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Northwestern Wildcats vs. Ohio State Buckeyes: Previews, Predictions and Prognostications

J.T. Barrett, Ohio STate Buckeyes

When: Sat. Oct. 29, 2016; 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Columbus, Ohio; Ohio Stadium (104,944)
TV: ESPN
All-Time Series: Ohio State leads leads 60-14-1
Last Meeting: Ohio State won 40-30 (2013)
Line: Ohio State (-27)

There is still a bit of shock and awe over what happened Saturday night in Happy Valley.

The Nittany Lions stopped the seemingly unstoppable Buckeye machine. They were not a perfect monolith. They could bleed.

As Grant Haley returned the blocked field goal into the end zone to an uproarious Penn State crowd, Ohio State was left wondering what just happened. That is quite a way to lose a game.

The Buckeyes showed plenty of signs of weakness in the loss to Penn State. J.T. Barrett was solid, completing 28 of 43 passes for 245 yards. But the Buckeyes could not get their ground game going and gave up six sacks. Penn State’s defensive line dominated Ohio State’s offensive line — most notably in the second half.

That is not typical Buckeyes football.

It was still a game Ohio State should have won and put itself in position to win. But the team did not win. The team did not do the things it would need to win a big game against a young and physical front four.

Penn State found a way to win.

That’s what the Wildcats have done for the last three games. After their slow start to the season, the ‘Cats have suddenly emerged as something of an offensive juggernaut. Northwestern, amazingly, has the leading rusher and receiver in the conference. That is both a sign of how reliant they are on their specific stars, and how dangerous this team has become.

Northwestern does not have the talent all around that Ohio State does. The Wildcats are, as they always seem to be, heavy underdogs.

These two teams’ momentum though could not be going in opposite directions right now. Or perhaps this will be the game where narratives get reset.

1 Burning Question: Can Ohio State’s offensive line win in the trenches?

Against Penn State, Ohio State struggled to run the ball. The Buckeyes had 160 rushing yards on 40 carries Saturday and failed to establish a consistent runner. The Buckeyes’ leading rusher was Mike Weber with 71 yards on 21 carries — a 3.4 yards per carry.

That is not what Ohio State has done all year, and not the gold standard that has been set under Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes average 281.6 yards per game and have gotten 97.6 yards per game from Weber.

Undoubtedly though, the Buckeyes have relied more heavily on J.T. Barrett throughout the year. That part is not going to change, especially against Northwestern’s banged up secondary.

But Ohio State struggled against Penn State’s defensive line. The Buckeyes gave up six sacks to the Nittany Lions. And now they face the Big Ten’s leading sacker in Ifeadi Odenigbo (8.0 sacks) along with Anthony Walker seemingly rounding into form.

Ohio State’s offensive line has largely been good — the team ranks third in adjusted line yards according to Football Outsiders (adjusted line yards is a measure of how often running backs get past the offensive linemen, essentially). But the Buckeyes give up a lot of sacks, ranking 48th in the country in adjusted sack rate.

Allowing pressure to get to Barrett is this team’s weakness. The Buckeyes need to protect their heart and soul, and hold off this resurgent Wildcats pass rush to hold firm to dominance in this game.

2 Key Stats

— 243.3: That is the yards per game Clayton Thorson has thrown for in the last three games. Not the most impressive stats — although his 63.9 percent completion percentage and 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is. Considering Thorson’s struggles in the first two seasons of his career, this consistency throwing the ball is a huge plus for Northwestern. It’s a big reason Northwestern’s offense is suddenly revived.

— 121.0: The number of rushing yards per game Ohio State has given up this season. The Buckeyes have been stout against the run this year, and that will become even more important against Justin Jackson and Northwestern who seem to be on the upswing in offensive production.

3 Key Players

–Marcus McShephard, Northwestern CB/WR: This summer Northwestern converted Marcus McShephard from a cornerback to a wide receiver. The Wildcats felt they had depth on that end. With all the injuries at cornerback, Northwestern had to move McShephard back to cornerback. He recorded seven tackles against Indiana. The Hoosiers were targeting him. He will not be in a ton, but Northwestern needs help with the secondary and McShephard has to step up. Or else …

–Jerome Baker, LB Ohio State: Jerome Baker has filled in admirably due to injury, and has been a do-everything linebacker for the Buckeyes. The stats support that — 43 tackles, six for a loss, 1.5 sacks and a pick. Baker will have to be an anchor again as Ohio State takes on Justin Jackson and Northwestern. The Wildcats are going to run the ball a lot, and Jackson figures be the flag-bearer. Baker has to make a living in the backfield and help make Northwestern’s offense uncomfortable.

–Hunter Niswander, P Northwestern: Ohio State knows how important special teams are after last week’s loss. The Wildcats have a solid punter in Hunter Niswander and for them to hang around this game, they have to win field position and make the Buckeyes go down a long field. Last week, Niswander struggled though. He averages 43.1 yards per punt this year, but against the Hoosiers last week, he posted 39.6 yards per punt on eight punts. He needs to be better than 40 and pin Ohio State deep.

4 Staff Predictions

Andy: Ohio State 31-17
Dave: Ohio State 38-17
Phil H.: Ohio State 34-17
Philip R-R.: Ohio State 34-24
Zach: Ohio State 38-14

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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