Five Questions: Northwestern at Ohio State

This week in The Five Questions we wonder if Northwestern's spread offense will bother Anderson Russell and the OSU D, if the Buckeye running game will make it back-to-back big days, how many flags will fly during the day and more.

1. Which team will get off to the better start?

This week Ohio Stadium will contain two clubs that have enjoyed better play in the second halves of games this season.

In particular, the Buckeye offense has been better after halftime, while the Wildcat defense has used the intermission to kick its play up a notch.

While Ohio State's Jim Tressel joked that his kids have overcome his staff's game plans by holding on until halftime adjustments could be made, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said third downs have been troublesome for his team on both sides of the ball.

"I think we're in position. We just need to have the confidence to cut it loose and make it happen," Fitzgerald said. "When that happens, it seems like good plays happen in bunches, and we've been doing that in the second half, we just need to carry it over to the first half."

A slow start doomed the Wildcats against Duke. The Blue Devils had three scoring drives, all of which came in the first half, and the Wildcats were not able to rally despite shutting out Duke in the final 36 minutes of game action. Northwestern outgained the Blue Devils by nearly 200 yards and had 10 additional first downs.

Meanwhile, Ohio State scored three points in the first half of each of its last two games before tacking on a total of 47 points in those second halves.

"You've just got to keep on improving," OSU quarterback Todd Boeckman said. "I struggled a little bit there in the first half. You know, we all did. There were some penalties and plays we'd like to have back, but we improved in the second half and hopefully we can keep going this next week against Northwestern."

2. Which team will have the emotional edge?

For Ohio State, there is nowhere to go but down after a rousing victory at Washington. The Buckeyes heard all week how the Big Ten is suffering, how the Huskies were dangerous and their stadium was a trap. Then Tressel's team went west and won going away.

It is entirely possible the Buckeyes will keep that intensity they found once they got rolling in Seattle, but human nature is such that a letdown is a real possibility.

"Any time you come off an emotional win like that, especially across the country against a good team like Washington, everybody kind of gets real excited," Ohio State fullback Dionte Johnson said. "Of course it's my job as a senior leader and a captain to calm people down and let them know this is the start of the Big Ten.

Then you have the Wildcats, who suffered an ignominious loss, the kind that could undermine confidence and derail their season or give them all the more reason to rally for a strong effort to open conference play.

"I'm looking forward to starting Big Ten football," Fitzgerald said. "When we go out and recruit student-athletes, the big draw to come to Northwestern is not only to get a world-class education, but to play Big Ten football as well. What greater challenge than to play a team that is in the Top 10, is the defending Big Ten champion and played for the national championship. It'll be a tremendous challenge for us and our football program to go out on the road and execute to give ourselves a chance."

3. Will the spread offense bother the Buckeyes this week?

While the facing a spread attack is hardly a novelty in college football circa 2007, the Wildcats have been one of the more proficient teams to deploy the strategy over the past decade. Washington incorporated some spread principles into its offense, but this will be a full-fledged version.

The Huskies had their most success with athletic quarterback Jake Locker taking off on runs both by design and on broken-down pass plays, but the redshirt freshman lacked the accuracy to hurt the Buckeyes consistently with his arm.

The opposite will be true this weekend. While Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bachér is a serviceable runner, he is more than proficient at finding and hitting open receivers.

"He makes plays, makes good decisions," Tressel said. "He's becoming more veteran every day."

The Buckeyes' coach compared Bachér, a sophomore who started a handful of games last season, to predecessor Brett Basanez, an efficient operator who engineered Northwestern's overtime upset of Tressel's Buckeyes in Evanston in 2004.

"They do a good job of recruiting to their system, and he's good," Tressel said.

Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston compared the Northwestern attack to that of Akron. The Zips gained just 69 total yards, though they went into battle with a pair of first-year quarterbacks and an offensive line far greener than that of the Wildcats, who return four starters up front from a year ago, including three seniors.

"I've been really pleased at the way C.J. has made plays," Fitzgerald said. "Our offensive line has given him ample time to make plays." The offense as a whole will be exponentially more potent if star junior running back Tyrell Sutton is healthy enough to play, as is expected.

4. Can the Buckeyes keep the ground game rolling?

The Buckeye running game resembled what most were expecting for 2007 when it rolled over Washington for 263 yards, including 135 from Chris "Beanie" Wells.

Johnson said nothing fancy happened against the Huskies.

"You're able to do certain things in certain weeks because of everybody working together," the fullback said. "You might have one person miss a block and that linebacker comes in and makes the tackle when the rest of the play would have been great with just that one block.

"I believe it was just better execution on Saturday, and better running. Beanie calmed down and just focused on what he could do instead of just trying to impress everybody else."

The Buckeyes said last week they would look forward to facing a team that played more straight up than either of its first opponents and wasted little time in proving why.

"Of course, anytime you get to face a defense that's kind of like your own it's great because that's what we faced all camp," Johnson said. "When you look at it for three weeks at camp you get used to how the linebackers are going to fill and how the line is going to stunt and where the safeties are going to go."

Saturday will be a chance to start a trend against a 4-3 defense that should resemble that of the Huskies, at least in alignment.

"They kind of do similar things," Johnson said. "We know that they move around a lot (before the snap). That's one thing that's different. They get you thinking that it's one coverage and then check out of that and go into something else right before you say go. Other than that, I think it's pretty much the same."

It's possible the Buckeyes will see more blitzes from the Wildcats, who brought pressure on more than half their snaps against the Blue Devils. Youngstown State, another 4-3 team, had some success mucking up the OSU running game with some exotic blitzing.

5. Who will cause more yellow flags to be thrown?

Penalties were a bugaboo for both these teams last week. Ohio State had 10 penalties marked off against it, including one that wiped out a third-down conversion and another that prevented a fourth-down conversion.

Meanwhile, 20 yards in penalties on the Wildcats aided Duke's first scoring drive.

"We've just got to play smart football," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to avoid self-inflicted wounds and play smart Northwestern football. For a majority of the games that I've been the head football coach, we've done that."

He called the breakout of flags out of character.

"At the end of the day if we play smarter football, maybe we finish some drives and get off the field on third down and not line up in the neutral zone," he said. "There's a lot of opportunities out there for us and that's on me. I take great pride in the discipline of the way we go about our business and we didn't that and that's my responsibility. If we play within the framework of the way that we design our offense, defense and kicking game, things like that don't happen."

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