My Northwestern Wildcats take on the Ohio State Buckeyes tomorrow, and let’s be honest: We all know what’s going to happen—Urban Meyer is going to take the ‘Cats to the woodshed, allowing Gus Johnson to ooze paeans to The Man, The Myth, The Coach, increasingly breathless with each superlative.
Here’s how it’ll happen:
Northwestern’s offense can’t keep up.
Look, the ‘Cats are not exactly an offensive juggernaut. Since cracking 30 points (with 31!) against Purdue in the season opener, Northwestern has achieved that feat...twice, in the loss to Akron and the win over Nebraska (in overtime).
While Northwestern’s much-maligned offensive line has been relatively successful in keeping Clayton Thorson upright, the Buckeyes’ defense gets to the QB with DT Dre’Mont Jones and DE Chase Young. So the ‘Cats will have to rely on Flynn Nagel, Cameron Green, and Bennett Skowronek to move the ball in chunks with underneath passing. To make matters worse, the ‘Cats will have to do this over...and over...and over, and their explosiveness—125th in S&P+—will do them no favors.
Ohio State will likely score points, and their defense is prove to allowing big plays (119th in IsoPPP and 120th in marginal explosiveness). But they’re stout on the defensive line—where Isaiah Bowser will be met over and over by Jones, Young, and LBs from Malik Harrison (12.5 run stuffs) to Tuf Borland (10.5).
Look to Michigan for your example: This Buckeyes defense wants to feast on pro-style offenses, and Northwestern is a poor man’s Michigan.
The defense bends, and bends, and bends...and finally breaks.
Northwestern ranks 20th in rushing defense, per S&P+, with the passing defense just 64th. Where the ‘Cats thrive, though, is keeping the ball in front of them—19th-best defending passing downs—and holding firm in the red zone, allowing just 3.93 points per trip (24th in the country).
But they ain’t seen an offense like Ohio State’s.
No, really. At 4th in S&P+, the Buckeyes far outstrip anything Northwestern has seen in 2018—wisconsin was 13th, Purdue 17th, and Michigan way down at 24th.
First, the positive: Northwestern should be able to keep the Buckeyes’ run game in check. As MountainTiger exhaustively details in that link above, the lack of a true running threat at QB means that the ‘Cats will set loose their linebacking corps of Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher to stop RBs Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins. If they, along with DE Joe Gaziano, can set the edge, the ‘Cats have a chance to take the pressure off their defensive secondary.
...but that’s where things fall apart. Big Ten Offensive Player and Quarterback of the Year Dwayne Haskins, with his ability to throw the ball all over the field, has not only speedsters like Parris Campbell who will wake my Rondale Moore nightmares, but downfield threats in Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin. Their explosiveness is made to break the ‘Cats battered secondary. Montre Hartage will be back for Northwestern, but with the secondary likely relying on tackling in space...oof.
So it’s gonna happen eventually—the Buckeyes will bust a big play or two. If Northwestern can grind the pace and score of this game to the 20s rather than the 30s, they have a chance. But Ohio State has the talent to make sure the Wildcats don’t just bend, but break.
Urban Meyer’s made for big games
Look, this isn’t at some backwater like West Lafayette or Iowa City. We can make jokes all we want—and this is all that fans in those two towns have—but the Buckeyes are a Death Star that knows exactly what they’re doing in the Big Ten Championship.
I love Pat Fitzgerald. I’ve been a heavy critic of his this year, beyond just keeping Mick McCall but extending to how he deployed his quarterbacks early in the year.
That’s not going to be a problem in this game—Fitz is playing with house money, and who knows when he’ll get back here? But Fitz only has so many cards in the deck when Ohio State has the athletes and speed to catch up to him. Running the ball over and over into a superior offensive line isn’t going to catch Ohio State napping. He’ll need to come up with a gameplan we’ve not yet seen out of him. Advantage: Urban.
Drue Chrisman can flip the field, stall the ‘Cats
That’s unfair to Jake Collins, Northwestern’s grad transfer punter, who has been excellent as the team’s Swiss army specialist (first in our hearts, first in punting, third string on the kicking depth chart).
Collins has put almost a third of his punts inside the 20 this year (21 of 65), but has only forced 24 fair catches and netted 36.9 yards per punt—off a 40.7 yards per punt average.
Chrisman, on the other hand, is a damn stud. The redshirt sophomore from Cincinnati pops off at 42.3 ypp, putting 25 of his 49 punts inside the 20 and forcing fair catches on 21 of those. Oh, and opponents have only tried to return 9—nine!—punts...and gotten under 4 yards a return. Add to that the fact that Northwestern doesn’t return many punts as it is (if you see Riley Lees, it’s probably a fair catch—Nagel and Cameron Ruiz may try to return it), and the Buckeyes will be more successful in flipping the field.
It won’t come down to it, but punting will sure be winning for the Buckeyes.