COLUMBUS, Ohio — For Ohio State, a game against Northwestern is a chance to make things right.
After suffering their first loss of the season last Saturday, the Buckeyes (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) return home to face the suddenly resurgent Wildcats (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Although Ohio State enters as more than a three-touchdown favorite, the Wildcats (4-3, 3-1) are on a three-game winning streak after beating Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana.
There are a number of factors that will come into play at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, but here are five keys to watch for:
1. The first quarter
Well this is getting old, isn’t it? Blame Ohio State, which keeps having terrible first quarters, for this topic’s continued inclusion on these lists. The Buckeyes took their slow starts to a new level against Penn State last weekend. When the first quarter ended with the game tied at 0, it was the first time Ohio State had been shut out in ANY quarter this season. For a team that has a talent advantage over pretty much any team it faces, wasting a quarter minimizes that strength.
2. Better blocking
No unit had a worse game on Saturday than the Ohio State offensive line, which allowed 6 sacks and 11 tackles for loss against Penn State. How the Buckeyes are able to bounce back from that showing will be critical. The 2014 team showed it could improve after its horror show against Virginia Tech, and Northwestern represents the first opportunity for this year’s group to do the same.
3. Noticing Curtis Samuel exists
Both Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and quarterback J.T. Barrett said after the Penn State loss that the offense won’t designate a number of touches for a specific player, but maybe it should. Samuel is by far the Buckeyes’ best playmaker, and he had a grand total of two carries against Penn State. The first came in the third quarter and went for a 74-yard touchdown. Maybe giving the ball to the most explosive player on the team isn’t such a bad idea, but we didn’t get to find out. He got one carry the rest of the game.
4. Containing Justin Jackson
Ohio State did a good job against Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (12 carries, 99 yards, no touchdowns), but the Buckeyes will be tested again when they face Jackson this week. The Northwestern running back averages a Big Ten-best 113.1 yards per game (171 carries, 792 yards, 4.6 yards per carry) and has 6 rushing scores. The surest way for an underdog to stay in a game is to either break big plays or steadily pound the ball to keep the Ohio State offense off the field. Jackson is capable of both.
5. Airing it out
Northwestern has one of the worst passing defenses in the country, allowing more than 280 yards through the air on average. If Ohio State is looking for ways to iron out its wrinkles in the passing game — especially on deep balls — this might be the game to try it.