Ohio State's offense and Northwestern's defense have each struggled so far this season.
The statistics for the Buckeyes are a bit skewed, considering they faced the No. 1 defense in the country two weeks ago at N.C. State and buttoned things up with a wire-to-wire lead.
Ohio State is No. 80 in the country in total offense (334 yards per game). It is No. 56 in passing (213), No. 84 in rushing (121) and No. 65 in scoring (24.3 points per game).
Sophomore quarterback Justin Zwick has engineered a solid start to his career. The fact that he's averaging over 200 passing yards per game might come as a surprise to some.
Northwestern counters with the 96th-ranked total defense in the land, giving up 440 yards per game (tied with intrastate rival Illinois). The Wildcats are No. 66 nationally in rushing defense (148.5), No. 111 in passing (291.5) and No. 96 in scoring (34.5).
"I think we're better than the stats show," NU defense coordinator Greg Colby said. "The thing we've been working on is our consistency and playing sound play in and play out. When you watch us, 90 percent of the game I think we're a pretty decent defense. When you watch us on those 10 plays where we have breakdowns, we don't look very good and that's been our biggest problem this year."
The Wildcats run a 4-3 scheme and have not blitzed much this season. Expect that to change against Ohio State as Northwestern always seems to play more aggressive against the Buckeyes.
OHIO STATE OFFENSIVE LINE vs. NORTHWESTERN DEFENSIVE LINE
Coming into the season, there were two near certainties looking at Ohio State's O-line: Juniors Nick Mangold and Rob Sims would play well and the rest of the group would have some growing pains. Well, only the latter has been true so far.
Mangold and Sims are good players and they are likely to turn things around, but have struggled the first three games of the season. Maybe too much pressure is on them because of the lack of experience around them. That is very possible. But it is time for these All-Big Ten candidates to step their play up.
The rest of the line – sophomore left guard Doug Datish, senior right guard Mike Kne and sophomore right tackle Tim Schafer – has been average. Considering they are all first year starters, they've played about as well as expected. The Buckeyes will continue to rotate freshman Kirk Barton in at left tackle. Sophomore T.J. Downing will get reps at tackle and guard. Sophomore R.J. Coleman is also making strides at guard and appears on the two-deep this week.
At tight end, Ryan Hamby continues to be a one-man show. He has six receptions for 91 yards and one touchdown on the season, but has been somewhat forgotten since the opening win over Cincinnati. Hamby should have plenty of opportunities over the middle this week.
His backup is promising freshman Rory Nicol, who will continue to get more and more playing time. Freshman Marcel Frost could also return this week for the Bucks.
* The strength of Northwestern's defense is clearly its defensive line. The Wildcats are giving up just 3.8 yards per rush and the front wall is led by DT Luis Castillo (6-4, 305, Sr.). Castillo is a three-year starter (four if you want to count his two starts as a true freshman) and has 22 tackles so far this season. Castillo, the young man that referred to OSU's offense as "mediocre" earlier this week (a true statement) is a former high school heavyweight wrestling champion.
Four-year starter Colby Clark (6-2, 290, Sr.) helps Castillo anchor the middle. Clark has started 39 games for the Wildcats in his career – missing just one start because of an academic suspension last year.
Northwestern will be without All-Big Ten defensive end Loren Howard (6-4, 280) who is out with an injury. His replacement is first year starter Ryan Keenan (6-4, 280, So.).
The other starting DE is Barry Cofield (6-4, 295, Jr.) who leads the team with 2 ½ sacks.
"They mix it up a lot," Hamby said. "Up front a couple guys are hurt – one of their defensive ends is hurt – and they mix it up quite a bit. We just have to be ready for anything they throw at us. I know they haven't really blitzed a lot, but I think they're going to throw out some new stuff for us.
"I think up front they're good. They're sound. We've got to be ready for that and I think we'll be ready for the challenge."
ADVANTAGE: PUSH. Northwestern might actually have a slight edge here, especially when you look at all that experience in the middle, but OSU's line is yet to play even close to its potential and this might be the game it happens.
OHIO STATE BACKS vs. NORTHWESTERN LINEBACKERS
Go back and look at the stats. When you compare Zwick to other first-year starters in recent OSU history (Mike Tomczak, Jim Karsatos, Greg Frey, Bobby Hoying, Craig Krenzel) he is ahead of the pace.
Zwick is 44 of 77 passing (54.5) for 610 yards, with four touchdowns and four interceptions. Nothing spectacular, but was anyone expecting more?
This could be a game for Zwick to pad his stats against one of the worst pass defenses in the land. But, OSU will probably elect to get its running game jumpstarted before it worries about the pass.
Senior Lydell Ross has 282 rushing yards (4.3) and two touchdowns. He might finally get his wake up call this week in the form of freshman tailback Antonio Pittman. Pittman has been limited with a leg injury, but Jim Tressel said he is back to 100 percent this week.
Also expected to give the running game a boost is the possible return of senior fullback Branden Joe. He has been out with an ankle sprain and his return would be huge because he is the best lead blocker on the team, and can play tailback effectively in one-back sets.
Tressel said Joe is about 95 percent this week.
If he does not play, look for a lot of sophomore H-back Stan White. Junior Brandon Schnittker has struggled at fullback, and while lead blocking is not White's strong point, he has been better than Schnittker.
* Northwestern's linebackers are led by WLB Tim McGarigle (6-1, 230, Jr.) who leads the team with 38 tackles and four tackles-for-loss. He is a three-year starter.
The other 'backers are each first-year starters: MLB Demetrius Eaton (6-2, 235, So.) and SLB Nick Roach (6-2, 230, So.).
Other than McGarigle, there's not much to be excited about there.
ADVANTAGE: OHIO STATE. The additions of Pittman and Joe could be exactly what the doctor ordered.
OHIO STATE RECEIVERS vs. NORTHWESTERN DEFENSIVE BACKS
A lot was expected of sophomore WR Santonio Holmes coming into the season. All he has done is surpass expectations.
Holmes leads the Buckeyes with 16 catches for 331 yards (20.7) and three touchdowns. He will face double teams each week, but will have to learn to overcome that.
Helping out in that area is senior Bam Childress. He has waited patiently for his chance (I don't remember Bam ever spouting off to the media about lack of PT) and has finally earned it. Childress, who is second on the squad with 10 receptions for 125 yards (12.5), will start for the Buckeyes this week. He has previously started in three-wide sets, but this will be his first start in the traditional two-wide look.
Childress is replacing sophomore Roy Hall in the starting lineup. Hall has caught five balls for 61 yards (12.2) and one touchdown, but his inconsistency is holding him back. Hall is still very young in his career and will continue to get better as he gains confidence.
Speaking of young players, when (or if) will true freshmen Ted Ginn and Devon Lyons make their marks? Could this be the week it happens? We'll see. They are each talented as they come and it's just a matter of time before one of them breaks out. Kind of similar to the thoughts many had about Holmes at this time last year.
Overall, OSU's receivers must be licking their chops when they look at all the passing yards the Wildcats have given up.
"They're very aggressive, but I've seen a lot of teams put a lot of points on them and I think our offense is going to be able to exploit the defense a little," Holmes said.
* Northwestern's secondary features a player that most of Ohio is familiar with: junior cornerback Jeff Backes (5-9, 190). Backes was the state's Mr. Football in 2000 when he, Schafer and Simon Fraser led Upper Arlington to the Division I state championship.
Backes, also a talented kick returner, is in his second season as a starting corner. He played receiver as a redshirt freshman.
Backes doesn't try and hide the fact that this game means something extra for him.
"Yes it does," he said. "Being from Columbus, this is a huge game for me. I still talk to Simon almost every week.
"This is a red letter game," Backes added. "When the schedule came out, this is the first game we looked at. It's at night, national television, all of that."
The other starting corner for the Wildcats is Marvin Ward (5-11, 205, Sr.). He is also a two-year starter and was second on the team with four interceptions last year.
Free safety Bryan Heinz (6-1, 205, So.) is second on the team with 30 tackles. He is a first-year starter and led the team with five interceptions in a reserve role last season.
Strong safety Dominique Price (6-0, 215, Sr.) is a two-year starter. He's solid in run support, but like a lot of NU's defense, struggles against the pass.
ADVANTAGE: OHIO STATE. Holmes is right. This is a good time for OSU to "exploit" someone in the air.
The Buckeyes have a slight advantage on paper, but the Wildcats are sure to play their best game of the season with this being a nationally televised night game at home.
"Looking at their defense, they have some big guys up front that can stop the run, they've got some good guys in the secondary that can stop the pass," Zwick said. "We've just got to go out and execute and do what we do and hopefully everything will be all right."
Northwestern actually has a solid group of starters, but its defensive depth is among the worst in the conference. Colby is in his third year as defensive coordinator (was the DC at Kent State prior to that) and is not able to rotate players in and out as he would like.
"Our lack of depth is probably an issue," Colby said.
Northwestern does a good job of punching and stripping the football. They also have the reputation of a dirty team. They will administer cup checks (not to be confused with L.A. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchek).
Two years ago in Evanston, Maurice Clarett fumbled three times and kept the Wildcats in the game. If the Buckeyes take care of the ball this year, the game shouldn't be close.
Could this be the game that Tressel reaches his offensive goals of 250 passing yards and 200 rushing? Probably not, but that's what the Bucks will be shooting for.