Few things are more enjoyable than the chance to be inside a college football stadium on Saturday afternoons. Especially the chance to watch Ohio State.
The pageantry of college football is unmatched in American sports. Up close, it’s awe-inspiring. Especially watching it from the sidelines in a way that is only a dream to most folks. Because I’m really, really fortunate, I get to do that every weekend.
When you’re watching it from the sidelines, though, there are things you’re sure to miss. That’s why it’s important to get home and watch it again from the couch. With a beer.
That’s what I’m doing now, taking a few hours to have a Scarlet and Gray replay and seeing things that might’ve been missed at first glance during Ohio State’s less-than-fun-to-watch 24-20 win over Northwestern. It’s 4:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon and since I’ve already spent a few hours watching terrible football (7.5 hours of the Bengals and Browns? I obviously hate myself.), I figure I may as well spend a few more.
Let’s rewatch Ohio State hosting Northwestern. It was an absolutely beautiful day in Columbus, especially considering it’s October 29. There’s no excuses to be found if the Buckeyes struggle with the passing game. There’s no rain, a little bit of wind, but overall, it’s a perfect day for football.
First Quarter — Ohio State offense seems to awaken
ESPN broadcast the game and decided to skip the first five minutes of it to stick with the end of Michigan-Michigan State. Interesting choice.
Because of ESPN’s decision, we missed Northwestern’s opening drive, where it gashed Ohio State through the air on three consecutive plays before stalling, and the Buckeyes’ first drive of the game — their best opening drive of the season. I am glad I didn’t watch this live, or I’d have been fairly bothered by it.
Maybe I didn’t think about it Saturday, but for Ohio State to open with a nine-play, 94-yard drive to open this game after how badly the Penn State game ended, was really important and impressive.
This is a big moment in the game for the Buckeyes: they have a 7-0 lead and a key early turnover at midfield. Not to mention, Northwestern has been excellent in the last month. Raekwon McMillan’s play has been debated among Buckeyes fans, but he’s continued to excel in the passing game. He finds a way to get himself into throwing lanes and that led to Damon Arnette’s leaping interception.
Similar to the Tulsa game earlier this year, though, Ohio State’s refusal to stretch the field offensively wasted a quick-change opportunity. I remember watching Urban Meyer’s Florida teams and seeing them try to hit home runs after turnovers. I’m not sure where that mentality has gone. Still, two first downs and a couple of touches for Mike Weber, a nice 11-yard gain on third-and-5 for Curtis Samuel — the Buckeyes are moving. There’s confusion about exactly where/how to use to Samuel, but the semantics about what position he “plays” are silly. He’s the best wide receiver on the team and he’s the best big-play threat no matter where he’s lined up; just get him the ball.
On third-and-4 from the 18, the Buckeyes decided to go back to the end-around. That’s fine. What’s not fine is the idea that Dontre Wilson is explosive at this point. Let’s put that notion to bed. He’s a reliable pass-catcher and a tough runner, but he’s not 100 percent healthy, so it makes no sense to use him like you would Samuel. That play may have been different if Marcus Baugh doesn’t miss a block, but the point remains.
Either way, Ohio State adds a field goal later, it’s 10-0 Buckeyes after two possessions.
No complaints, right?
Northwestern’s offense did a very good job of catching the Buckeyes on their heels, mixing up the run game on early downs. I have no idea why they took out Clayton Thorson to bring in a running quarterback, because it telegraphed what was coming. But Thorson made up for it when he reentered the lineup. This kid is a future NFL quarterback and may be the best quarterback Ohio State faces all season. To keep the surging Buckeyes offense from maintaining momentum and rhythm, Northwestern choked the clock for nearly the last seven minutes of the first quarter.
1st Quarter Keys
- QB J.T. Barrett had time to throw, and did so in rhythm.
- Samuel and Weber each found themselves in the play-calling mix.
- Northwestern’s offense had Arnette on the field more than any other game this year, but he’s been incapable of guarding Austin Carr so far.
Second Quarter — Northwestern plays keep-away
Northwestern is on the board after Thorson’s 1-yard touchdown run after 16 plays, 75 yards and another full-sized, methodical drive that the Buckeyes defense allowed. Third-and-long situations, fourth-down conversions, passes to the tight end and more — Northwestern did to Ohio State what Penn State did a week ago. Not the best start for the Buckeyes defense.
Ohio State worked to get Samuel involved early, but the swing pass to him is easy to see coming. As a running back taking handoffs, he’s got the ability to go the distance each touch, but we’ve yet to see him really run between the tackles. Can he do that? At some point, the Buckeyes coaching staff will find a way to mix up Samuel and Weber at the same time. For now, it seems they get into a trance whenever one is the focus. Samuel, Samuel, Samuel or Weber, Weber, Weber.
Baugh had a bad drop on first down, but Barrett and the Buckeyes didn’t panic and were on the march again. The offense looks crisp until it decides, again, to force Wilson into the offense in the backfield. He doesn’t work there. Weber does, though. His vision and footwork are next-level and he showed both on a 23-yard touchdown run. Two touchdown drives of more than 80 yards against a pretty stout Northwestern defense? Great job by the Ohio State coaching staff.
But the defense … it continues to struggle. I think Northwestern’s ability to get the ball out of Thorson’s hands quickly is key here, because it’s not something every quarterback can do. Thorson is the real deal. Quick release, more athletic than you’d imagine. He keeps Ohio State off the field. Slant. Square in. Crossing patterns that are almost impossible to cover and again, Northwestern utilizes the tight end, which seems to be a weakness in the defense. There are some big-time talents on the defensive line and Thorson has neutralized them. Another long drive ends in points, but the Ohio State defense did enough to stop a touchdown.
I thought the Buckeyes would score on the possession following Northwestern’s field goal. Unfortunately, the vertical passing game is not there and wide receivers failed to get open on first and second downs.
2nd Quarter Keys
- No pass rush for the Buckeyes until the final drive of the half
- Northwestern’s decision to take Thorson off the field on second-and-goal with 2:30 to play in the half was puzzling. The Buckeyes should be glad it did.
- Why did Ohio State call two timeouts to get the ball back with :43 left in the half? That series is one where a player like Binjimen Victor should’ve had a few reps. Just take a shot down the field. Instead it almost had another huge special teams gaffe. Northwestern got a finger on the ball and forced a short punt.
- Overall, Barrett played a very good first half. Lots of positives for the struggling Ohio State offense.
Third Quarter — Ohio State is asleep at the wheel
The atmosphere in Ohio Stadium at the start of the second half was not good. The crowd was asleep, which is what Northwestern’s offensive game plan probably intended. There was no energy in the building.
Then Samuel went for 23 yards on the first play of the half and I felt even more sure that good things were coming for the Buckeyes, because that play should’ve been blown up after a missed block by Noah Brown. To Brown’s credit, he got downfield and found another guy to hit — twice — and things were clicking. A short pass to Wilson, then another carry for Wilson followed by a predictable quarterback draw, and poof, all optimism was gone.
Northwestern proved early in this quarter it wasn’t going away. What’s surprising is not that Northwestern is good, but how little Ohio State dominated the Wildcats physically. The talent gap in the Big Ten that existed in 2012 has closed considerably.
Ohio State had chances to move the ball. Samuel dropped a first-down pass. The Buckeyes had another silly false start, this time on James Clark. The Wildcats adjusted to the short passing game and Ohio State took one shot downfield to Clark, who didn’t identify the ball in the air and the ball was slightly off target. Little things, big misses.
The Buckeyes don’t know how to stop the slant and the crossing pattern to Carr. I’d guess a key is to stop the ability to throw it so cleanly, or to get a hand up along the defensive line, but none of that is happening. Teams play Ohio State and seem to open the playbook and exploit weaknesses. They’re aggressive and take chances; the Buckeyes seem afraid to do any of that right now.
Sam Hubbard has to bring down Thorson when he has a clean look, but Thorson slipped the tackle. On the next play, Carr again finds a weak spot in the defense, and just like that, it’s first-and-goal Northwestern. After another long drive, and another blown coverage in the end zone by an Ohio State linebacker, it’s 17-17. Ten plays, 84 yards. Whatever the Buckeyes did earlier in the year to get offenses off the field, they’re not doing it now.
Since taking a 17-7 lead, Ohio State’s offense has run 16 plays and punted four times. The 19-yard completion to Samuel on third-and-5 may prove to be the game’s biggest play.
3rd Quarter Keys
- Ohio State has not found anyone to cover a tight end and that will continue to be a problem.
- For all the talk about getting the ball to Samuel, Ohio State seemed to forget Weber. He only had two carries in the third quarter. One was a huge pickup on third-and-2 at the quarter’s end.
- The Buckeyes play man coverage almost all the time; Northwestern exploited that all afternoon with Carr.
- Still no Dante Booker? Meyer has insisted Booker is back, but he hasn’t played.
Fourth Quarter — One key score and hold on for dear life
Ohio State is moving the ball, again. One of the more frustrating elements of this team is that they show flashes of being really good.
Then the Buckeyes stop and do stuff like run an option on third-and-6 that everyone seemed to know was coming. Ohio State punts from the 36-yard line, which ends up being a touchback. That is a moment that Buckeyes fans can point to as a “where’s the aggression” moment in this game. Is a 16-yard punt worth it or would it have made more sense to put pressure on Northwestern’s defense?
Northwestern again brings in Matt Alviti for Thorson. I just don’t get that decision. Thorson is killing Ohio State; Pat Fitzgerald’s team is overthinking. The Buckeyes get a big three-and-out and decent field position.
One thing the Buckeyes have shied away from most of the night is the quarterback run, but as the game gets tight, it shows up more and more. Every team Ohio State lines up against sees how to stop it. For the Buckeyes, it’s about changing it up, and the first-and-1o rollout by Barrett, hitting Brown, is one of those change-ups. Pass on first down, change the playbook. That’s how K.J. Hill found himself wide open on the Buckeyes’ biggest offensive play. Barrett gets tripped on the next play, though the middle of the field was wide open. The Buckeyes have tempo in their favor and that’s when they’re at their best. That’s when they score points and that’s what happened on Samuel’s 3-yard touchdown run.
On the next Wildcats possession, the dormant Ohio Stadium crowd finally woke up and so did the Buckeyes pass rush. Unfortunately, Thorson is a good quarterback. He’s 8-of-12 passing on third down and the ‘Cats are moving the ball once again. They also did something no one else has really done this year against the Buckeyes “rushmen” package: a read-option that completely fooled Jalyn Holmes. Third-and-7, knowing Ohio State will pin back their ears with pass-rush specialists, and they played themselves right into a big run by Thorson. Two plays later, third-and-14, it’s Carr across the face of the defense again, for 27 yards.
Northwestern tried to run the read-option again, but to his credit, Holmes didn’t fall for it the second time. Northwestern, after a hold and a second, failed third-down conversion, kicks a field goal. That holding call stopped a fourth-down attempt. I absolutely believe that Fitzgerald felt a field goal now would lead to another possession and a touchdown to win, and I don’t disagree. Ohio State needs one, game-killing drive.
Somehow, some way, the Buckeyes got just that. Barrett gets so much flak from fans because he’s not perfect, but he is incredibly tough. The Buckeyes, needing to kill clock, came out throwing. Only one to Weber in the fourth quarter to this point, but this is Barrett time. Northwestern got exactly what it wanted: third-and-8 for the Buckeyes and Barrett forced to throw. Barrett got time to throw and didn’t panic, then threw a dart to Brown for 16 yards. No conservative play-calling when you expected there to be. Two plays later, it’s third-and-10. Again and again, it’s Barrett who makes a play, this time with his feet for 35 yards, thanks to a big block by Brown.
Game over. Ohio State showed guts in an ugly win. Especially from Barrett.
Everything runs through Barrett. Do you want him running the ball 21 times a game? No, but adding the quarterback run — not scrambles — changes Ohio State’s offense. It has to be a part of what it does. Give him time to throw, and usually Barrett is going to find the right guy. Keep him upright, and the Buckeyes will win games.
The defense? There are holes developing, but you can’t expect it to be perfect. They replaced eight starters, too.