So, yeah, Saturday's battle between Ohio State and Northwestern is kind of a big deal. Of course, when you trace the well-warranted hype that has made this game one of the most prominent ones in recent history back to its source, you find one simple fact: This is the best team Northwestern has played in quite a few years, and a win certainly isn't going to come easily.
No. 4 Ohio State has won 17 straight games since head coach Urban Meyer took over last season, the longest current streak in the FBS. The key is balance in every form imaginable. But we'll get to more on that later.
The last time they met
Northwestern and Ohio State will face off for the 75th time Saturday. The 74th time was Nov. 8, 2008 in Evanston, when the No. 11 Buckeyes (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) beat the No. 24 Wildcats 45-10. OSU freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor connected on nine passes for 197 yards, but three of them were for touchdowns. Chris "Beanie" Wells rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries for the Bucks, while Mike Kafka passed for 177 yards, rushed for 83 and ran in the Wildcats' sole touchdown.
What's changed since then
Two rosters turned over, one head coach was deposed and the Big Ten added Nebraska. So, a lot.
Ohio State's season so far
The 4-0 Buckeyes opened up the season at No. 2 in the AP Poll, but have dropped two spots since the season began. This is in part because Ohio State hasn't had the opportunity to prove itself against another high-caliber team like No. 3 Clemson did against Georgia, nor have the Bucks dominated their opponents in the same manner as No. 2 Oregon.
Ohio State started the 2013 campaign with a 40-20 win over Buffalo, and then followed it with a 42-7 win over San Diego State. Then the Bucks hit up Berkeley and took down Cal 52-34 before trouncing Florida A&M 76-0. However, OSU's most intriguing game was also its most recent: last week's win 31-24 win over Wisconsin in Columbus, which more or less locked up ESPN College GameDay's appearance in Evanston.
More importantly, it was the first time the Buckeyes were actually tested, and it was their special teams that made the difference against Wisconsin. (What is it that Fitz says about all three phases needing to work together?) Ohio State punted six times, and each time they pinned the Badgers behind their own 20-yard line.
Though Wisconsin bested the Bucks in passing yardage (295 to 198), the Badgers started five drives within ten yards of their own goal line and were outrushed by the Buckeyes by almost 100 yards.
Ohio State might have narrowly bested a difficult Wisconsin team, but did so by taking away its most valuable asset in its running game and forcing the Badgers into poor field position. If a Wildcat offense that's had trouble maintaining momentum all season long has similar field position struggles, it may get ugly.
On the other hand, the defense will still need to figure out how to do something no team has really been able to do this year: control the Ohio State offense.
Offense: Speedy Braxton (and co.)
With all apologies to Jared Goff and Tyler Russell, Northwestern hasn't faced an elite quarterback since last season's loss to Devin Gardner and Michigan in Ann Arbor. That all changes Saturday when sophomore dual threat Braxton Miller comes into town with a very capable group of running backs behind him.
Northwestern and OSU have two somewhat similar spread offenses. Both are led by athletic quarterbacks just as prone to move the ball on the ground as in the air, and they both make liberal use of zone-read option runs.
Though the Buckeyes average only 214 passing yards a game–a statistic tempered by Miller missing three earlier games with a knee injury–they also average a gaudy 287 yards on the ground. Northwestern has been hold opponents to 119 yards per game on the ground, but its also only faced one legitimately dangerous running back in Cal's Brendan Bigelow.
The Wildcats have also struggled to plug up the middle of the defensive line, which bodes well for Miller (165 rushing yards in just over two full games), and running backs Jordan Hall (427 yards and eight touchdowns in five games), Ezekiel Elliot (200 yards from 20 carries) and Carlos Hyde (126 yards from 22 carries).
Also, Miller threw for 2039 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, and has completed 69 percent of his passes for 406 yards and six touchdowns this season. As noted before, Ohio State will hit Northwestern with a very balanced offensive attack, and to quelling will depend on the defensive front seven's ability to contain Miller and the zone read attack. And even if the front seven can keep Miller in the pocket and limit the OSU run game, the secondary will still need to hold its own, which is far from assured.
Defense: More than meets the eye
It's hard to get a solid, macro-level statistical read on Ohio State's defense. The Buckeyes have only given up an average of 17 points a game, but if you adjust that stat for non-FCS and competent offenses (Sorry, Florida A&M and San Diego State), it's at 26 points per game.
Incidentally, the Buckeyes have had trouble dealing with decent passing attacks, letting up almost 300 yards through the air to Wisconsin and 371 yards to Cal's Bear Raid when they visited Berkeley. The already-vulnerable secondary took a major hit with senior safety Christian Bryant's season-ending ankle injury in Madison, which prompted Meyer to punch the podium when he delivered the news in the post-game presser.
That said, Ohio State was also able to completely neutralize the Badgers' dangerous rushing attack, which ranks sixth in the nation with 300.6 yards a game. Junior linebacker Ryan Shazier, who leads the Buckeyes with 37 total tackles, promises to cause major problems for the Northwestern running backs, which have largely saved the Wildcats from two potentially humiliating games against Western Michigan and Maine.
The Buckeyes will surely give Northwestern a lot to overcome, but it's far from impossible to exploit its holes, especially in the defensive secondary. Northwestern has gotten by on lackluster play for the past two games, and haven't been challenged defensively since Cal, so the major competition jump up to Ohio State from Maine and Western Michigan is dangerous.
That said, if the Wildcats can get the passing game going at a consistent level, Mark return in peak form and the offense finally figures out a way to maintain momentum for four quarters, all bets are off.
There's no question that Northwestern must step up to Ohio State's level to even come close to winning, and that if the play of the past two weeks is woefully inadequate to pull off this upset. But, the talent and potential is there. Now, it comes down to execution.