Football: Northwestern hosts its toughest competition yet in Heisman Trophy candidate C.J. Stroud


Alyce Brown/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern’s defensive line gets in position to face Iowa’s offense last Saturday. The Wildcats’ defense will face a major spotlight in this weekend’s game against No. 2 Ohio State.

Skye Swann, Assistant Gameday Editor

As Northwestern welcomes families and friends from across the country this Family Weekend, the football squad will face another heavy-hitter game Saturday in a primetime matchup against No. 2 Ohio State. 

The Wildcats (1-7, 1-4 Big Ten) suffered a major setback last weekend on the road to Iowa during Halloween weekend, logging their seventh consecutive loss of the season. However, this weekend’s battle will be even tougher as they face Buckeyes’ starting quarterback C.J. Stroud and his magnetic offensive line.

“From a standpoint of quarterback play, I’m not sure there is anyone playing better quarterback than C.J. in the country,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. 

Effortlessly knocking down competition in the Big Ten, Stroud has played a central role in the Buckeyes’ undefeated streak. But his quickness is one of many skills Stroud brings to the table for Saturday’s game. 

Beating the sophomore slump last year, Stroud entered the season with all eyes on him and was named a Heisman Trophy candidate in the preseason. The junior quarterback currently sits in second place in odds for the award, trailing slightly behind Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker. 

Although Stroud holds the second spot after Ohio State’s win against Penn State, he is far from slacking off this season — completing 71.3 percent of his passes, throwing 2,377 yards and recording 29 touchdowns. Stroud has a 194.9 quarterback ranking, placing him as the best quarterback in College Football, according to ESPN.

“He’s been in a lot of our crossover tape,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s so efficient. (He’s) so explosive.”

Based on 2022 statistics alone, NU’s defensive line is facing immense pressure Saturday to not only cover down the field but force Stroud to intercept or throw an interception. Although the Cats sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan completed 23 passes for 159 yards in Iowa City, Stroud’s production can make life difficult for NU’s defense and lead to a lopsided score early in the game.

Fitzgerald called the Buckeyes an “outstanding team,” highlighting both its offensive and defensive abilities. He said Saturday’s face-off will be a “handful” for the Cats, but the squad isn’t scared of the challenge ahead. 

With Stroud being among the top NFL prospects in the game, Fitzgerald said one of the main areas of contention for NU is executing its plans on coverage. As the Cats prepare for the matchup Saturday, they will need to force Ohio State to lean on its ground game, which has underperformed this season, and get off the field on key downs.

One of the goals to combat Stroud’s offensive dominance is to play complimentary football, essentially playing hard-fought tackle ball on the field. Senior defensive back A.J. Hampton, Jr.  said NU will have to shut down Stroud’s connection with his wide receivers and halt their motion. 

“If you just turn on the film, the throws (Stroud) is making week in and week out and the way he is keeping his team composed is one of the biggest things he does,” Hampton Jr. said. “He keeps his team together and is a great leader on the field.”

As the game approaches, the Cats’ tight end Duke Olges — former defensive linemen — equated watching Stroud on film to watching a quarterback on NFL tape. With the Buckeye quarterback’s ability to turn heads across the nation, the Ohio football program’s reputation of producing top professional quarterbacks seems secure.

Prior to Stroud’s success on the field, Ohio State produced another top-ranked quarterback in Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields. NU had its hands full when it played Fields and his squad back in the 2020 Big Ten West Championship and in a 52-3 home loss in 2019. Olges said the team is aware of the defense’s uphill battle Saturday in another top-tier athlete in Stroud.

It goes without question: the Cats biggest challenge aside from offensive production is defensively blocking Stroud on the field. If NU can’t get a little leverage in the game and prevent the Buckeyes’ quarterback from taking complete control of the field, there will be little hope for the purple and white to grab a second win of the season.

“He’s a very talented player,” Olges said. “He’s a guy that goes out (on the field) and executes plus is able to lead his team well. His experience and poise makes it possible for him to do things easily that people would consider hard.”                                                                                                                                       

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