Four things to watch as Ohio State looks to get back to its winning ways against Northwestern.
There’s still plenty to be frustrated about from last week’s loss to Penn State. But it’s another week of Buckeye football and a 3:30 tilt against the Northwestern Wildcats is here. We’ve got you covered with what you need to keep your eyes on as the Buckeyes look to rebound and win their way back into the playoff conversation.
1. Justin Jackson is the real deal
Justin Jackson happens to be Northwestern’s main offensive weapon. There was a stretch even last season where Jackson was the leading rusher in the Big Ten and certainly has been a work horse during his time as the lead back at Northwestern. He leads the conference in rushing with 792 yards on 171 carries while finding the end zone 6 times so far in 2016.
Last week, Ohio State “limited” Penn State back Saquon Barkley to just under 100 yards, which was an improvement over last year.
For the Wildcats, Jackson will be running from the get go. It’s his first chance as a collegian to take on the Buckeyes. His 6 rushing touchdowns are already more than last year, when he also ran for 1,418 yards.
Will Jackson be able to wear down the Buckeye front enough to keep the Wildcats close? Ohio State allowed Penn State to linger around long enough to win. It isn’t a far fetched idea to have a running back with games of 171 and 188 yards in conference play to get going. The Buckeyes will need to make sure he is a non-factor from the start. After all, the next leading rusher for Northwestern is quarterback Clayton Thorson with all of 86 yards on the season.
2. How will the Buckeye offensive line respond?
There’s nothing else to say about the disappointing performance by The Slobs. Pass protection will especially be under the microscope this week given how poorly the line protected J.T. Barrett, making an already shaky passing game worse.
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Northwestern has 18 sacks as a team on the year, which is actually 2 more than the Buckeyes. Their leader along the line is Centerville, Ohio native Ifeadi Odenigbo. He’ got 8 sacks on the year to lead the Big Ten. Seven of those sacks have come in conference play, so it isn’t like they were racked up against FBS competition, either.
If the Wildcat pass rush can get to Barrett, it’s a huge boost to what is actually the worst passing defense in the Big Ten, which gives up 282 yards per game in the air. If Jamarco Jones, Isaiah Prince, and the rest of the line shows that last week was just an isolated incident, it could go a long way to rebuilding some confidence in the Buckeyes floundering passing game.
3. Speaking of the passing game…
Northwestern is better against the run, making all of the points above even more important. At only 132 yards per game surrendered on the ground, Northwestern ranks ahead of every team Ohio State has played in-conference, save for Wisconsin.
It’s a “show me” game of sorts for the receivers as much as it is for the offensive line. The Wildcats have a vulnerable secondary. Ohio State has a crisis of confidence in their passing game. Something is bound to give this week. The smart money, though, is on the Ohio State receivers looking to re-establish themselves as a viable threat.
4. Can Northwestern slay another giant?
In 2014, it was Wisconsin and Notre Dame as ranked teams to lose to the Wildcats. Last year saw them beat upstart Duke and Wisconsin again. Northwestern has a track record under Pat Fitzgerald of getting ready for games against ranked teams. What about 2016 in Columbus?
Ohio State can’t afford to respond poorly to getting punched in the mouth by Penn State. With such a young and inexperienced team, it would be easy for the Baby Buckeyes to come out flat. With a strong running game to control the clock, the Wildcats could potentially pull it off again.
It’s unlikely, but Ohio State has to avoid this type of trap. There has to be a renewed sense of urgency and a desire to get better. Remember, this was the youngest team in the country heading into the year. With a little adversity, it will be interesting to see how the team responds.
Prediciton: Ohio State fails again to score on the opening drive, but rolls through Northwestern. Justin Jackson gets limited and Austin Carr has a huge game as the Wildcats try to play catch up. I’m not sure if Ohio State will clean up every issue from last week, but they will make progress.
Ohio State 42, Northwestern 10