So far this season, Northwestern has run the ball pretty well, passed it efficiently and put up more than 40 points per game. Defensively, the Wildcats have given up a ton of yards, especially through the air after losing one of their top DBs to a nasty leg injury in the season opener.
Schematically, Northwestern actually looks pretty similar to Ohio State on both sides of the ball. They run a one-back, run-based spread offense with three receivers and an athletic big guy you could call a tight end or an H-back (they call it a Superback), but the option is more prevalent, and they are more consistent at pushing the tempo than the Buckeyes have been so far.
Starting quarterback Kain Colter is a dangerous runner who can give a team fits with his ball-handling skills. He runs the traditional option and the read option well. He is shifty and runs with good balance, but I don't think he has great speed. He throws it well enough to keep a team honest.
Trevor Siemien is more than a change of pace. He has enough athleticism to move around in the pocket and escape pressure, and he can do some damage on the zone read if not accounted for. His No. 1 weapon is his arm, though, and he can make all the throws.
I think both quarterbacks are good enough to run the show on their own, but I don't think either of them would be great doing it, so this mix probably is their best option whereas last year I thought they might be better off going with Colter full time. Both of them can keep plays alive and find receivers on the run, which could be big in this game.
At running back they have a true star in Venric Mark, a little guy with blazing speed who can go the distance at any time and is also a dangerous return man. He's been out since getting hurt in week one, and while Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy have been productive in his absence, neither looks like a game-breaker. I'd say the same thing about their receivers. They are all experienced, sound guys but none of them jumps off the screen. "Superback" Dan Vitale, who could perhaps be a poor-man's Zach Boren (but taller), is third on the team in receptions (11) and yards (148).
The offensive line has a good anchor in center Brandon Vitabile but otherwise looks like a group that just sort of gets in the way. Their tackles had some troubles against Cal, but the running game still produced over 200 yards.
On top of the traditional spread looks, Northwestern is not afraid to go big with a "power pistol" look and the diamond formation (or inverted wishbone). They can run the triple option out of these looks, and the plethora of backs (including Vitale) and Colter's decision making and gumption come in handy here, but I'm not sure if this is an effective enough look to be more than a change of pace. They can't line up and overpower people. They went with the big personnel for all three plays on a trip inside the 10 against Cal and didn't look too threatening at any point before settling for a field goal.
On defense, Northwestern runs a 4-3 most of the time with an additional 30-front defense on passing downs like OSU, but the Wildcats seem to prefer to play their base personnel even against spread looks. In their last game against Maine, they also looked more active with stunts and blitzes with mixed results.
Like Ohio State, they will use the 30 nickel or dime defense to crowd the line and show pressure but often drop out of it and play coverage.
This is a bend-but-don't-break defense that seeks to make teams drive the length of the field. They don't make a lot of sacks or tackles for loss, but they excel at getting their hands on passes at all three levels and they enter the game third in the nation with 10 interceptions. Many of those are on tipped balls, and six belong to members of the front seven.
Linebacker Collin Ellis picked off two passes on deflections against California in their opener, and he showed some nice speed on one return as he pulled away from the pursuing Golden Bears. Still, he could be someone to target in space as he is the Sam linebacker and will step out on the slot against the spread. I was impressed with his athleticism, and I liked the other two linebackers as well. MLB Damien Proby and WLB Chi Chi Ariguzo (who comes from Columbus DeSales) are both big guys who pursue and tackle well. Really nice group.
Up front they have three standouts at end, including a redshirt freshman whose name you might remember – Ifeadi Odenigbo. Now listed at 6-3 and 245 pounds, the Centerville product is used as a pass rush specialist, and he certainly has the speed to do that. I'd take Noah Spence over him, but he has a bright future.
Both starting ends – senior Tyler Scott of Warren Howland and junior Dean Lowry – are long, active and athletic but light (265 apiece). They can rush the passer, but I'm not sure about them against a power running game.
The corners are both young in sophomore Nick VanHoose – a St. Paris Graham product who started four games last season – and redshirt freshman Dwight White, who stepped in for the injured Daniel Jones. Neither of them jump off the tape, but again the unit overall has given up a ton of yards.