COLUMBUS, Ohio — After back-to-back road night games, Ohio State’s next challenge will be a little less steep — or so the thinking goes.
And, sure, it’s easy to point to the fact that Northwestern (4-3, 3-1) opened the season with losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State as evidence that the Buckeyes (6-1, 3-1) should breeze through a late afternoon workout on Saturday. But the Wildcats have won three consecutive conference games, so they’re not a Rutgers-level disaster. (Then again, who is?)
To learn more about Ohio State’s eighth opponent of the season, we’ve turned to Zach Pereles of InsideNU.com to get the Northwestern point of view. You can follow him on Twitter at @zach_pereles and read his work here.
Q: What has changed for Northwestern from the beginning of the season to now?
Pereles: The biggest thing has been the play of the offensive line. Early in the year, star running back Justin Jackson just had nowhere to go, and when the Wildcats can’t run the ball, the offense falls apart. Since, the holes have been there, Jackson has been phenomenal, and in turn (quarterback) Clayton Thorson has been much more effective.
Q: Similarly, how did Pat Fitzgerald keep things from falling apart after losing to Western Michigan and Illinois State?
Pereles: Fitzgerald loves to emphasize “pointing thumbs, not fingers.” Essentially, the players and coaches can’t blame anyone but themselves. And the players have responded. Star linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. has been much better as of late, as has the offensive line, as mentioned above. Everyone has been accountable and simply executed better. Fitzgerald essentially took more control and instituted tough, fundamental practices to help fix the breakdowns.
Q: Looking at Northwestern’s statistical profile, there’s not a lot of high rankings … are those numbers misleading? If not, how has NU been able to overcome its unflattering statistical performance?
Pereles: The big things for me are scoring and red-zone defense. This defense has been very bend-don’t-break as of late, especially against Indiana. Forcing a field goal is usually a win for this team. Offensively, the stats are a bit misleading. For example, NU runs a hurry-up offense, so time of possession (126th) doesn’t really matter too much. Additionally, this season has truly been a tale of two halves right now; the first half really drags down the stats of the last three games.
Q: In what areas or at what positions does Northwestern have a chance to have success and cause problems for Ohio State?
Pereles: Ifeadi Odenigbo leads the Big Ten in sacks, and he’ll get opportunities against Ohio State’s struggling offensive tackles, especially Isaiah Prince. The Wildcats also own the best wide receiver in the league in Austin Carr. He’s extremely dependable, and he’ll have to have another big game to keep this one close. He’s tough to defend because he’s quick and runs fantastic routes at all depths.
Q: With Northwestern on a three-game winning streak, what are the expectations around the program and/or fan base both for this game and the rest of the season?
Pereles: I think seven wins is the realistic expectation, though with Nebraska only one game up in the West, some are hoping for a Big Ten West crown and a trip to Indianapolis. I think that’s a bit unreasonable. After all, this team has beat a down Iowa, a way down Michigan State and Indiana. Seven wins and a solid bowl game is a baseline (and realistic) expectation.
Q: What’s your prediction?
Pereles: I’m not too concerned about the whole “angry team” narrative. Yes, Ohio State is angry, but that alone doesn’t count the Wildcats out. I expect the visitors to stick around for a quarter or two, but eventually the simple talent disparity will show. Thorson will turn the ball over a couple of times, and the offensive line will get overwhelmed after a few drives. I’ll go Ohio State 37, Northwestern 17, with the Buckeyes winning going away.