Among the many differences between last year's passing game and this year's is the lack of parity in production. In 2012, five wideouts caught between 28 and 35 passes, and none went for more than 450 yards. This fall, top targets Tony and Christian Jones already combine for 39 grabs, 585 yards and three touchdowns. Lawrence, Dickerson, Prater and Mike Jensen total 13 catches.
This lack of parity could certainly be a problem against Ohio State. The Buckeyes allow less than 2.9 yards per carry and enjoy a bevy of pro-ready players in their front seven. If the Cats are to stand any chance Saturday, they'll have to continue exploring their newfound vertical passing game and spread the field from the get-go.
Noah Spence mans the system's "viper" position, and shifts between defensive end and combo linebacker depending on whether the defense is playing in an over or under formation. It creates huge mismatches against Northwestern's offensive line, but it also could open up underneath routes over the middle of the field. A short threat like Dickerson could be effective here, and even if he's picked up by solid nickel corner Tyvis Powell, he's got the size to make effective quick receptions.
Lawrence could be most effective on deeper routes. One of the team's most fundamentally sound receivers, the senior would be well served attacking the middle of the field and exploiting Ohio State's loss of Christian Bryant at safety. The replacement, Corey Brown, is a fifth-year senior with 11 career tackles. Stretching the field with Lawrence will also make space for T. Jones and C.Jones, and should force the defense to respect all three or four receivers that Northwestern fields at any given time.
Against a national title contender, the Wildcats will come out aggressive, and the prowess of their running game sets up for great play action opportunities. The return of Venric Mark is thrilling, but Northwestern will see just as salient of an impact from an emerging third receiver in the slot.
Who's most likely to break out? The jury's still out. But in the biggest game of the season, someone needs to exceed expectations for the Wildcats to pull off the unexpected.