Urban Meyer has lost two games in a row only once in his time at Ohio State, but that is exactly what he is staring in the face when Northwestern comes to town Saturday afternoon.
Offensively, the Buckeyes have had to answer some pretty tough questions as to why the passing offense just can’t seem to get in a rhythm. Is it quarterback J.T. Barrett’s fault, is it the wide receivers or is the pass protection so bad that it’s messing everything up? This game against the Wildcats should give us more insight as to how a young team will respond to adversity.
Defensively, the Buckeyes are in for a challenge. Northwestern running back Justin Jackson is statistically the best back in the Big Ten and is a workhorse for the Wildcats. Northwestern also boasts one of the best quarterback/wide receiver duos in the country with Clayton Thorson and Austin Carr. Thorson has thrown 14 touchdown passes to just five interceptions this season, and nine of those touchdowns have gone to Carr, who leads the Big Ten in receptions with 50 through seven games.
The Wildcats have won three games in a row after starting 1-3 with losses to Western Michigan and FCS foe Illinois State. Two of their last three victories have come against Iowa and Michigan State on the road, while their win over Indiana came at home. The Wildcats don’t have the number of athletes to keep up with Ohio State, but they do have a few explosive playmakers on offense who could make things interesting.
SCORE: Ohio State 41, Northwestern 24
After a shocking loss at Penn State last week, it’s hard for me to believe that Ohio State will come out flat against Northwestern on Saturday.
This is the Buckeyes’ first home game since Oct. 8 when they played Indiana, and I think the home crowd is just what they need to get back on track.
They’re going up against the worst pass defense in the Big Ten (282.1 yards per game) so I expect J.T. Barrett and his receivers to get things sorted out and find a rhythm.
Quite frankly, I have the impression that Barrett and the entire offense is tired of the media and fans harping on the struggles in the passing game and therefore would like nothing more than to light it up through the air to silence the critics. Urban Meyer has been outstanding when it comes to preparing his teams for a game following a loss, and the contest against the Wildcats should be no different.
If Northwestern is going to have any shot at winning this game, running back Justin Jackson will need to have some big gainers. And quarterback Clayton Thorson must be effective throwing the ball so the Buckeye defense can’t just focus on stopping the run.
The Wildcats take after their head coach Pat Fitzgerald in the sense that they’re a scrappy bunch that will not go away easily. OSU must play a fundamentally sound game so it does not give Northwestern extra chances to put points on the board and potentially keep the game close.
SCORE: Ohio State 38, Northwestern 17
Now that Ohio State has a loss, what do we make of the 2016 Buckeyes?
Are they really good? Mediocre? The worst team ever? (Probably not that last one.) All we know for sure is that everything is still on the table for Ohio State this season, and the Buckeyes have shown plenty of flashes that suggest they have the ability to be elite – you know, cross “The Edge” – this year.
That said, the loss to Penn State exposed some gaping holes for the Buckeyes, especially on offense. The problem is, there’s no quick fix for the passing game, especially if the Buckeyes don’t try to integrate younger receivers such as Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor.
Now, Penn State is decent, but I’ve thought all year that Northwestern had a better team. That probably doesn’t bode well for the Buckeyes, but Ohio State should have won in Happy Valley despite playing its worst game in a long time.
The Buckeyes are better than the Wildcats, but Saturday will be when we find out how much better. Since I don’t see a quick fix, this one could be close, but the better team typically wins, especially at home.
Ohio State will win this one, but Northwestern will have the last shot – let’s call it a field goal to tie the game as time expires that drifts wide right. The offense will sputter, but the defense will be stellar and Northwestern will score twice on either defense or special teams. It’ll be win and advance for the Buckeyes. That’s all they need to do right now anyway.
SCORE: Ohio State 31, Northwestern 28
Well, now what?
I picked Penn State to beat Ohio State before the season started, but how we got there was not how I expected (in fact, you’ll probably remember I picked OSU last week in this very space). Before the year, I figured OSU’s talented but young team would take some time to jell, leading to losses in tough road environments at Oklahoma and Penn State.
Of course, that Oklahoma game changed just about everyone’s perspective on Ohio State. The Buckeyes looked nearly unbeatable after that road win, with a swarming defense racking up points and an offense showcasing a dominating running game and effective passing game.
Things look a bit different now, with the Buckeyes’ offense untracked over the past three weeks and the defense showing just enough cracks to keep the last few games interesting. And then uncharacteristic kicking game errors proved to be the team’s undoing vs. Penn State.
So, where are we now? The Buckeyes face a solid team in Northwestern, and Urban Meyer teams seem to respond well after losses. The head coach also seems to be a bit more aggressive in his home atmosphere than in a tough road one, and what this team needs right now offensively in my mind is a coach willing to take some chances in order to bring its swagger back.
With that in mind, I think we see better Buckeyes and a win vs. the Wildcats.
SCORE: Ohio State 38, Northwestern 20
I could tell you that part of me saw last week coming for Ohio State. I could tell you that I thought back-to-back road night tests against teams coming off an open week might be too much for the young Buckeyes. And I could tell you that after losing so many starters from a dominant 2015 team, an undefeated season was too much to ask out of Ohio State, even with Urban Meyer calling the shots.
While all of that is true, I thought all of that before the Ohio State season started. A combination of cowardice and overwhelming on-field evidence had me backtracking as the team piled up wins. I bought into the hype too heavily.
Perhaps, as was the case in 2014 and 2015, the Buckeyes needed to take a loss to reach their ceiling. After falling to Michigan State last season, Ohio State topped Michigan 42-13. After a 2014 loss to Virginia Tech the team responded with a 66-0 win over Kent State. I think Meyer’s team follows his third regular-season loss at Ohio State with another healthy win.
The problems in protecting quarterback J.T. Barrett won’t be as significant this week – Northwestern ranks 56th in tackles for loss and 45th in sacks compared to Penn State’s rank of fourth and 20th – and the Ohio State defense will continue its dominance.
This one won’t quite be a blowout, but it won’t be in doubt for long.
SCORE: Ohio State 35, Northwestern 14