After Ohio State’s toughest matchup of the season so far, the Buckeyes are set to travel to Northwestern for another road game. The last time these two teams faced off, Northwestern made the game interesting, limiting Justin Fields as a passer which in turn led to one of the greatest run performances in Ohio State by history Trey Sermon.
The mighty have fallen. The Wildcats have been on a downward trajectory since their recent Big Ten Championship appearance. Their offense has regressed despite bringing in a multitude of Power-5 transfers at the quarterback position and having a few draft picks on the offensive line. There is no definitive identity; They try to run the ball, but they have given up leads early and have been forced to throw.
Defensively, all the aspects that made Northwestern so competitive in the past are no longer apparent. The discipline in their Cover-4 shell does not limit explosive plays, and the lack of commitment in run fits have made for a defense that doesn’t
Now, rather than recycling all the jokes made about Iowa’s offense, this article is going to still be serious. As serious as it can be because Northwestern is not a good football team. They do not do anything well, and Ohio State should roll.
Getting started with the offense of Northwestern is like getting ready with stale bread at a restaurant — you’d rather just not have the bread. The Wildcats score 17.0 points per game, good for 120th in the country, and average 4.7 yards per play, which ranks 105th. Over the last few weeks the offense has shown a little life since transitioning to backup quarterback Brendan Sullivan. The lone bright spot is running back Evan Hull, who can only do so much.
Looking at the run game here, Northwestern is in 20-personnel, meaning they have two running backs and zero tight ends. They run an inside zone concept to the offset back (No. 26) on the left, and the other running back lead blocks through the hole. Penn State does a great job of penetrating at the snap, but the play is made by their safety filling. Ohio State’s safeties will need to be prepared to help in the run game. If they can stay disciplined they should be able to win the early downs.
Northwestern does try to find creative ways to run the ball, but that does not mean the creativity is rewarded. The Wildcats lineup in 12-personnel with their quarterback under center. They motion the quarterback out, this means the play is a direct snap to the running back. The play is ruined by the bad snap, but the trickeration here does the opposite of deceiving Penn State. By motioning the quarterback out, the defense knows the play is going to be a run. This allows the defense to pin their ears back.
Staying disciplined and not overthinking are the two ways a defense can slow down Northwestern’s offense. They will try to create conflict with trickery like this play, but as long as Ohio State reads their keys, they should be able to hold up.
The passing game has not been consistent over the past few years for Northwestern. Unable to find a quarterback who can provide consistency and the lack of dynamic playmakers really tells the story. For a team with a first round offensive tackle, they have been unable to protect the quarterback consistently. This has led to a passing game that ranks 100th in yards per completion with 6.5 yards per completed pass.
On this first play, Northwestern is looking to stretch the field and push the ball vertically. Penn State runs a loop on the defensive line and the right guard doesn’t slide to take the looper. This creates pressure for the quarterback and he overthrows the post route. This leads to an easy interception with the safety sitting over top. With how Ohio State’s defensive line is playing, pressure can win this game early.
Northwestern does find success at times, especially getting the running backs involved. They do this by running screens or wheel routes. Evan Hull is a talented pass catcher which creates some mismatches.
In the play below, Maryland is in man coverage. When Northwestern motions the receiver across to the bunch formation, Maryland shifts their defensive backs with the trips side safety walking down. Northwestern runs multiple in-breaking routes, which leads to the linebacker responsible for the running back getting caught in traffic. Hull fakes pass-pro, then runs a wheel route late leading to him being alone in space and scoring a touchdown.
One of the biggest issues for Northwestern is their pass-protection. This leads to a lot of sacks and throws under pressure for the quarterbacks. Maryland shows pressure and drops three players out from the pressure look. They end up only bringing four rushers, but the Northwestern line does not slide the direction of the additional rusher. The running back runs a route, and rather than checking to keep the running back in, they allow for a free rusher.
This leads to a sack from just a bad protection call. Ohio State could show pressure a lot to take advantage of this on Saturday.
Northwestern has never been an offensive juggernaut, but their defense made up for it by playing complimentary football. Northwestern’s head coach Pat Fitzgerald has led a defense that does not give up big plays in coverage, tackles well, and limits red zone touchdowns. The issue is they have not done any of those three traits well this season.
Northwestern has played hesitant in filling in the run game. Their linebackers have also been undisciplined in their pursuit. Penn State runs an outside zone with a lead blocker through the lane. The Northwestern linebacker (No. 33) to the play side reacts late, then he over-pursues, which allows the offensive line to wash him out of the play. Penn State got to the second level blocking, and this gave the running back a huge hole to run through. The other linebacker reacts late, but is able to make a play that saves this run from turning into a huge gain.
Northwestern had to defend against Maryland’s 11-personnel with a Pistol set. This is interesting because of all the talk this week about Ohio State’s run-game tendency out of the pistol. The Buckeyes ran 100 percent of the time out of the pistol against the Nittany Lions, and Northwestern did a good job of limiting Maryland.
Maryland runs inside zone with a motion action to a bubble screen. Northwestern keyed on a tendency. The motion gives away which side the run is going, and this allows Northwestern to blitz the backside safety. By being able to attack from the backside, Northwestern is able to disrupt this run-action. Ohio State has given away tendencies recently and Northwestern will be prepared.
Northwestern in coverage is simple, and in previous years the Wildcats were able to maximize these coverages through discipline. The variety for Northwestern includes almost every coverage, but they play predominantly Cover-4 with a two-high safety shell.
The next play shows how taking underneath throws and being patient can keep drives against Northwestern on schedule. Penn State is in a 3rd-and-6 situation and Northwestern is in Cover-4. This coverage’s goal is to keep the receivers in front of the defensive backs and allow the defensive backs to make plays on the ball. The issue is by keeping cushion, offenses can take the yards the defense is giving them, which is what Penn State does here. They throw a hitch route at the sticks and the Northwestern DB gives the receiver too much space, leading to a first down.
Near the goal line, Northwestern runs a man-coverage across the field. They play a catch technique at the goal line or in front of it. Northwestern did a good job against Maryland at limiting the pass in the red zone, and Maryland was unable to find success through the air. In this play, the defensive backs do a great job of playing at different levels, avoiding any picks at the second level. This gives them the ability to stay on their receivers and not give a window for Maryland’s quarterback to throw the ball.
Northwestern does not have the talent it had a few seasons ago, but they still do play with discipline, sticking to their coverage rules. Ohio State’s explosive ability will be challenged, and if Ohio State can’t stay patient, Northwestern can find success slowing them down.
The last thing Northwestern does at a higher percentage is show and bring pressure through blitzing. Against Maryland in 3rd-and-7, Northwestern shows they are bringing six defenders. They drop two linebackers back into coverage and bring a late blitz from the nickel safety position. Northwestern is well-prepared for the crossing vertical routes by Maryland, and the late blitzing defensive back gets home for a sack. By bringing pressure, Northwestern aids their coverage by showing pressure, and the blitz game finds most of the defensive success for the Wildcats.
Northwestern has not won a football game in the United States in over a year. Their record against the Big Ten has gotten in worse over three consecutive seasons. Ohio State will still have to take this game seriously on the road. This is an opportunity for the Buckeyes to regain confidence in the run game and get back to limiting big plays defensively.
As we looked at today, Northwestern does not have a lot of explosiveness or athleticism on either side of the ball. The discipline Northwestern coaches has not been enough to make up for the talent disadvantages the Wildcats have had the last two seasons on defense. On offense, the lack of dynamic play-making from the quarterback position and receiver positions has been an issues. Teams have been able to load up the box and limit the one thing Northwestern is good at.
Ohio State needs to go to Ryan Field and take care of business in the trenches. This is not the Northwestern the Buckeyes last saw, but they will play hard, which will provide Ohio State a challenge. The challenge from Northwestern probably won’t last long, but if they end up making this game interesting, the Buckeyes will need to be ready.