Game Preview: Northwestern

No. 12 Ohio State continues its 2008 football season Saturday by traveling to Northwestern for an early start at Ryan Field. previews the game with some past history of the series, notes on the Wildcats' key players to watch and a breakdown of the team's offensive and defensive units.

Northwestern (7-2, 3-2)
Saturday, Nov. 8, Noon
Ryan Field (47,130)
2008 Record: 6-6, 3-5 Big Ten Conference
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 17-16 at Northwestern (third season)

Ohio State's fifth-year seniors are part of an exclusive club that has won three Big Ten titles and played in two national title games. They were also part of the program's first loss to Northwestern in 33 years.

The Buckeyes were ranked ninth in the country and undefeated after three games in 2004, but a trip to Evanston changed all that during the squad's Big Ten opener. OSU needed a late comeback just to force overtime, but Mike Nugent's field goal sailed wide and Noah Herron, wearing No. 33, plunged over the line on his 33rd carry of the night for the winning points during NU's 33-27 win on Oct. 2.

Afterward, Northwestern fans streamed the field and celebrated deep into the night. The university made T-shirts to celebrate the occasion and even used highlights from the game to entertain callers to the athletic department who were placed on hold.

Memories of that contest were brought back earlier this week when Ohio State's players were shown tapes of the contest and the ensuing celebration.

"That meant everything to them and the way that we walked off of the field, kind of an embarrassment," said tight end Rory Nicol. "Just a terrible feeling."

Ohio State has replied from that loss by not even coming close to falling to NU since. In 2005 in Ohio Stadium, the 25th-ranked Wildcats scored the first touchdown of the game before giving up 48 unanswered points on the way to a blowout loss.

During the last trip to Evanston, the 10th-ranked Buckeyes went up 21-0 in the first quarter on the way to a 54-10 victory, and last year's game was even worse for the purple-clad visitors. No. 9 Ohio State celebrated the 500th game in Ohio Stadium history by going up 28-0 after one period of play and 45-0 at halftime on the way to a 58-7 win. The Buckeyes even had some reserve players in the game by the time halftime had rolled around.

With that in mind, it wouldn't be hard to expect the Buckeyes would have a hard time taking the Wildcats seriously, but they say that is not the case.

"You have to take them seriously because every year is different," junior safety Kurt Coleman said. "Last year is last year's team. This year they're a lot more veteran group. They have a record to show they're an improved team. If we don't take them seriously, it's not going to be a good outcome for us."

Northwestern enters at 7-2 on the year and coming off of a big, last-minute win at a ranked Minnesota team. After beating up on a fairly benign nonconference schedule, Northwestern has alternated wins and losses in Big Ten play.

The Wildcats opened with a hard-fought win over Iowa, dropped a home showdown with Michigan State, defeated Purdue, turned the ball over five times during a loss to Indiana, and then capped it off with the win over Minnesota that was in doubt until Brendan Smith's interception return for a touchdown during the final minute broke a 17-all tie.

Wildcat Players To Know
QBs C.J. Bacher and Mike Kafka: The two battled for the quarterback job in 2006 before Bachér finally came away with it and held it for the past two years. But a leg injury suffered at Indiana opened the door for Kafka, and the junior earned Big Ten co-offensive player of the week honors after rushing for 217 yards on 27 carries during the win over Minnesota.

Bachér, even when healthy, struggled with his efficiency all year long, completing 59.1 percent of his 303 passes for 1,700 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also had rushed for 244 yards and three touchdowns. Kafka has completed 14 of 19 passes for 153 yards, two touchdowns and two picks.

The word is that Bachér, if healthy, will be the starter, but Kafka could still see time.

"You have to appreciate the fact that when the No. 2 guy had to come in and win a big game on the road, he did it," Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. "He rushed for over 200 yards, and I would expect that we would see both guys in the course of the game. I would expect Bachér probably to return as the starter, maybe not, but I would expect that with all his experience and successes and so forth. I would bet you that Kafka's going to come in there and certainly be a part of what they do.

WR Eric Peterman: The senior wideout is a multitalented threat. Not only is he third on the team with 33 catches, which have amassed 386 yards and a team-leading three touchdowns, but Peterman also has two rushes and two completed passes, one for a touchdown.

"He's a great leader and probably the biggest threat we have because he can run and he understands the game as a former quarterback," tailback Tyrell Sutton said. "He can throw, he can catch. It's just great having a player like that on our side of the ball."

DE Corey Wootton: A third-year starter, Wootton should be familiar to the Buckeye players. He's certainly familiar to Big Ten statisticians, who have had to punch in his name quite a bit this season. The junior leads the team in sacks and tackles for loss and is sixth in the Big Ten in each category. Among his 27 stops on the year, Wootton has 12 TFL and 6.5 sacks to go along with six quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.

S Brad Phillips: Smith earned some publicity when he ran back the game-winning interception last week, but Phillips might be the more consistent performer. A junior, Phillips leads the team with 75 tackles and also has four TFL, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one sack.

He was named the team's defensive player of the week during each of its first three Big Ten games. That work is thanks to a rigorous offseason of study in which he attempted to improve on the problems that plagued him as a sophomore.

"I watched every game last year, every missed tackle I had and looked at what I had to fix," Phillips said. "It was angles, it was wrapping up and it was my feet."

Series Top OSU Returnees
At quarterback, of course, the only returning player is Todd Boeckman, who has excellent numbers against the Wildcats, completing 11 of 15 passes for 179 yards, four touchdowns and a pick in his career vs. NU.

Each Wells has topped 100 career yards against NU. On 23 carries, Chris Wells has 199 yards and two scores, but he's actually been one-upped when it comes to getting into the end zone by Maurice Wells, who has three scores to go along with 146 yards on 35 carries. Boeckman also has rushed for a touchdown.

Three of Brian Robiskie's four career catches vs. the Wildcats have gone for touchdowns. He has a total of 95 yards through the air. Brian Hartline has 69 yards and two scores on five garbs. Rory Nicol and Maurice Wells each have four catches. In three career games against the Wildcats, punter A.J. Trapasso has just five punts.

Game Breakdown
When Ohio State has the ball: They'll be facing a defense with much better statistics than the one they went up against a season ago. That Northwestern defense finished 10th in the Big Ten in rushing, passing efficiency, total and scoring defense, numbers not helped by the 58 points and 396 yards compiled by Ohio State.

The solution during the offseason was to switch defensive coordinators, as Fitzgerald snapped up fired Wisconsin coordinator Mike Hankwitz. The Wildcats have shot up the rankings under Hankwitz, as they sit in both the top half of the Big Ten and the nation in total defense (341.8 yards) and scoring D (18.1 points).

Most of Northwestern's players have credited the new attacking defense, which is more aggressive and makes greater use of line stunts and zone blitzing.

"We just have been focusing on attacking, attacking the gaps, attacking the ball, just from blitzing, from everything," linebacker Prince Kwateng said.

Northwestern's solid play has started up front with a defensive line that is among the best in the Big Ten. There are two bona fide stars in the group in Wootton and tackle John Gill. Gill, who Nicol called a "stud," has drawn double teams throughout the year and has seven TFL to go with four sacks.

"I've been extremely impressed with their front," Tressel said. "Those guys do a heck of a job, and No. 70 (Gill) in there, I think, is one of the best inside guys that I've seen. He really works at it and every time someone throws a screen, it seems like he's standing right next to the guy that they're trying to throw a screen to, so he's obviously an excellent diagnose guy from the inside."

NU sits second in the league in sacks with 26 and the rush defense is fourth in the conference and 26th in the nation, allowing just 109.3 yards per game. No opponent has topped 200 yards on the ground, and four have been kept below the 100-yard mark.

The rest of the front has some solid players in sophomore tackle Corbin Bryant, who has stepped up to make 24 tackles and 4.5 TFL, and senior end Kevin Mims, who has 26 stops and 3.5 TFL. Reserve end Vince Browne was having an excellent year with 22 tackles, seven TFL and four sacks, but he injured his knee against Minnesota.

Nicol said the line could provide a challenge to a Buckeye team that struggled two weeks ago with Penn State's active unit.

"They play a little bit of a different front than we're used to seeing this season," he said. "They'll play a little bit of a tight front, field defenses, but they're solid up front. We know that."

Browne's injury is not the only one hurting NU at the moment, as senior middle linebacker Malcolm Arrington saw his senior season come to an end when he injuyred his knee against Purdue. He had made 51 tackles while organizing the Wildcats' defense.

Now, the leader is outside man Kwateng, a cerebral linebacker with 68 tackles, three TFL, a forced fumble and a recovered fumble.

"He is a starter and a co-captain and a coach's dream," Fitzgerald said. "I was linebackers coach and responsible for recruiting Prince's area under Randy (Walker) when our conversations first began. When you talk to him, he's a humble guy. But he loves to compete. And much of what I sensed about him from the start proved to be true – he is a big, strong, physical player who is from the right kind of family."

Sophomore Quentin Davie, the other outside linebacker, is 10th in the league in tackles for loss with 8.5 in nine games. He's added 44 stops total and 3.5 sacks for the year. Hard-nosed sophomore Nate Williams has taken over for Arrington and has 25 tackles and earned his first career sack against Minnesota last week.

"From a linebacker standpoint, they ask them to do a lot of different things," Tressel said. "They're used to playing in space. They play in space every day in the spring when they're all spread out. They do it every day in the preseason and every day in practice and I think they do a heck of a job from that standpoint."

Northwestern's pass defense also is strong thanks to a talented group of players. The safeties, Phillips and Smith, have had solid years, combining for 132 tackles, seven TFL and having their hands in six turnovers.

Tressel praised the tackling abilities of their cornerbacks, and third-year starter Sherrick McManis leads the team with 46 solo stops among his 55 tackles. He also has eight pass breakups and an interception. On the other side, redshirt freshman Jordan Mabin of Northfield Center, Ohio, has put together a solid year, making 37 tackles, two picks and forcing two fumbles.

"He's gone through a lot," Fitzgerald said. "He's had some plays he'd like to have back but he's grown from it, flushed it and moved on. You need to learn from it and then move on."

When Northwestern has the ball: The Wildcats were expected to have an excellent offense thanks to returning seniors in Bachér, Sutton and Peterman, as well as wideouts Rasheed Ward and Ross Lane, but the team has struggled offensively at times. Much of that is because of the unit's 21 turnovers, which is tied for the 14th-most in the nation.

The hope was that Bachér, who had thrown 27 career interceptions before this season and had had 11 games with multiple picks, had cut down on his turnovers when he threw just one interception through the first three games, but he then threw four picks against Ohio and two each vs. Michigan State and Indiana.

Bachér also has shown the ability to explode, throwing for three touchdowns thrice this year and exploding for nine scores, no picks and 990 yards during a two-week span vs. Michigan State and Minnesota. Unfortunately for Bachér, he's combined one touchdown and four interceptions in his career against Ohio State.

Bachér, who spent time with each member of the offense during the preseason in an effort to become more of a senior leader, still was the unquestioned starter before the hamstring injury that kept him out against Minnesota. He continues to have that role should he be ready to go against the Buckeyes.

Kafka was impressive, though, rushing for a Big Ten modern record for quarterbacks with his 217 yards against Minnesota. His ability to run the ball gives another dimension to the Northwestern spread that was lacking such a threat with Bachér in.

"He's a cutback runner, and he sees the lanes real well so we have to play smart football," Coleman said about Kafka's abilities, should he play.

No matter which signal caller is in, Ohio State expects first-year offensive coordinator Mick McCall to stick with the principles of the spread offense that the Wildcats have run with some great successes over the past few seasons.

"You have to prepare for both of them," safeties coach Paul Haynes said. "They don't' change their offense with both of them. They're still going to do what they do. They're going to run the zone play, they're going to go quick passing game."

One thing the quarterbacks probably won't do is stretch the field all that much. No Northwestern wideout averages more than 12.1 yards per catch, and three of the top five pass-catchers average less than 10 yards per grab.

"We've been throwing the ball downfield in stretches," Fitzgerald said. "We'd obviously like to make as many big plays as we possibly can, but we need to be efficient in what we're trying to do and take what the defense gives us. Whoever we play, if they're going to play soft, we have to take whatever they give us underneath until they start to snug up on those and then put our guys in the right formations so that we can execute properly."

Northwestern has a number of similar targets, at least on the stat sheet. Lane, who is ninth in school histories in touchdowns and receptions, leads the way with 38 catches and 397 yards, though he has no touchdowns. Ward has 35 grabs for 329 yards and two scores, while Peterman is talented and a bigger target.

"Their veteran receiver corps is excellent and they've seen every coverage that you can possibly do and they come back and catch the football extremely well," Tressel said.

The player with that 12.1 yards per catch average is true freshman Jeremy Ebert, a Hilliard Darby grad who has impressed NU coaches from day one. He's fifth among the wideouts with 13 grabs and two scores. Ahead of him is Sidney Stewart, who has 16 snags for 126 yards and a score.

In the backfield, Northwestern will be without Sutton for the second straight year against Ohio State. The Akron Hoban product, Ohio's Mr. Football in 2004, suffered a wrist injury against Indiana that more than likely ended his career as Northwestern's third-leading rusher and its best-ever pass-catching running back. Just this year he had 30 grabs and also 776 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.

"He's a great running back," Coleman said. "He can catch the ball out of the backfield, he can run the ball and he always makes the first person miss. Not having him is definitely going to hurt their run game."

Also out is senior Omar Conteh, who has spelled the injury-prone Sutton at every point of his career and had 235 yards and three touchdowns on 73 carries. The starting tailback will be Stephen Simmons, a sophomore who has fought injuries. He has only four carries, but he returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Ohio State last year.

Northwestern's offensive line starts three redshirt freshmen in left tackle Al Netter, center Ben Burkett and right guard Doug Bartels. The Wildcats are second in the Big Ten in sacks allowed, having given up just 10.

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