Ohio State-Northwestern: Second Thoughts

Was Ohio State's win over Northwestern as close as it looked? We examine that, the play in the trenches, the quarterbacks' decision making and more in this week's edition of "Second Thoughts" on Buckeye football.

Initially, I thought Ohio State might have stolen one at Northwestern (and, no, I am not in any way referring to the folks who lost money on Joey Bosa's fluky last-play touchdown), but watching it again left me feeling like the Buckeyes had more control over their fate than it first appeared.

Obviously, Ohio State controlled both lines of scrimmage.

Carlos Hyde is a very talented running back who made the extra man in the box miss more than once and used his power to churn for extra yards to turn some decent runs into sizable gains, but he also benefitted from great work by the guys up front. They decimated Northwestern's defensive line, especially the Wildcat tackles. I think both NU ends are talented guys, but they are light at only 265 pounds. With good height and athleticism, both should have a shot at the NFL (probably at 3-4 outside linebackers), but that didn't help them much against Ohio State's power attack. Along with the offensive line, tight end Jeff Heuerman handled his work on the edge, too.

I still think all three Northwestern linebackers can play, Ohio State's runners just got the better of them, and they had blockers in their face a lot.

Obviously, Tom Herman wrote up a nice script of plays to start the game as Braxton Miller diced up the Wildcats secondary early, but it was hard to tell what exactly was going wrong with the passing game in the second and third quarters because of ESPN's extremely tight camera view. The safeties got nosy at times against the running game, but my suspicion is on passing downs they were able to drop enough people into coverage to make Miller question where he wanted to go with the ball.

We have seen that he is OK with putting a ball up for grabs for a receiver in man coverage, but zones can be more dangerous.

Miller appeared to read the zone plays pretty well, though there were a couple of times he really had no right answer because of a scrape exchange with a linebacker or defensive back filling in behind the end who crashed down on the running back. He still managed to make something out of nothing on a couple of keepers by making the initial man miss.

His first fumble was mostly a great play by Tyler Scott. The Northwestern end played his gap tight enough to convince Miller to keep it – correctly, I think – but then was athletic enough to move back into Miller's running lane and knock the ball free. If everybody could do that, we would see a lot less zone read. On both of his fumbles you'd probably like to see Miller hold the ball tighter, though.

The tug to make the big play is strong with Miller, as is a natural inclination to be careful with where he throws it. Maintaining that balance is what being a big-time quarterback is all about, though, and I think we are continuing to see him develop there. He obviously has enough confidence in his knowledge of the offense now to go to his second and third receivers, but now when does he run? It's hard to determine how reluctant he is to scramble now versus how much he just wants to make plays with his arm. Obviously, he got the job done both ways Saturday night, and most of the time the greater potential for damage is through the air. Plus people have been talking for two and a half years about his need to protect himself.

Now, what about the defense?

The front seven was very impressive again. Coming off a nice performance against Wisconsin, Curtis Grant still was able to play the run against a different type of offense. He is still not exactly a runaway freight train out there, but he looks looser and more reactive – less robotic. At least, that is, against the run. In the passing game, he was unable to stay with the athletic Dan Vitale, and he is probably supposed to reroute Kain Colter on the first touchdown of pass for Northwestern.

Ryan Shazier was all over the place but maintained discipline, leading me to believe he is going to have another monster year.

A schematic tweak probably helped contain the running game as the coaches chose to clog the middle with a double-eagle look, having the strong-side defensive end kick down and bringing Shazier up to the line of scrimmage while Noah Spence moved to an upright position for in essence a five-man line. They did this with the nickel personnel, something I haven't seen before. It was an interesting wrinkle that proved to be effective as Northwestern's offense was not able to maintain the balance it generally prefers.

While the young front continues to be a pleasant surprise, the secondary has more questions than answers right now. As I mentioned yesterday, I think they need to see if they have the right guys on the field. Corey Brown struggled in coverage and tackling and just doesn't show much of a knack for getting the job done, but looking closer at the film did reveal a more active Tyvis Powell at the Star. He was aggressive against the run and effective in pass coverage.

C.J. Barnett played another fine game and seems to be getting more and more comfortably playing in the box as his tackling has improved. Doran Grant was a little feast or famine as he got lost on the last Northwestern touchdown but also had that crucial interception. A lot of the other catches he gave up were a result of the scheme calling for him to play off as the field corner, but then breaking that tendency is probably what led to his pick – Trevor Siemian most likely did not anticipate that coverage so he thought that would be a safe throw.

While ripping the defense for the big plays allowed, it should be praised for forcing a pair of field goals when the Wildcats got into the red zone.

Still, the big plays resulted from more than one type of mistake. Sometimes it looked like miscommunication and others passive play or missed tackles.

Bradley Roby is a physical player, but his tackling has suffered this year as he is diving too much, making him easier to sidestep or stiff arm. He needs to get back to fundamentals there.

The problem with those missed tackles – not just by Roby but everyone – is they really make it hard to play the bend-but-don't break style that Luke Fickell generally employs against spread offenses. They did turn up the pressure, especially in the second half, but the number of big plays they have allowed is still unacceptable.

Miscellaneous observations and plays of note:

  • Northwestern's Ifeadi Odenigbo is just a pass rush specialist, but he looks like a guy who is going to be heard from before his career is over. He's very fast, uses his hands well and has already figured out how to use his lack of height as an advantage by creating leverage. He and Jamal Marcus are very similar type players.

  • Linebacker Collin Ellis also is a really nice player. Big, runs well and can defeat blocks. Plays well in space.

  • The linebackers have had a nice time for Ohio State this season as Joel Hale and Michael Bennett continue to not only occupy blockers but make plays on their own at times.

  • Northwestern had no chance on the blocked punt because the Wildcats were outnumbered to the right side of the center. They just didn't have enough guys to block everyone, and Roby was even the correct guy to let go as the outside-most threat.

  • When it looked most dim on the opening drive of the third quarter, Bennett and Shazier made a stop for a short gain on first-and-goal after a couple of chunk plays by the Wildcats. They went hurry up and OSU wasn't even lined up, but Shazier and Bennett sorted through the trash and made the stop. It looked like they pretty much decided they had had enough, which is what you expect from two experience leaders. Powell played a key roll on the next play as he helped string out an option play.

  • Roby had some tackling issues, but he continued to play strong at the line of scrimmage as the force player on outside runs.

  • Northwestern outsmarted itself on its failed fourth down quarterback sneak. As soon as Kolter went under center it triggered a blitz from Shazier. You can bet that didn't help with the execution of the snap, which was unfamiliar anyway since they spend most of their time in shotgun.

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