Northwestern headed to Columbus on Saturday as 27.5 point underdogs against the Ohio State Buckeyes, and many predicted the Buckeyes to blow out the ‘Cats, coming off a tough loss to Penn State. Yet the Wildcats hung with the Buckeyes on their home turf, tying the game in the fourth quarter before falling 24-20. It wasn’t a win for the ‘Cats, but there are some positives for Northwestern to take away as they prepare to take on the Wisconsin Badgers this week. So let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the Wildcats’ 24-20 loss to Ohio State Saturday.
Austin Carr continues to amaze. While the Buckeyes were able to hold him out of the end zone for just the second time this season, Carr still picked up big completion after big completion, with 8 receptions for 158 yards, an average of 19.75 yards per catch. Even against a secondary with three future first-round picks, Carr was consistently able to find open space and pick up yards after the catch. On the season, Carr is now No. 12 in the NCAA with 878 yards, well on his way to an 1000 yard season, and tied for No. 7 in the NCAA with 9 receiving touchdowns.
Mick McCall has opened up the Wildcats offense the past few weeks and against the Buckeyes, Clayton Thorson averaged 11.2 yards per competition. Against one of the top defenses in the country, the ‘Cats were able to move the ball fairly well, especially through the air. Thorson connected with six different receivers, including Garrett Dickerson and Carr eight times each, en route to 256 pass yards and a touchdown. And while the ‘Cats offense wasn’t as balanced as the coaching staff would have liked, Northwestern was able to gain yards through the air to keep them in the game.
For the second straight week, Justin Jackson failed to top 100 yards. While the ‘Cats did average 5.1 yards per carry, take out a few big plays, and that number drops to under 4.0 yards per carry. The ‘Cats struggled to run the ball against Ohio State Saturday, which while might be expected, is a concerning trend. Northwestern’s offensive line continues to struggle in both run and pass block, ranking No. 78 in the FBS in adjusted line yards, a measure of how many rushing yards can be credited to the offensive line, and No. 69 in adjusted sack rate, an opponent-adjusted version of sack rate.
Against Penn State, Ohio State’s offensive line struggled as the Nittany Lions recorded six sacks and 11 tackles for a loss. But the ‘Cats managed just one sack and four tackles for a loss on Saturday against that same offensive line, giving J.T. Barrett plenty of time to throw. The Wildcats’ defensive line struggled to put pressure on the quarterback, allowing Barrett plenty of time to find the open man. Barrett did so to the tune of 21 completions on 32 attempts for 223 yards and an average 10.6 yards per completion. More importantly, Barrett didn’t turn the ball over, always a huge factor in pulling off an upset on the road.
The other struggle of the ‘Cats on Saturday? An inability to get off the field on third down. The Buckeyes converted 58.8 percent, 10 of 17, of their third down conversions staying on the field for 5:20 more than the Wildcats. Seven of the Buckeyes’ 10 drives went for six plays or longer, including five for nine or more, as Northwestern, especially in the first half, had a lot of trouble with Ohio State’s speed. And in the end, it was Barrett’s 35-yard run on third down that sealed the Wildcats’ fate.
But what really hurt the ‘Cats the most on Saturday was an inability to score touchdowns in the red zone. Northwestern drove into the red zone four times on Saturday and came away with points on all four, but with touchdowns on just two. On the season, Northwestern ranks No. 112 in the country in red zone touchdown percentage at just 52.38 percent, a troubling statistic for the ‘Cats offense. Coming away with points is huge, but as evidenced by Saturday’s results, Ohio State coming away with three touchdowns and one field goal, whereas Northwestern scored two TDs and two field goals, was the difference in the game.