The last meeting in Chicago
Donte Whitner remembers it well and is convinced the Buckeyes need to take Northwestern seriously.
"We have to play with fundamentals," he said. "They are a great team, have great players, and if we go out and think they are going to lay down for us we have a problem. Two years ago, 2002, they played Ohio State down to the last. We're looking to get their best game and hopefully we'll bring our best game."
He continued, "We know we are always circled on everybody's calendar. When you play at Ohio State, you are going to get everybody's best game. Everybody. I don't care if it's an 0-12 team or a team that is a high school team. We're going to get everybody's best game."
Said middle linebacker Mike D'Andrea about this week, "The thing you have to understand is it's a night game at Northwestern, first game of the Big Ten. They are going to come out to play, and we're not expecting an easy game."
Given that perspective, the Buckeyes were grateful for their bye week arriving when it did.
"I thought we got better in the bye week," said defensive end Jay Richardson. "I thought we got a little time off to rest. I thought guys worked hard before we left. We didn't just take the week off. We worked hard for three days and then got a little break."
The stats don't lie
This week's first order of business for the young Buckeye defense is going to be stopping the run. That has been more of a problem for this team than many recognize. Consider that in all of 2003, the defense yielded only 810 rushing yards in 13 games while this year's unit has already allowed 383 yards in only 3 games. Opponents averaged only 2.0 yards per carry when trying to move the ball forward on the ground in 2003, but this year the average yards per rush is up to 3.6 per attempt and the Buckeyes have yet to face a true running team such as Wisconsin. In short, the Scarlet and Gray defense is giving up roughly twice as many yards per game on the ground in 2004 as it did in 2003.
According to Richardson, "That's definitely a concern. A lot of that is fixing guys being in the right place and guys doing their jobs, but a lot of that is on us. We have to get better. We know that, and we know and are aware of what is going on and are working every day in practice to patch those holes up so we can get ready to go."
A.J. Hawk commented, "We know. We know as a defense we have given up too many yards and that's always our first goal – to stop the run and make them one-dimensional. Especially going into the Big Ten, stopping the run is a big priority."
For D'Andrea, it is a tall order to not only stop the spread offenses and their passing capabilities while also curtailing their rushing yardage.
"It's hard because teams have spread the ball out on us and then come right back in the middle," he said. "We have to be more aware of it I guess."
"They spread you out a lot, but they still like to run the ball from what we have seen on film," said cornerback Harlen Jacobs. "That's the thing we have to do – stop the run and make them one dimensional. Make them want to pass the ball."
Tackling, Tackling, and more Tackling…
The other concern for the Buckeye defense will be tackling. Over the last five games (including Michigan 2003), the defensive unit has seemingly missed more tackles than in the previous 25. The tendency at times has been to go for the big hit instead of the sure tackle. Perry exploited this weakness to perfection, notching two touchdowns of 30 and 15 yards respectively.
Chief among the sinners has been safety Nate Salley, and he knows it.
"I know I am one of those guys," he said. "I've been doing that, and they've been on me a lot…they always tell me wrap up, wrap up! They get on us a lot about that because we have to make the open field tackle. If they get by us, then who is going to make the tackle? We've been working on that a lot and getting better at it."
Virtually every other defensive player echoes those comments.
Donte Whitner noted, "The open field tackling we work on every day. There is not a day that goes by that we don't work on open field tackling. We don't just do it in five yards. We go 15 yards, 20 yards – one on one with receivers and tailbacks."
Yet tacking is still an issue. Why? What is so difficult for this current crop of Buckeyes to grasp about wrapping up instead of trying to be on a highlight reel when you are just as likely to end up a goat?
Salley explained, "I think most of the time with me it's adrenaline. You're coming up so fast it's kind of hard to tell yourself to slow down, relax, and slow the game down – especially if it's at the beginning of the game. The crowd is going wild, you're all pumped up, you just want to come up and kill somebody. But, a lot of times in that situation it's not a right time for it. You just have to wait for it to come. Sometimes you try to make it happen, and that's not how it goes."
The Northwestern Offense
While Northwestern's 1-3 record might not be pretty, their offense certainly has shown flashes of being the girl who wins the homecoming queen. With an attack that averages over 425 yards per game, a solid tailback, and a savvy quarterback, the Buckeye defense knows it has its work cut out tomorrow night.
This team is not without talent, says Hawk.
"As a defense we know they have a great offense," he said. "(They have) a great quarterback who has been in the system a couple years and really knows what is going on. The running backs have rushed for over 100 yards against every team they have played so far this year. It will definitely be a challenge for the defense."
Listening to them, it becomes clear Buckeyes believe the lynchpin is Brett Basanez.
According to Jacobs, "He's the guy. He is running the show and can make or break the offense. He's a good player, played last year, and made plays against us."
"Basanez…is real good," added Richardson. "They don't do a whole lot, but they are good at what they do. We will probably try to cover most of his first and second options and get a pass rush."
D'Andrea expects Northwestern to play to this strength and work to achieve "A lot of spreading us out. They are more of a passing team. They have a real good quarterback who is experienced. (They have) some trickery – (and) stuff like that."
How the game will play out
Northwestern will come out and test not only the defensive backs but also the middle of the Buckeye defense. Giving up nearly 130 yards per game on the ground will eventually get Ohio State beaten, and the Wildcats will see if this is their week. Meanwhile, Basanez will try and spread the defense to create passing lanes for his receivers.
Richardson expects it.
"They do run a lot of spread (offense), but people don't realize they also run the ball…It can get complicated," he said. "Like NC State and Marshall they have a tricky offense and try to lure you in and go outside on you or take you out and go in. You just have to play your reads and do the best you can."
The Buckeyes will counter with extensive nickel coverage, using Tyler Everett as their fifth defensive back. A solid player, Everett entered the season by unseating Donte Whitner before Whitner claimed his spot once again.
If the Buckeyes can weather the storm and plug up the leaky middle of the field on the ground, then they might very well force Basanez into a few poor throws and turn the game into a lopsided affair. If, however, Northwestern has success rushing the ball early and often, look out because the upset could happen. In that situation, the Ohio State offense must be prepared to use a healthy Brandon Joe and Antonio Pittman to outscore their opponent.
Ohio State will have trouble stopping the run completely but will do enough to turn Basanez into a one-man-band. At some point this will force mistakes and turnovers and give the Buckeyes the necessary advantage.
Ohio State 37 – Northwestern 13