Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel opened his weekly luncheon and discussion of Northern Illinois with these remarks: "In my head-coaching career over the last 20 plus years, there have been a few programs that in my mind have done really extraordinary things over time. Some people have come and gone and flashed and so forth, but people like Bill Snyder at Kansas State did an extraordinary case, Barry Alvarez up at Wisconsin came in and did an extraordinary job taking over situations maybe that at the moment weren't wonderful and I think Joe Novak has to be packaged in that same group."
While fans have all heard Bobby Bowden, Lou Holtz, and virtually every other head coach talk up their opponent, for once it may be warranted.
After winning the Mid American Conference championship in their first year out of I-AA, the Huskies had floundered. They were in and out of conferences and won just 80 games while losing 94, but that doesn't tell the whole story. 29 of those wins came under Bill Mallory and Lee Corso, and when Joe Novak, a former assistant to Mallory, took over in 1996 the program was on a downswing at the speed of a Nolan Ryan fastball. Novak, who can clearly coach, went exactly 1-21 in his first two years at the helm. Since then, they have not dipped below .500, have posted just the third 10 win season in their entire history (2003), and nearly won a MAC title.
This program and this football team, led by a member of Woody Hayes' coaching tree, will not be easily intimidated or dispatched by the Buckeyes.
As senior Joel Penton observed, "I think it is a huge test. They really do have a tremendous offense. They have a couple of great offensive tackles coming back. Their running back is – I think he is incredible. I think it is going to be a great test. Everything this team has done has grabbed our attention. They are a great football team and have upset a lot of teams in the past. We are definitely going into this game heads up knowing this team has incredible potential, and we need to play our best."
Fourth-year wideout Anthony Gonzalez added, "Northern Illinois is favored to win their conference. They are going to come in here and give us everything we want and more. In no way are we looking past Northern Illinois."
Starting up Front
For the Northern Illinois Huskies, it starts up front. Bill Mallory, Bo Schembechler, Earle Bruce, and every true Woody disciple (including his second generation coaches like Tressel and Novak) have trusted to the adage games are won and lost in the trenches. While they did lose three starters from last year, they return a number of experienced backups as well as two behemoths at tackle, Jon Brost (6-6, 296) and Doug Free (6-7, 312).
Penton commented, "Those tackles, they are good. That Free at left tackle, he is a great player; he is going to play in the NFL. It is going to be a great challenge. I think in a way they remind us of Minnesota. They pull their center and guard a lot. They do all that zone (blocking), and Minnesota has always had a great running offense, and I think it is the same with this team."
Nor is Penton exaggerating because over the past five years, Northern Illinois has had a bread and butter running attack which has been slowed but never truly stopped. They have it because of their offensive line and blue collar attitude. Free, who has been nicknamed ‘Doug Freak' due to his foot speed and 29 inch vertical, will play on Sundays, and the Buckeyes will have to figure out how to stop him and then spot the diminutive Wolfe.
Garrett Wolfe is not a lamb.
Every single Buckeye defender spoke glowingly of his abilities. More than one is convinced he may be the best back they face all season and with his shifty moves, he will be harder to stop than a spinning top.
Penton said, "He is the real thing," said Penton. "He has the most yards returning of anyone in the country. He has incredible speed, incredible vision. He is a good back. The key to tackling is to get as much on him as you can and not just try to arm tackling. Keeping our feet moving and a wide base because he is so small and quick, he has those quick cuts."
Malcolm Jenkins described him as "explosive, fast, quick, (and he) can beat you in a lot of ways. I think we just have to keep our leverage on him and try to contain him. We've had kids like Ray Small try to imitate his cutback skills, and I think he has given us a good look."
David Patterson noted, "Even though he is a smaller back, he runs with power, and I've never really seen him get knocked backwards. He's a great player. I just today watched the 76 yard run he had against Michigan, and he really shows his speed and his burst. He has proved himself against some good defenses. He's legit. He's for real."
According to Quinn Pitcock, "He's very fast and has quick lateral movement once he bounces outside you usually don't catch him after that."
Laurinaitis summed it all up, "Every team we face will have a playmaker we have to stop. Garrett Wolfe is that guy. He is a phenomenal player, a phenomenal runner, and we just have to keep working this week."
Tressel would agree: "Garrett Wolfe, it doesn't matter who he's playing against, he's 200-yard rush guy. And if you look at their season from a year ago, the games that they were successful were the ball games that he was in, a couple games he missed there. They had some of their struggles."
Of course, trying to get as much body as possible, focusing attention on him, and attempting to box him in could easily lead to players breaking off their proper assignments. Over pursuit is an ever present danger.
According to Penton the solution is simple: "The key is just to not to over pursue (laughing)."
He continued in a more serious vein, "That is something we have been working on every day (with the) pursuit drill. I think the young guys have been working real hard. I think they are going to step up, and I think they are going to perform."
A choice of two quarterbacks
Northern Illinois' offense will employ two possible signal callers in Phil Horvath a senior from Naperville, Illinois or sophomore Dan Nicolson.
Asked about the uncertainty, Penton mused, "I guess we will find out on Saturday. From a defensive point of view we are going to try to get after them no matter who is back there. We are going to try to play good Ohio State defense."
Their styles are similar. Both can throw the ball on a run, are efficient, tough, and generally make good decisions with high percentage throws. Both will also be aiming to hit Britt Davis. Davis, a 6-2 sophomore, shattered Northern Illinois receiving records as a freshman by hauling in 42 receptions for 441 yards and three touchdowns.
Linebacker Marcus Freeman believes, "They are going to put the ball in the hands of Garrett Wolfe and let him do what he is used to doing – making big plays. Then, as soon as you try to put eight or nine in the box, they are going to throw it deep on you."
Bingo. We have a winner. Tressel, Glen Mason (whose offense this team reminds Penton of), and other Bruce, Mallory, Schembechler, etc. disciples operate with those basic principles and the reason is – they work.
Tressel observed, "I think they were ranked 6th in the nation last year in passing efficiency, I think we were fifth. So they are very efficient at what they do. And we always talk about the fact that football's a game of pressure and who's putting the pressure on whom and they do a nice job of putting the pressure on you from a run standpoint, and then if you overdo it to stop that, they're going to burn you from a pass standpoint. And I think balance is why they're such a good offense."
Disruptive Ohio State Defensive front
Ohio State, for its part, will lean heavily on its defensive front which includes four seniors and both defensive captains. While they lost stalwarts Mike Kudla and Marcus Green from the 2005 line, projections are for them to possibly be more capable this year than last. Jay Richardson, Vernon Gholston, Patterson, and Pitcock have all garnered rave reviews thus far from teammates and even a coaching staff that is normally spare in their praise until they see production on the field.
Penton knows they better be improved in order to keep pressure off of the young back secondary and linebackers; "I would say there are high expectations. I think that is a great challenge to take on and a great opportunity. We will try to live up to that."
They are also aiming to live up to being team leaders; "If something needs to be said I will say it," admitted Patterson. "I don't try to be a rah, rah guy, but I just sometimes let the guys know if we are practicing, ‘Guys, we really need to go out here and focus and have a good practice today."
Against Northern Illinois, Pitcock believes, "The biggest thing is not to get moved around. Their biggest scheme is trying to get Wolfe where he can run straight ahead because once he gets full throttle he is hard to stop. So, if we can just attack and play forward and make him have to bounce sideways we will be a lot better."
Of course, other teams can watch film too, and you can bet they tried to get this accomplished as well…but somewhere the plan went awry.
Recently moved to middle linebacker, James Laurinaitis admits his position is an "added responsibility, but it's not hard when you have guys like Pitcock and Richardson and Patterson up front and leaders in the back like Brandon Mitchell. I like that responsibility because I don't like blaming excuses on other people."
Blaming and finger pointing are definitely not what Ohio State fans want to see in the middle of the field. They will expect production, especially after being spoiled for three years by A.J. Hawk and two years each by Carpenter and Schlegel. The expectations have been lowered by most – knowing the odds of having such a productive crew again any time in the near future are about as good as winning a six turn contest of Russian roulette with a six shot revolver.
Freeman isn't so sure this is correct: "A lot of people have said we will be the weak part of Ohio State football, but we feel as if we listen to our coach says and everybody does their own part on the defense we won't lose a step from last year. He preaches you are 1/11th of the defense. Make sure you are not doing somebody else's part; just do your job."
Their job is no easy task. Freeman, Laurinaitis, and John Kerr must face a talented tailback and large offensive front right out of the starting gate. Added to this are the question marks from scrimmages where Ohio State linebackers didn't always reach the ball carrier when they should, occasionally getting trapped inside while the secondary was forced to attack to make a play and prevent a rushing touchdown.
Yet all is not lost.
Freeman indicated the 2005 linebacker corps is still lending a helping hand: "We are going to be so much better just because we got to sit back and watch the three linebackers we had last year and learn what they did that was so great. We all know peoples' eyes are going to be on us to see – are these guys going to be nearly as good as the guys from last year, but I think we are ready to step up to that challenge."
Green, not Scarlet and Gray, Secondary.
When the Buckeyes walked off the field against Notre Dame, they had four projected starters returning on defense including arguably their best two in the secondary. Within minutes that number was whittled to three when Donte Whitner declared his intentions to turn pro. Days later, Ashton Youboty joined him, and the secondary was at square one. Fans, pundits, and probably even coaches have obsessed over this perceived weakness, but according to Anthony Gonzalez much of the angst might be for nothing.
Upon returning from the summer he was struck by the improvement in the young secondary and wondered, "Were they practicing when nobody was looking? They got so much faster and just better overall from the end of spring to the beginning of fall camp. A lot of it I give credit to our strength staff as well as the guys getting in and studying the video and getting their assignments down cold. When you don't know your assignment perfectly you can't play as fast as you want. I feel like they all know their assignments well. You aren't seeing any blown coverages or missed assignments or anything like that."
Still, practice is one thing and games are a completely different animal.
"It is a real challenge with us being so young," admitted Malcolm Jenkins. "A brand new secondary? As an offensive coordinator I would throw against a brand new secondary so I think teams are going to test us early. I think it is up to us to dictate how we react to that stuff. It is up to us to make some plays."
While the defensive backs are viewing this as a positive since it may allow them more opportunities to make plays and prove their worth, it could easily turn into a negative with just one bad pursuit angle or blown coverage. Gonzalez's quote not withstanding, this secondary hasn't yet seen an offense designed specifically to confuse them but rest assured – they will and perhaps as soon as tomorrow.
Tackling, knowledge of the defensive scheme, trust in their teammates, and flat out athletic ability will be at a premium if they are to stop both Wolfe and Davis.
They also must avoid biting on play action pass.
"It's real easy to bite," agreed Jenkins. "It's all about discipline and eye control. Our coaches have put a lot of emphasis on discipline and just playing your assignment."
It's also real easy to give up a touchdown.
In short, Northern Illinois is going to be game for the upset.
As Tressel noted, "An interesting thing that I think kind of mirror images Northern Illinois with our situation at this particular time is all 15 of their seniors are fifth-year seniors, so they've got a mature group of seniors. 17 of our 18 seniors are fifth-year seniors. That tells you that you're probably going to have excellent leadership on both sides of both the football teams and so it's going to be a heck of a match-up from that standpoint.."
Of note is those seniors have all been on the teams which upset 15th ranked Maryland and Alabama on their own field. They know what it takes to be Jack the Giant Killer and are preparing to add another notch to their belt.
Wolfe will be slowed but not stopped. He will break off at least one long run, possibly 70 yards or more if the inexperienced Ohio State secondary bites on a fake or over pursues. He will finish with 110 yards or more.
The Huskies will top 20 points. Some of these will come in garbage time, but most will come against the first team defense. This is not a bad team; they likely would defeat several teams on the Ohio State schedule. Cincinnati, Indiana, Illinois, Bowling Green, and possibly Northwestern would likely experience the Huskies' biting fangs. In fact, the last time they faced the Falcons they spanked them 34-17
However, Northern Illinois will not have the horses (or Huskies) for the win. They will stick with Ohio State for 2 ½ and possibly even three quarters. The Buckeye faithful will have their faith tested and leave a little less confident about winning in Austin, but Troy Smith, Antonio Pittman, Chris Wells, Anthony Gonzalez, and Ted Ginn, Jr. will simply be too much. Coupled with the legs of the Ohio State kickers and the strength of the defensive line, they will pull away and make this one a laugher in the fourth quarter.
- Ted Ginn or perhaps Anderson Russell will score a touchdown on special teams.
- Ohio State will have at least one play of 50 yards or more.
- Chris Wells and Antonio Pittman will combine for nearly 200 yards rushing.
- The Ohio State defense will try to limit the damage by forcing the issue. They will regularly blitz and pile up 6 sacks or more to protect their secondary.
- The Ohio State defense will try to limit the damage by forcing the issue. They will regularly blitz and pile up 6 sacks or more to protect their secondary.
- The pass rush will force at least one and possibly more turnovers by the Huskies which Troy Smith will turn into points.
- Aaron Pettrey will show off his cannon of a leg on kickoffs and long field goal attempts and Ryan Pretorius will be given opportunity at a close yardage field goal where he excels in his accuracy.
Ohio State 38-Northern Illinois 23