The NUmbers Guy: Northwestern vs. Ohio State Preview

WNUR’s Jim Sannes (@JimSannes) previews Saturday’s football game between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Ohio State Buckeyes by looking at the numbers that will decide that outcome.

David Banks/Getty Images

David Banks/Getty Images

How do you prepare for possibly the biggest game for Northwestern football since the 1996 Rose Bowl? I, personally, have been blasting Mo Greene’s “Go U NU” on repeat while praying feverishly to a Noah Herron cardboard cutout. Herron scored the winning overtime touchdown in Northwestern’s last victory over Ohio State on October 2nd, 2004, and had 113 yards and two touchdowns on the day. On October 5th, it will have been 3,290 days since that contest. That’s 1,732 days longer than the duration of World War I, 571 days longer than Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time in office, and 350 days longer than Aaron Rodgers’s NFL career. Let’s look at some of the numbers that may decide whether or not that streak continues.

1,013: Ohio State has 1,013 more rushing yards than their opponents this season.

Overall, Ohio State is averaging 287.2 rushing yards per game while allowing only 84.6. I realize this number is pretty hard to accept as face considering the Buckeyes have faced the ever-dangerous Buffalo and Florida A&M. But Saturday made these stats legitimate.

Hello. My name is Jim Sannes. And I am addicted to Melvin Gordon. It has been nine days since my last binge-watching of his ridiculous 70-yard runs. The reason I have been able to stave off my addiction so long is that Ohio State shutdown the object of my affection to the tune of 15 carries for 74 yards. His longest carry of the day was 17 yards, just a bit above his previous AVERAGE of 11.77 yards per carry.

As a result of Melvin’s quiet day, I thought I’d turn to his backfield-mate James White for some mind-numbing entertainment. White had 16 carries for 145 yards against Purdue; against Ohio State, he was held to only 31 yards on eight carries. This defense gives zero poops about my man-crushes.

Northwestern will be another big test for the Ohio State rushing defense. On the season, the ‘Cats are averaging 5.74 yards per carry if you exclude sacks from the equation because sacks are for losers. Their 249.5 rushing yards per game are good for fourth in the conference and 18th in the nation. Treyvon Green, Mike Trumpy and Kain Colter are all averaging 5.0 yards per carry or more. And then there’s that other guy…

If Venric Mark is able to return for this game, he’s immediately the x-factor. In case you had forgotten, dude had 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on 6.0 yards per carry. Close games between good teams often are decided by big plays and turnovers, and Mark was one of the best creators of the former in the nation last year.

Wisconsin, for the most part, was able to contain Braxton Miller’s and Carlos Hyde’s running abilities. The two combined for 168 yards on 4.31 yards per carry. If the Northwestern front seven can keep them within that same range, they will be able to keep this game close. If not, then I will hit up my boy Ace Hood to have Miller wake up in a new Bugatti. Try explaining that to the NCAA, you big bully.

23.2: Ohio State’s opponents have converted on 23.2 percent of their third down attempts.

This continued in the Wisconsin game where the Badgers only converted on three of their 12 third down attempts. The ‘Cats, on the other hand, have converted on 51.7 percent of their third down attempts. Me thinks something’s gotta give.

This is one area where Venric Mark’s return may not have as big of an impact. Last year, Mark only touched the ball 24 times on third down for a total of 97 yards. This year, it has mostly been a heavy dose of Mike Trumpy on the field on third down, either lined up in the slot or in the backfield. Trumpy’s pass-catching and blocking abilities make this an obvious choice and should continue even after Mark returns.

Third down is Kain Colter’s baby. Over the last two years, Colter has carried the ball 58 times for 367 yards on third down alone for 6.33 yards per carry. Even better is that seven of Colter’s 15 rushing touchdowns over that span have come on third down. LET THE MAN EAT.

+9: Northwestern and Ohio State are a combined +9 in turnover margin with the ‘Cats at +4 and the Buckeyes at +5.

How often are upsets created by a big turnover? Um, every upset ever, duh. Heading into their bye week, Northwestern led the nation with 10 interceptions. The defense has had multiple picks in six of the last seven games, including six that have been returned for a touchdown. With Ibraheim Campbell’s ball skills and the line’s ability to create opportunities with their big ole mitts, Miller is going to have a tough task.

That said, interceptions aren’t generally in Miller’s repertoire. Last year, Miller only threw one pick for every 42 pass attempts. This year, he has only thrown one in 49 attempts. On top of being a great runner, Miller is a smart quarterback. Ohio State leads the conference in pass efficiency at 170.5; Northwestern is also excelling there in fifth place at 158.2. The ‘Cats are going to need to force Miller into mistakes to win this game.

Games like this always come down to the fourth quarter. Last year, Northwestern was outscored 121-99. This year, it’s Northwestern on top 52-34 in the final frame. Without the combination of a great rushing game, efficient third down offense and the ability to protect the ball and force turnovers, the fourth quarter won’t matter. However, this team has the ability to make all three of those happen every game it plays. In that case… strap in, Northwestern fans. It’s going to be wild.

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