By Ben Moskow
In a rematch of last season’s Big Ten Championship game, the Northwestern Wildcats will play host to the Ohio State Buckeyes under the lights. This is the toughest game on Northwestern’s schedule and it’s not particularly close. Ohio State represents one of the most storied franchises in college football history. Much like the vast majority of the NCAAF, Northwestern has had serious trouble containing Ohio State in the past, losing the last seven matchups between the two teams and losing 31 of the last 32. But with three tough conference tests preceding this game, the ‘Cats could enter this one with an unprecedented urgency.
Here’s how the teams match up:
Northwestern Defense vs Ohio State Offense
The last time these two teams faced off, Ohio State QB and Heisman finalist Dwayne Haskins was the top storyline. Throwing for 499 yards and five touchdown passes, Haskins could seemingly put the ball wherever he wanted and the Northwestern defense could do nothing to stop him. With Haskins off to the NFL, the Buckeyes took a play out of Northwestern’s playbook and picked up a highly touted transfer from down South, securing a commitment from former Georgia QB Justin Fields. Fields has gobs of potential, serving as the #1 overall recruit of 2018, but could not get out from under the shadow of Jake Fromm at Georgia. But the Buckeyes didn’t stop there, also bringing Kentucky transfer QB Gunnar Hoak into the fold. As of now, HC Ryan Day has yet to name his Game 1 starter for the rapidly approaching 2019 season, which suggests some intense competition for the starting job in training camp.
Regardless of who ends up the starter come Game 1, they will have big shoes to fill, as the Buckeyes led the nation with 364.3 passing yards per game last season. In particular, Fields’ tremendous arm strength could cause serious problems for the ‘Cats, who allowed the 3rd-most passing yards per game in the Big Ten last season and whose defensive backs often looked hapless chasing down OSU’s receivers in Indy.
If there’s any hope for Northwestern through the air, it lies in the fact that the new QB will have to work with less experienced targets than Haskins did last season. Three of Ohio State’s top receivers in Johnnie Dixon, Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin (who accounted for 296 yards and 3 TDs in the B1G Championship Game) are off to greener pastures in the NFL. Look for KJ Hill and Binjimen Victor to get a lot of touches, with true freshman Garrett Wilson in a good position to see frequent action as well.
On the ground, the ‘Cats match up better. Junior RB J.K. Dobbins will have to spearhead the rushing attack with backfield partner Mike Weber off to the NFL. Dobbins is more than capable, as he was the first Ohio State back EVER to rush for 1,000 yards in their freshman and sophomore seasons, but it remains to be seen how he will respond to a heavier workload. Candidates for more reps to replace the departed Weber include speedy fourth-year junior Demario McCall and grit-’n’-grind redshirt freshman Master Teague. The Northwestern run defense has a strong track record, causing last season’s top B1G rusher Jonathan Taylor to have his worst game of the season and limiting the Ohio State rush attack to 114 yards in the B1G Championship Game. As such, the NU defensive gameplan will likely revolve around containing the passing game.
Northwestern Offense vs OSU Defense
It’s no secret that Ohio State’s calling card has long been their offense. Last season, the Buckeyes had their fair share of “we’re going to score more points than you and there’s nothing you can do about it” wins, knocking off Michigan 62-39 and even having trouble containing the Northwestern offense at times in Indy in their 45-24 win.
The 2018 Buckeye defense was fairly middle-of-the-road in the Big Ten, giving up 25.5 points per game. Their pass defense was the fourth-worst in the B1G, allowing 245.2 yards per game. With Ohio State’s standard of excellence, though, these numbers did not fly. New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison looks to turn things around. He will have a solid defensive line and all three returning LBs to work with.
The Buckeye defensive line has been hailed as their best unit essentially since Larry Johnson took the helm as D-line coordinator. 2019 Ohio State’s D will likely revolve around a strong line. Junior DE Chase Young stepped into a major role last season with No. 2 overall NFL Draft pick DE Nick Bosa only appearing in three games and will lead the charge in 2019 once again. Young recorded 10.5 sacks last season, three of which came against Clayton Thorson and the ‘Cats. He’ll line up alongside established vets like Davon Hamilton and Jonathon Cooper and promising young players like Taron Vincent (who also recorded a sack of Thorson last season) and Tyreke Smith. Save for two huge plays, this unit limited the ‘Cats to just 54 yards rushing on
22 carries. Isaiah Bowser will have to grind but may be rewarded with a big carry or two if the unit loses focus.
As for the secondary, starting linebackers Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner all return for Ohio State. Defensive backs Jeffery Okudah, Shaun Wade and Brendon White, all part of a top-tier 2017 OSU recruiting class, will be looking to break out in their junior seasons and flip the script on what was an underwhelming defensive unit for the Buckeyes last season. If the Ohio State secondary cannot rebound from a down year, Hunter Johnson may be able to expose
the unit and find success in the air.
I have high hopes for Hunter Johnson and the Wildcats entering the 2019 season. (Can take out o/u) Vegas’ putting the over/under for Northwestern’s win total at 6.5 is borderline insulting, as the ‘Cats have long found ways to win games against the meat of the Big Ten, especially when sportswriters count them out. Wisconsin on the road? Nebraska on the road? Michigan State at home? All incredibly winnable games in my opinion.
That said, Northwestern does not beat Ohio State. In fact, they often lose to Ohio State by quite a lot. Fields has his way with the Northwestern secondary and it makes for a long evening in Evanston.
Final score: Ohio State 38, Northwestern 21