Ohio State’s 52-3 victory over Northwestern last Friday night left quite an impression on the college football landscape, as evidenced by the team’s latest movement in the polls despite no faltering from Clemson this past weekend.
While Buckeye and Wildcat fans alike expected Northwestern’s haphazard offense to struggle against Ohio State’s thoroughly stout defense, few — if any — expected Northwestern’s defense to concede over 50 points to Ohio State’s offense. Though they had yet to face a passing attack with the Buckeyes’ potency, the Wildcats quietly had one of the top aerial defenses in the nation through six weeks despite relatively low sack and interception totals. Northwestern has a tendency to try manipulating game scripts and time of possession in their favor when falling behind, so for Ohio State to win by seven touchdowns, they had to play very efficient football.
Five plays in particular stood out that allowed the Buckeyes to put the game away early and assert their dominance. Let’s take a look:
1) Chris Olave’s 20-Yard TD Catch
Nothing gets a team going quite like a touchdown on the first drive, and Ohio State’s first of the evening came as a result of a nasty route from Chris Olave combined with a bizarre alignment from Northwestern’s defense. The Wildcats have seven players lined up off the line of scrimmage, and none of them are positioned between the hashes. This is particularly odd given where J.K. Dobbins lines up pre-snap, as a hand-off to the running back would likely result in an easy gain since the middle of the field is left severely undermanned.
Northwestern’s outside corners are playing roughly ten yards off the line of scrimmage, and the two safeties back with them indicates a Cover 4 alignment. However, the weak side safety is playing too far outside to recover back to the middle of the field should the ball travel that way. After getting a pseudo-pick from the tight end within two yards of the LOS, Olave turns his inside slant into a go route up the seam, and Justin Fields delivers a strike just before he’s about to get hit. Considering Wyatt Davis gets beat on a pass rush move fairly early on, the timing of the throw and cut on the route had to be absolutely precise.
2) Justin Fields’ 3rd Down Conversion to K.J. Hill
This was arguably the most critical offensive play of the game for the Buckeyes, and unlike Olave’s touchdown in the previous highlight, the Wildcat defense has perfect alignment here. Ohio State is facing a 3rd down and very long, and failure to convert would force a punt back to Northwestern for a second straight drive to end the quarter. The Wildcats opt to rush only three players in favor of putting three safeties back at the first down marker for quarters coverage, and all the Buckeye receivers other than Garrett Wilson are running deep routes.
In a worst case scenario for Fields, none of the receivers past the line to gain are initially left open, Wilson likely won’t be able to pick up a first down on his underneath route, and both strong side linemen lose their assignment on an inside pass rush move. Fields senses the first wave of pressure, makes a composed step up in the pocket before evading a second sack attempt, and then delivers a timely strike to K.J. Hill sitting on a broken route 20 yards downfield. One of the biggest criticisms of Fields so far this season has been overconfidence in his ability to make every play work — which often leads to unnecessary sacks — but the upside of that risk is on full display here. Despite breakdowns in pass protection from over half of his offensive line against a minimal pass rush, Fields is able to keep the ball in Ohio State’s possession and eventually lead the team down to the end zone for their second touchdown of the game.
This was a back-breaking play for a Northwestern team that still had a fighting chance through the entire first quarter. It remains to be seen if Fields can continue such evasive wizardry against teams with superior pass rushes — particularly if the offensive line continues to struggle in pass protection. However, plays like these are what elevates the Buckeyes’ offense from merely great to among the college football elite, and Fields will continue to give Ohio State that sort of dynamic edge that most other teams simply don’t have.
3) J.K. Dobbins’ 68 Yard Run
To this point in the game, Dobbins only had one rush for more than three yards. That simply wasn’t going to cut it if the Buckeyes wanted to put this game out of reach. Much like they did in their previous game against Michigan State, Ohio State opted to go with a zone-heavy approach after the first quarter to mask their rushing tendencies against a team with a smart front seven.
The entire offensive line has done well with zone blocking concepts so far this season, but Jonah Jackson remained the only player prior to this game that lacked his signature moment for springing a big play. Wyatt Davis and Brandon Bowen have shined all season, while Josh Myers and Thayer Munford both stepped up enormously in the Michigan State game. However, Jackson delivers an outstanding block on this run, as he not only gets to the next level while continuing to neutralize one of Northwestern’s interior linemen, but also eliminates the only linebacker in the box with the opportunity to make a play on the running back.
Dobbins has so much space to operate after bursting through the line that he has time to hit the Wildcat safety with a monstrous combo of head fakes, and he’s nearly able to go the distance as a result. Dobbins carried the ball in for a touchdown on the next play, and suddenly Ohio State found themselves up three scores thanks to Jackson’s best block of the year so far. Looks like leaving Rutgers was a great decision for all involved.
4) Chris Olave’s 8-Yard TD Catch
Some serious NFL-level talent on display here from Fields and Olave. After the Buckeyes scored a fairly easy rushing touchdown on their previous visit to the redzone, the Wildcats are anxious about getting beat on the ground again and opt to place eight defenders in the box. Fields goes under center and initiates a play action rollout, with Olave running a curved out route to the outside. Fields has an easy checkdown to Teague given the pressure in his face, but instead he throws a rope off his back foot that gives Olave a perfect opportunity to make a sideline catch. Olave is able to tap both of his feet in, and Ohio State’s flawless execution against an expected defensive look gives the Buckeyes a four score lead well before the half to put the game away for good.
5) Master Teague III’s 73-Yard TD Run
Dawand Jones — also known as Big Diesel, Big Greasy, Triple D, and/or Big Thanos — got most of the love on this play, but the true reason this inside zone run works is because of the devastating seal block Mitch Rossi (#34) gets on the weak side. Rossi not only takes out the defensive end, but also keeps Northwestern’s Will linebacker from filling his gap. This gives Master Teague III just enough time to cut back underneath Jones, and Jones is so damn big that the strong side safety can’t even see where Teague is before it’s already too late.
The game was well over before this victory cigar of a touchdown run, but this play just goes to show how deep Ohio State’s blocking execution runs as a team. When third-string offensive tackles and reserve running backs are making crushing blocks to unlock 70+ yard gains, it speaks volumes about depth and the leaders of the unit. Pass protection may still need improvement, but it’s far from an unreasonable take at this point to proclaim Ohio State has the best run-blocking football team in the country right now.