Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Northwestern Wildcats Complete Game Preview
With College Gameday coming to Evanston, Ill., for a prime-time matchup between No. 16 Northwestern and No. 4 Ohio State, two of the Big Ten's best teams will take center stage under a national spotlight.
Will the Wildcats (4-0) prove themselves as legitimate conference contenders with an upset win, or will the Buckeyes (5-0) cement their status as one of the nation's elite teams with a marquee road victory?
Northwestern is coming off a bye week, but that might not be the best news for the Wildcats. Under Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern is 0-4 in games following a week off.
Ohio State played its biggest game of the season last Saturday and came away with a 31-24 victory over Wisconsin. Braxton Miller showed no signs of rust returning from a Week 2 knee injury, piling up 281 total yards and four passing touchdowns to lift the Buckeyes.
Northwestern and Ohio State haven't met since 2008, but the two will be reacquainted under the lights at Ryan Field Saturday night.
Date: Saturday, Oct. 5
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Place: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
Spread: The Buckeyes are favored by 5.5 points, according to Vegas Insider.
Ohio State Keys to Victory
Contain the Quarterbacks
Northwestern has two fantastic quarterbacks, and Ohio State will get a good look from both of them Saturday night.
Kain Colter is a dangerous dual threat who has thrown for 264 yards and run for 237 to complement six total touchdowns.
Trevor Siemian is more of a traditional pocket passer who has thrown for 671 yards and four touchdowns.
Together, Colter and Siemian lead an explosive Wildcats offense that will challenge an Ohio State defense that has looked susceptible to big plays.
Although the Buckeyes do boast the nation's No. 18 defense, quarterbacks Jared Goff (Cal) and Joel Stave (Wisconsin) threw for a combined 766 yards and five touchdowns against Ohio State.
The Buckeyes will need to tighten things up on the back end to prevent Northwestern from springing the upset.
Avoid Game-Breaking Turnovers
The Wildcats are averaging 2.5 interceptions per game this year, which is tied for first in the country with Missouri.
Four of those interceptions have been returned for touchdowns.
Braxton Miller will need to take very good care of the ball against Northwestern. Miller has already thrown one pick-six (in the season opener against Buffalo), and if he makes a similar mistake against the Wildcats, it will be much harder for the Buckeyes to overcome.
Northwestern Keys to Victory
Get an Early Lead
Since beating Ohio State in 2004, the Wildcats and the Buckeyes have met just four times. Northwestern has lost all four games by an average of 43 points.
The Wildcats aren't the same pushover the Buckeyes last saw in 2008, though. It's hard to imagine an Ohio State blowout, but if the Wildcats want to pull the upset, they'll need to get off to a quick start.
So far this season, the Buckeyes are outscoring their opponents, 116-21, in the first quarter. Through five games, Ohio State has built quick leads and hit cruise control in the second half. If Northwestern can get an early jump on the Buckeyes, it would set a pace that Ohio State hasn't faced all year.
That isn't a pace Northwestern has been able to set. The Wildcats are averaging just six points in the first quarter this year. That won't fly against the Buckeyes.
Prevent the Big Plays
Ohio State leads the Big Ten is scoring, averaging more than 48 points per game. The Buckeyes score fast and often, and regardless of who's lining up at quarterback, Ohio State has been a big-play machine.
Through five games, Ohio State has 10 touchdowns of 25 yards or more. The Buckeyes have the conference's most explosive offense because they have so many weapons.
Receivers Corey Brown, Devin Smith and Evan Spencer have a combined 51 receptions, 668 yards and 13 touchdowns. Running backs Carlos Hyde, Jordan Hall, Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott are averaging more than seven yards per carry.
With so many playmakers, teams have a hard time keeping pace. To beat Ohio State, Northwestern will have to limit the Buckeyes' big plays.
Players to Watch for the Buckeyes
With Carlos Hyde suspended the first three games, Jordan Hall paced a deep running back group with 402 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Against Wisconsin last week, Hall carried the ball just one time for five yards.
It was a surprising deficiency in carries, albeit an understandable one considering how physical the Badgers are up front. Hyde, Ohio State's power back, ran the ball 17 times for 85 yards.
Jordan Hall has got to be involved. That was a decision we kind of made. We knew it was going to be very hard to run in there the way they play their defensive line. Those are our top two backs, and we are working on that now. So I want to make sure we get Jordan Hall involved.
How involved Hall gets against Northwestern is the big question.
Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown
The Buckeyes were dealt a heavy blow when safety Christian Bryant suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Wisconsin Saturday night.
Senior defensive back Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown will fill the void left by Bryant, which will be a difficult task from both a production and leadership perspective.
Brown has seen the field quite a bit this year and is tied for fourth on the team with 21 total tackles. He'll be asked to do much more this week against a Northwestern offense that's averaging 483 yards per game.
Players to Watch for the Wildcats
Northwestern gets one of he country's most dangerous playmakers back with the return of Venric Mark, an All-American kick returner and running back who has been battling a leg injury since preseason camp.
"It's a heck of a free-agent pickup," Pat Fitzgerald said Tuesday, according to ESPN. "You get an All-American back four games into the season."
Mark was outstanding in 2012, rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns during Northwestern's first 10-win season since 1995. When he's fully healthy, Mark takes the Wildcats offense to another level.
Northwestern will need Mark to play at his 2012 form against the Buckeyes.
While Northwestern's pass defense has been very opportunistic, it has also given up a ton of yards.
In fact, only six teams rank worse than the Wildcats defending the pass. Northwestern is surrendering an average of 309 passing yards per game, and against Ohio State's improved aerial attack, the Wildcats will need to be better.
Safety Ibraheim Campbell leads the secondary with three interceptions and four passes defended while also chipping in 19 total tackles.
The Northwestern secondary will need to take a big step forward collectively as a group, but Campbell's play could dictate that.
What They Are Saying
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is excited to have Venric Mark back, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Whenever you have "5" back there, it makes my job a lot easier. When I can pitch the ball to Venric or get it to him in the flat, he’s going to make a guy miss and get some yards. He has a chance to take it the distance on every play. It will be great (to have him return).
Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennet talks about losing Christian Bryant for the season, via Bill Rabinowitz of The Columbus Dispatch.
How much Christian gives to the program, it’s really hard to equal. I wish you guys could hear some of the speeches he gives us in the locker room. He’s a huge leader on the field and a huge leader off the field. It’s a hard loss. But it’s Ohio State. We have guys who’ll step up and fill that role.
Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott talks about Saturday's prime-time matchup, via the the team's official website.
This is why you come to play Big Ten football and Division I football. This is where you want to be at and this is where we want our program to be at. To have this hype and this (type of) game. That's what we want.
Ohio State receiver Corey Brown talks about the perception that the Buckeyes play a weak schedule, according to Eleven Warriors.
I think a lot of those people on ESPN that do those shows, they’re the same way as all the haters that we have around here. They say we have a weak schedule, so they say that we’re not ready for the big game or whatever.
But we’re just going to keep doing the same thing that we’ve been doing, and we’re going to keep winning. They’re only going to hold us down for so long.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged that Ohio State fans travel very well, according to Rusty Miller of The San Francisco Chronicle.
You always have to tip your hat to the Buckeye fans. Since I played — and way before that — they've been some of the best in the country and they've supported that great program forever.
I definitely think at times in the past we've had issues (with home attendance). They probably have more alumni in Chicagoland than we do, just from a pure numbers standpoint.
Ohio State 41, Northwestern 27
The Buckeyes will score the game's first 14 points before the Wildcats settle in and score a touchdown to close out first quarter.
Ohio State will continue to roll in the second, and Braxton Miller will throw for a score and run for another to give the Buckeyes a 28-10 lead at halftime.
Both the Buckeyes and the Wildcats will score on their opening second-half drives, and while Northwestern's offense will come alive in the final 30 minutes, it will be too late.
Ohio State will put together two long drives that end in field goals to close out the 14-point victory.
Miller will finish the game with four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) and 325 total yards. Carlos Hyde will lead the Buckeyes with 120 rushing yards, as the Buckeyes pile up 500 total yards of offense.