It’s Friday, and the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (6-0, 3-0) will be in action tonight in Evanston, Ill. as they take on the Northwestern Wildcats (1-4, 0-3). The game will be a rematch of the 2018 Big Ten Championship game, which the Buckeyes won 45-24.
However, much has changed for both teams since they met in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium last December. To get some insight into what the Buckeyes can expect from the Wildcats tonight, I spoke to Noah Coffman, the Editor-in-Chief of our Northwestern sister site Inside NU (I also answered some questions about OSU for them too).
LGHL: An early fall Friday night game at Ryan Field. What do you think the atmosphere for this game will be?
Noah Coffman: Pretty favorable for Ohio State! Ryan Field doesn’t exactly fill up with purple even for the most marquee matchups, and with the team struggling mightily early in the season, I expect there to be plenty of Buckeye representation inside of the stadium. Overall, things should be pretty electric, but the red/purple split should be around 50/50, and would be a lot worse if Northwestern’s ticket office wasn’t forcing people to buy season tickets to get this game.
The big question to me is whether students show up. With the intrigue of a late Friday night start time, it seems like things could honestly go either way. Without a great turnout in the student section, the atmosphere will definitively lean the way of the Buckeyes.
LGHL: So, how do I ask this gently? What the heck is going on with Northwestern’s quarterback situation? Is Hunter Johnson going to play? Do NU fans actually want Hunter Johnson to play?
Noah Coffman: After redshirt senior TJ Green — who seemingly was initially slated to split time with Johnson under center — went down early on in Northwestern’s season opener against Stanford, the Wildcats have been consistently atrocious through the air. It hasn’t seemed to really matter who is under center: Johnson’s completion percentage is down at 48 percent, he has only a single passing touchdown, a rushing touchdown, four interceptions, and has gained about 2.2 yards per carry when using his feet, a number that would be much better without sacks taken into account.
Meanwhile, his occasional replacement, redshirt junior Aidan Smith, has a 49 percent completion rate, a single passing touchdown and a single rushing touchdown to go with four interceptions, and is averaging about 2.5 yards per pop on the ground, a number that would be much better without sacks taken into account. So, yeah.
To answer your questions fully, the Wildcat passing offense has just been unwilling to take chances. Johnson’s arm talent and ability to fit balls into tough windows has shone through at times this year, and he is clearly the higher-upside (and better, in my opinion) option under center, despite being good for one or two really bad mistakes per game.
It doesn’t really matter who plays, though, because in 53 pass attempts over the past two games (against a great defense in Wisconsin and a less-great one in Nebraska), the Northwestern starting quarterbacks have not completed a pass that travelled more than 11 yards in the air.
When they open the offense up late in halves, or in desperate end-game situations, NU’s passers have enjoyed a modicum of success. Otherwise, it’s been the same run-run-pass-punt (with an occasional short pass mixed in as one of the first two options) all season long. Johnson, to me, is better, and I’d like to see him play. We have no idea if he will, though, and to be honest, it probably won’t matter.
LGHL: Northwestern currently has the fifth ranked defense according to SP+ and has only given up more than 20 points twice this season; fairly unusual stats for a team that’s 1-4. Do you think that the defense is strong enough to give the Cats a chance to turn it around in the second half of the season, or is winning five of the next seven games to get bowl eligible just too big of a hole to climb out of?
Noah Coffman: Northwestern probably only needs to win four games to get eligible, given that their APR, as always, is extremely high, and that there are just too many bowl games. That said, their defense certainly does give them the chance to do so. The Wildcats’ schedule becomes a bit easier down the stretch, and while I wouldn’t bet on 5-7 (4-8 seems more likely), much stranger things have happened.
This has been a group defensively that just refuses to allow any explosive plays, taking bend-but-don’t-break to the next level. They have managed to sustain an incredible level of success against some solid offenses even while being relatively unlucky thus far in terms of turnover creation.
Against worse groups than the dynamic Fields and Dobbins-led Ohio State attack, this group will consistently keep the Wildcats in games, probably even allowing NU to steal a few of them.
LGHL: Imagine that there is five minutes left in the fourth quarter on tonight and Northwestern has the ball, down by one score. In that scenario, what would the score have to be, and how do you imagine the game would have had to have played out to make that happen?
Noah Coffman: The score is probably something around 20-16. The defense has played their hearts out in one of the best performances of the season by any unit anywhere in the country, only being gashed once or twice by the myriad Buckeye weapons and setting up the offense with some ok field position (which they have mostly turned into field goals) thanks to some crucial stops and a few turnovers.
Offensively, the ‘Cats have remained off schedule, but have strung enough decent plays together to at least put a few points on the board, mainly behind a decent-to-good running game.
Meanwhile, special teams is firing on all cylinders, with Charlie Kuhbander hitting all three field goals that he has attempted and the rest of the phases at least playing OSU to a draw. A touchdown certainly doesn’t seem likely, but at least they have a chance!
LGHL: Ok, now that you have imagined that scenario, what do you predict actually happens on Friday night?
Noah Coffman: Northwestern’s defense does a phenomenal job of limiting the Buckeyes to 38 points (no, seriously, that would be pretty impressive), but Ohio State’s defense matches the Wildcat offense with a touchdown apiece, NU’s coming on a late run from Drake Anderson. An early safety created by Joe Gaziano is the only other scoring. Honestly, this prediction might be a bit generous to the home team.
Ohio State 45, Northwestern 9
Ohio State will go on the road against Northwestern tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET in Evanston, Ill. The game will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.