown massive improvement so far in 2019, have gotten in on the sack game. Malik Harrison is second on the team with 3.5 sacks on the year, while fellow linebacker Baron Browning is tied for third with 2.5 of his own. Collectively, the entire Ohio State defense has proven to be a threat to quarterbacks, with 13 different players getting in on the sack game this season.
Pat Fitzgerald, back for more
Pat Fitzgerald is the charming hometown hero for Northwestern, not unlike Scott Frost is at Nebraska. Like Frost, Fitzgerald was part of one of the most storied teams in Northwestern program history as he led the Wildcats to the 1995 Rose Bowl. As a player for Northwestern in the 1990s, Fitzgerald was a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as well as two-time honoree of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award. Somehow, he was not drafted after his senior season.
As a coach, Fitzgerald was way ahead of the “young coach” trend, having taken over head coaching responsibilities at Northwestern when he was just 31 years old following the untimely death of then-head coach Randy Walker. Fitzgerald earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors last season after taking his Cats to a Big Ten West title.
Overall, Fitzgerald has amassed a 97-74 record as head coach in Evanston and, impressively, has led the Wildcats to three-straight bowl victories.
If limited to records, there’s little evidence which would place doubt on the outcome of this matchup. The Buckeyes have hardly seemed to have been tested throughout their six wins this season, while Northwestern has struggled to put together a complete game.
In Friday’s matchup, Ohio State is favored by 28.5 points over Northwestern. The Wildcats have yet to find an identity on offense, while the Buckeyes seem to be firing on all cylinders. Given that information, a four-touchdown win sounds about right -- even for a road game against a conference opponent who put up a fight in last year’s Big Ten Championship.
With a Heisman contender at quarterback, a running back who is on track for his third-straight 1,000-yard season and a myriad of defenders who can sniff out and take down opposing quarterbacks, Ohio State seems to have every advantage in its corner.
But it is October. Spookier things have happened. Ohio State is on the road. Both teams are coming off bye weeks. And the Buckeyes are playing on a Friday night regular season game for the first time in 60 years. Plus, Northwestern has shown that it can hold even the most potent offensive attacks at bay long enough to keep things interesting.
All signs point to an Ohio State win Friday. But the Buckeyes better have their wits about them.