Sidebar: Third downs not the charm for NU

Jake Simpson

It seemed like the perfect situation for Northwestern. Ohio State facing third-and-long. The Ryan Field crowd rocking. The Wildcats’ defensive line champing at the bit.

In fact, the Buckeyes had the Cats right where they wanted them.

Stopping Ohio State on third down proved to be too much for NU to handle. Time and time again, coach Pat Fitzgerald’s squad stuffed the Buckeyes’ offense on first and second downs. But almost every time, quarterback Terrelle Pryor and his offense were able to move the chains.

“Our inability to get off the field on third down really cost us,” Fitzgerald said.

On the surface, the teams had similar success on third downs: NU (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) was 8-of-15 while Ohio State (8-2, 5-1) went 8-of-13. But the numbers tell only half the story.

From the opening drive, the NU defense put Pryor in difficult situations, forcing a third-and-16 just 10 plays into the game. Unfazed, the Buckeyes’ freshman quarterback threw deep to wideout Brian Hartline, who got behind NU backup safety Brian Peters for a 44-yard gain.

The conversion led to a 7-0 Ohio State lead. It was just the tip of the iceberg.

“We put them into third-down situations, and we didn’t get off the field,” junior safety Brendan Smith said.

The Buckeyes faced third downs of eight yards or longer nine times Saturday. They converted seven of them, averaging a whopping 19 yards per play.

Making just his seventh career start, the freshman phenom Pryor was the catalyst to Ohio State’s third-down success. When the NU front four collapsed the pocket – which occurred on almost every third down – Pryor either stepped up in the pocket or scrambled to the outside, avoiding the rush and giving himself a world of options.

“We were just trying to cover their guys, keep contain in the blitzes and the rush,” Smith said. “Pryor’s a good athlete. He stepped up in the pocket and escaped.”

Pryor beat the Cats with his legs and his arm on a backbreaking, 90-yard touchdown drive to end the first half. After converting a third-and-eight by rolling out and finding wideout Dane Sanzenbacher for 14 yards, the Buckeyes’ quarterback faced a third-and-13 and a third-and-17 on the next two series.

Both times, he picked up the first down effortlessly, trotting for 15 and 21 yards without being touched.

Four plays later, the Buckeyes were in the end zone, cruising into halftime with a 24-7 lead.Smith credited Pryor for his athletic ability but said the onus was on the defense to stop him.

“He is a great athlete,” Smith said. “But we have to do our jobs, and we have to play to our capabilities.”

NU’s third-down nightmares continued in the second half. Facing a third-and-eight, Pryor rolled out of the pocket and found Hartline for a 46-yard completion.

Hartline beat Smith on the play, which did not sit well with the junior safety.

“If you have a man, you have a man,” he said. “You have to turn and run with him. I had to make the play on one of those times down the sideline. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it. And it’s eating at me right now. I have to make those plays.”

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