Northwestern Set For OSU's Big Ten Opener

The Wildcats (2-2) hope they have things straightened out after up-and-down start. They open Big Ten play Saturday at Ohio State (noon, ESPN2) after winning at Duke 28-10 last weekend.

Northwestern's 2003 season took a big turn for the worse Sept. 13, when Miami (Ohio) went into Evanston and buried the Wildcats 44-14.

It may have been the lowest of low points for NU coach Randy Walker, the former Miami coach in his fifth year with the Wildcats. The defeat left Northwestern, which visits Ohio State for the Big Ten opener for both schools Saturday (noon, ESPN2), at 1-2.

The lopsided defeat was not without casualties as standout tailback Jason Wright sat out a good portion of the game with a hamstring injury. Quarterback Brett Basanez, who pilots NU's spread attack, also went down with a shoulder injury.

There was a lot of soul searching in the Northwestern camp in the days that followed. Wright, for instance, was unhappy he was unable to answer the bell against the RedHawks.

"The fact that we lost and the fact we lost in a fashion that was really displeasing to me," said Wright, a senior, in the days following that defeat. "That we didn't put forth an effort that was representative of us. I realized that I had a part in that and that there's no 90 percent, no 80 percent in football. You have to be 100 percent. The best thing for me is to break through those mental barriers and be ready to go."

But just seven days later, things went much better for the Wildcats. They improved to 2-2 with a 28-10 pounding of Duke in Durham, N.C. Wright led the way with 149 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries.

It is unlikely that even if Wright and Basanez had been healthy that the Wildcats would have defeated Miami, which cruised behind a 344-yard passing effort from Ben Roethlisberger. But NU could be 3-1 with some breaks along the way. After opening the year with a solid 28-20 win at Kansas, Northwestern led Air Force 21-7 in the fourth quarter before falling 22-21.

Still, Walker was happy to see his team rebound from the crushing Miami defeat with a solid four quarters against Duke.

"I can't begin to describe how I felt a week ago about how we came to play," Walker said. "The running game is real important to me, mostly because half of it is attitude. Obviously, that wasn't in the right place (against Miami). We looked more like the kind of football team we want to be."

An Offense To Reckon With

Through four games, Northwestern is ranked a respectable 35th nationally in total offense at 424.0 yards per game.

The 5-10, 215-pound Wright has been the biggest name. A year after he rushed for 1,234 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground, Wright has been solid. He has 473 yards and eight touchdowns on 101 carries so far this year.

"Jason Wright has emerged as one of the most versatile running backs I have ever coached," Walker said. "He is a combination of a runner, blocker, receiver and kick returner. Those combination of skills make him a solid weapon."

Junior Noah Herron (5-11, 235) is an effective counter punch to Wright in the running game, coming off a 100-yard game against Duke.

While Wright is the leading weapon in NU's attack, Basanez, a 6-2, 200-pound sophomore, is starting to come into his own. He was second only to Iowa's Heisman finalist Brad Banks in the Big Ten in total offense a year ago, when he threw for 2,204 yards and seven touchdowns against seven interceptions.

This year, Basanez (pronounced BAS-a-nay) is 65 of 117 passing for 756 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions.

"Basanez came in last year and really led our offense," Walker said. "He has an uncanny awareness on the field. He sees things you can't coach. He is a good athlete who can also run the ball. We look for big things from Brett."

Basanez has four receivers with nine or more catches this year: senior Roger Jordan (15 catches, 237 yards), senior Kunle Patrick (15 catches, 124 yards), junior Ashton Aikens (13 catches, 124 yards) and sophomore Mark Philmore (nine catches, 106 yards).

"Kunle Patrick is a guy who has caught 30 or 40 balls the last three years," Walker said. "He is a mainstay of our team."

Three starters return on the offensive line with center Matt Ulrich (6-2, 310, Jr.) and tackles Zach Strief (6-7, 335, So.) and Trai Essex (6-4, 310, Jr.). They are joined in the lineup by a pair of juniors at guard in Bill Newton (6-7, 315) and Ikechuku Ndukwe (6-5, 315).

Defense Work In Progress

Six starters returned from last year's NU "defense," that finished dead last in the Big Ten in scoring (41.1 points per game) and total defense (502.3 yards allowed per game). How bad was the NU defense? That yardage total was almost 74 yards worse than 10th-place Indiana (428.5 yards allowed per game).

"We came into the year expecting a quantum leap on defense," Walker said. "Even when we shared the Big Ten championship in 2000, we were 10th in the league defensively. But we feel we have some young players there who have a chance to be special."

The initial returns have been so-so for the 2003 NU defense. The Wildcats have shaved over 100 yards off that yardage total, now allowing 394.3 yards per contest. But NU has been unable to stop the opposing team's bread and butter: Option-oriented Air Force got 270 yards rushing one week before Miami and Roethlisberger torched the Wildcats through the air.

Three starters returned on the defensive line: Junior tackles Luis Castillo (6-4, 305) and Colby Clark (6-2, 290) and sophomore end Loren Howard (6-4, 280). They are joined up front by sophomore end Barry Cofield (6-5, 300). Ironically, Cofield, a native of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, will be going up against good friend Rob Sims, OSU's left tackle from Macedonia (Ohio) Nordonia.

NU has five solid linebackers in the three-man rotation. The group is led by senior Pat Durr in the middle. Durr missed much of 2002 after suffering a knee injury in the opener. He is fourth on the team in tackles this year with 25 and shares the team lead in sacks with Howard with two.

Durr is joined by starters Tim McGarigle and John Pickens and reserves Doug Syzmul and Braden Jones outside. McGarigle leads the team with 31 tackles, while Pickens has 26.

The secondary has been in a state of flux with as many as eight players shuffling through. Starting safety Louis Ayeni has been absent due to a shoulder injury. That has left junior Marvin Ward, the team's number two tackler with 29, to move between corner and safety.

Senior Torri Stuckey is also listed at safety with sophomores Marquice Cole and Jeff Backes listed at the cornerback spots. Redshirt freshmen Bryan Heinz, a safety, and Cory Dious, a corner, have also seen action.

"That's probably as big an issue as we have -- who's going to play?" Walker said. "We just need to get a little bit more stable back there."

Of course, Backes (5-9, 180) is a name well known to OSU fans. He is a former Ohio Mr. Football award winner from Upper Arlington. Backes, a pre-med major at Northwestern, moved from being Wright's backup at tailback to defense this past spring.

"We moved Jeff Backes from offense to defense at corner. From day one, he has shown a great work ethic. His quickness and speed are very apparent."

In terms of specialists, junior Brian Huffman has averaged just shy of 40 yards on his punts this season. But freshman Slade Larscheld is 0 for 2 on field goals this year.

Quick Kicks

* OSU has dominated the all-time series with Northwestern 54-13-1. OSU has won the last 23 meetings with the Wildcats, including the last 11 dating to a 1971 loss (14-10) in Columbus. OSU is 29-8 all-time against NU in Columbus.

Last year, the Buckeyes prevailed 27-16 in Evanston, Ill. Maurice Clarett lost three fumbles, but also carried for 140 yards and scored two touchdowns in the win.

Basanez completed 24 of 45 passes for 283 yards with one interception. Wright had 95 yards and one touchdown rushing.

* Since OSU eked out a 17-15 win over Northwestern in 1994 in Evanston, OSU has won the last four meetings between the schools by an average of 24.5 points per game.

* With Walker's experience at Miami (Ohio), the Wildcats have a strong Ohio influence. There are 11 Ohio products on the squad. The most notable name is Backes.

Others of note include Cofield (Cleveland Heights), Ndukwe and linebacker Adam Kadela (Dublin Coffman), backup offensive lineman Rick McDole (Marysville), Strief (Milford), Philmore (Reynoldsburg), long snapper Chris Horton (Pickerington) and backup defensive tackle Ryan Keenan (Lakewood St. Edward).

* Northwestern ended a 59-year Big Ten championship drought with its breakthrough 10-2 season and perfect 8-0 conference mark for coach Gary Barnett in 1995. NU then shared the title with Ohio State in 1996 and won a share of the championship with Purdue and Michigan under Walker in 2000.

Only Ohio State and Michigan, with three championships each, have won as many Big Ten titles as NU since 1995.

* OSU's 18-game winning streak is the longest active streak in the country and stands as the second longest in school history. The record for consecutive wins at OSU is 22, set in 1967-69. OSU has also won 12 straight home games at Ohio Stadium.

* The Buckeyes have won three straight Big Ten openers with wins over Penn State in 2000, Northwestern in 2001 and Indiana last year. OSU has also won nine of its last 10 conference openers (only loss was to Wisconsin in 1999), dating to a 1992 loss at Wisconsin.

* Here is a link to our Game Data page, which includes facts, figures, depth charts and a breakdown of the Big Ten opener.

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