Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Columbus
As shocking as Northwestern's 20-14 loss Sept. 15 to Duke was, what was even more interesting was how the game developed.
For a team to break a 22-game losing streak, as Duke did, it will need help from its opponent. Northwestern provided plenty of help, so much so that the Wildcats might not have any toes left after shooting itself in the foot so often.
Duke got off to a great start, scoring on drives of 86, 70 and 80 yards to take a 20-7 lead with 6:16 left in the first half. From there, Northwestern controlled the game but could score only seven more points.
The Wildcats had five drives of 58 yards or more from the moment that Duke took the 13-point lead but scored only once. NU's defense also stepped up, holding Duke to 95 total yards on six drives and not letting the Blue Devils past the Wildcat 35-yard line.
The problem was that the Wildcats could not turn their long drives into points. An 11-play, 67-yard drive after Duke's third touchdown got the team deep into Duke territory, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald took a made field goal off the board to attempt a fourth-and-3 from the 11. The pass went incomplete.
The Wildcats then took their opening drive of the second half and moved 61 yards but could get no closer than Duke's 30. From there, a fourth down attempt came up empty.
Northwestern's next drive was a nine-play, 65-yard march that ended when quarterback C.J. Bacher crossed the goal line with 14:58 to play to make the score 20-14.
Taking the ball over again with 9:17 to play at its own 10, Northwestern marched 79 yards in 14 plays but a fourth-and-10 from the 11 with just over two minutes to play came up short. But NU got another chance, getting the ball with 1:17 to play 65 yards from paydirt. The drive lasted 58 yards and ended when Bacher's desperate fourth-and-goal pass to Tonjua Jones fell incomplete.
"We just need to finish drives," Fitzgerald said at his weekly press conference this week. "We had plenty of opportunities Saturday to finish drives and we need to go out there and do that. As far as third downs, we need to be more efficient. On defense, I like that we've given up seven points in the second half in three weeks, so I like the way we've adjusted and made some things happen. Now we need to do that in the first half."
NU's defense has been hit or miss. After shutting out Northeastern in week one, the Wildcats' stop troops let Nevada run roughshod in a 24-point first half before bottling up the Wolf Pack to the tune of just seven second-half points.
A look at the numbers shows NU to be an inconsistent but talented team that just hasn't seemed to nail down the little things. The Wildcats are fourth in the Big Ten in total offense with 451.3 yards per game, but they're just ninth in scoring offense with 25.7 points. The Wildcats aren't adept at forcing turnovers with just three so far, but they have coughed the ball up just twice. They were hit for 125 yards in penalties against Duke.
Sutton Runs It: The real engine of the offense, when healthy, is tailback Tyrell Sutton. The Akron Hoban grad and 2004 Ohio Mr. Football had an explosive '05 campaign as a freshman, rushing for 1,474 yards and 16 touchdowns to earn a host of honors including conference freshman of the year and The Sporting News' award for the top offensive freshman. But those numbers were not repeated in '06 when Sutton (5-9, 190) finished with 1,000 yards rushing on the dot and five touchdowns while adding 261 yards through the air.
Sutton got off to a good start by rushing for 108 yards and a score against Northeastern before only 14 yards against Nevada because of an ankle injury that kept him out against Duke and has his status in doubt heading into the Ohio State matchup. His coach said Monday that he feels confident that Sutton will play against the Buckeyes.
Should he do so, the Wildcats become more dangerous, according to linebacker Ross Homan.
"They're a good team without him but they're a great team with him," Homan said. "He's a very good player running the ball and catching the ball. He's very, very good."
In his stead, senior Brandon Roberson topped 120 yards against Nevada and 80 against Duke. Omar Conteh can also provide a catching threat from the backfield, where Sutton also shines – he has nine catches in his limited action this year.
The Good And The Bad In Back: Northwestern has some very good players and some experience in the secondary, but that hasn't quite transferred to success defending the pass so far.
Two seniors who are leaders are starters in senior corner Deante Battle and safety Reggie McPherson. McPherson has made 57 tackles each of the last two years and has NU's lone pick this year, while Battle is a smart, tough player. The younger players bring plenty of talent as well. Sophomore cornerback Sherrick McManus has 22 tackles while junior safety Brendan Smith was an honorable mention choice by the coaches last fall when the All-Big Ten teams came out.
Yet, the Wildcats have allowed nearly 250 passing yards per game. Nevada threw for more than 300 yards, while Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis completed 19 of 23 passes for three touchdowns.
Still, OSU wideout Brian Robiskie had good things to say about McManus and NU's cornerback duo.
"He's definitely a guy who can play back there," Robiskie said of McManus. "Battle, No. 22, he'll be back. Both of those guys can play. They have a lot of experience in their secondary, so anytime you have experience it's going to help you."
Local Linebacker: A senior, NU linebacker Adam Kadela is looking forward to a trip home for the final time in his career – NU's leading tackler last year and this year, he's a grad of Columbus suburban school Dublin Coffman.
"Being from Columbus, it's always really cool to play in front of friends and family," Kadela said. "Growing up going to games there and being a senior, this is my last time. It'll probably be even more meaningful. It makes me feel kind of old going into my last time playing there and my college career is almost over, but it's definitely a great venue to play in.
"Playing in front of the hometown friends and family is something every football player enjoys doing."
The Buckeyes know to look out for the man who had 80 stops a season ago and 26 through three games this season.
"He's a physical kid," OSU head coach Jim Tressel said. "Watch our game film from last year. He's a football player. And he's their leader. … He's the guy that they look to and he's a physical guy."