Football: What to Watch For: In ultimate David vs. Goliath, Northwestern hosts No. 2 Ohio State


Alyce Brown/Daily Senior Staffer

Football players huddle during the game. On the heels of a seventh-straight loss, Northwestern will host its toughest opponent this season: No. 2 Ohio State.

Alex Cervantes, Assistant Sports Editor

Make it seven in a row: Northwestern’s weekend trip across the Mississippi River was fruitless as the Wildcats were dominated for all 60 minutes by Iowa. 

After surrendering 33 points to the Hawkeyes  — the team’s highest scoring output in 2022 — NU (1-7, 1-4 Big Ten) returns home to face No. 2 Ohio State (8-0, 5-0) this weekend. 

Saturday’s late morning contest pits the Big Ten’s highest scoring offense against the conference’s third-worst scoring defense. The Cats are desperately searching for a tinge of optimism in a season devoid of it — and those hopes might have to wait another weekend.

Though it might be a lopsided affair, here are three storylines to follow during the clash between NU and Ohio State.

  1. Dec. 19, 2020 to now, how can so much change in two years?

It’s been almost two years since these two teams squared off in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, and it feels like an eternity has passed between then and now. While the Buckeyes year-in and year-out remain one of the top dogs in the conference, the Cats have sunk into the Big Ten’s basement.

“Well, we’ve lost games (in the last two seasons),” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “And (if) you look at the ‘Why?’ it starts with turnover ratio … Then obviously our explosive play battle, offensively and defensively. Third, making the plays that need to be made down in crunch time, especially this year that need to be made to win games.”

Fitzgerald pointed to the talent that graduated following the 2020 campaign, leaving a massive hole. He said this year’s squad continues to mature and improve as the season progresses. 

Meanwhile, Ohio State has the luxury few other teams possess: when NFL talent exits, it gets replaced by future next-level talent. Justin Fields may be gone, but quarterback C.J. Stroud is at the center of the Heisman race. Garrett Wilson has been replaced by wideouts Marvin Harrison Jr. and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. TreVeyon Henderson has picked up right where Trey Sermon left off in the backfield. That doesn’t even mention the NFL talent on its defense.

Needless to say, the odds are slim that NU could pull off one of the most remarkable upsets in the conference’s history this weekend — ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Cats a 1.6% chance of winning — but Fitzgerald and his team will trot out on Ryan Field ready for battle against a legion of NFL talent.

  1. Can Sullivan conjure any magic against this stout Buckeyes’ defense?

Outside of the Cats’ garbage time final drive of the game in which he completed 7-of-7 passes for 51 yards and a touchdown, sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan had a modest game at best. Granted, Iowa’s defense is one of the nation’s best units and the entire offense struggled to gain any momentum, but the opponent doesn’t get any easier this week.

Ohio State has conceded no more than 21 points to unranked opponents this season. The Buckeyes allow a measly 93.4 rushing yards per game and only 176.8 yards through the air. Sullivan, who was sacked seven times against the Hawkeyes and threw his third interception in two games, will again have his work cut out for him.

Fitzgerald said he isn’t focused on any of the team’s shortcomings from earlier in the season, and he put bluntly what the team needs to correct ahead of the game against Ohio State.

“We gotta play better football,” Fitzgerald said. “We gotta start faster from (last) Saturday.” 

  1. Can the two teams weather the weather?

As Family Weekend officially commences, students and their families, along with the traveling Buckeye contingent, should expect some wet conditions on game day.

The Weather Channel is forecasting a 78% chance of rain in the morning with winds mostly in the range of 25-35 mph — but gusts could reach more than 40 mph. If the rain continues beyond kickoff, both teams may be forced to run the football more, an area that would certainly benefit Ohio State. 

Led by Henderson, the Buckeyes average 191.5 rushing yards per contest, while NU’s run defense has struggled in 2022, conceding 186.4 yards to opponents. Though the Cats will look to establish their run game behind juniors Evan Hull and Cam Porter, similar to the Penn State game last month, NU may be forced to pivot to a passing attack if the backfield struggles.

Still, there may be hope yet in the unlikely case the Ryan Field grounds have gone untouched since the Cats’ last home game on Oct. 8. 

“We haven’t cut the grass at Ryan Field since our last home game, so it’ll be somewhere between two to four feet high,” Fitzgerald said ironically. “Maybe the sprinkling system will come on.”

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