Football: Wild weather becomes game-changer in Northwestern’s loss to No. 2 Ohio State


Alyce Brown/Daily Senior Staffer

The Wildcats huddle before a play. Northwestern played through intense wind and a rainstorm in Saturday’s contest, a 21-7 loss to No. 2 Ohio State.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

On Tuesday afternoon before Northwestern’s home contest against No. 2 Ohio State, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian added meteorologist to his responsibilities. 

Up against the Buckeyes’ vaunted unit, the third-year offensive coordinator designed a game plan that adjusted to the windy and rainy forecast by leaning heavily on the run, with a specific emphasis on Wildcat formations that would directly snap the ball to the Wildcats’ running backs. 

“[Coach Bajakian] and the offensive staff did a good job putting together an outstanding plan,”  head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We had to wait until practice Tuesday to feel like we could trust the weather report, and when we saw it, we knew it would be a major factor in the game.”

The conditions at Ryan Field on Saturday were as messy as advertised. Extreme wind gusts wreaked havoc on the passing attacks and special teams units, while a severe thunderstorm warning nearly stopped play midway through the game and drenched the teams and spectators. Fitzgerald could only recount two Ryan Field games that he’d coached with comparable conditions: a recent game against Minnesota and a 2004 contest against Purdue.

The inclement weather gave NU the figurative and literal perfect storm that it needed to keep pace with the Buckeyes and slow the top-ranked Ohio State offense, but the Cats (1-8, 1-5 Big Ten) could not gain enough traction offensively to complete an upset for the ages in a 21-7 loss to the Buckeyes (9-0, 6-0).

Entering the weekend as 38-point underdogs, NU hoped to mitigate Ohio State’s offensive prowess by preventing standout quarterback C.J. Stroud from finding his rhythm in the passing game. Though the Cats’ secondary broke up five of Stroud’s passes, the elements turned out to provide an even greater boost.

The wind conditions played into the NU’s favor, as passes routinely sailed over receivers’ heads and passing the ball beyond 10 yards became a challenge for either side. Stroud’s arm was a non-factor in the first half — the Heisman contender completed just six of his first 16 passes for 46 yards and the Buckeyes failed to score on their first six drives. Ohio State also endured a rash of uncharacteristic drops, including a would-be touchdown reception from receiver Emeka Egbuka.

“We wanted to limit their possessions for the whole game,” Fitzgerald said. “You don’t want to give that offense carte blanche. With the wind, the ball was sailing like crazy.”

NU reaped immediate dividends from its ground game, surprising the Ohio State defense with the potent trio of junior running backs Evan Hull and Cam Porter and sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan. After failing to register 80 total rushing yards in three of their previous four games, the Cats tallied 206 yards on a staggering 59 carries, while attempting 17 passes. 

Hull was at the forefront of the rushing attack, carrying the ball 30 times for 122 yards and a score. The junior captain said that the running backs embraced the challenge of shouldering the offensive load, both in their carries and their frequent alignments under center. The Cats ran direct snaps to their running backs on 17 of their 59 rushes and utilized the Wildcat formation to spark a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter.

“Especially Cam too, I feel like we handled it really well,” Hull said of the Cats’ emphasis on the Wildcat formation. “We were ready for those expectations, ready for that little bit of added pressure.”

After that drive, the Buckeyes shut down the Cats’ ground-first approach and didn’t let NU reach the end zone again. The Cats’ offense registered four three-and-outs and four turnovers on downs. Rather than taking an aggressive mentality and trusting the playmaking ability of Sullivan once conditions cleared, NU seemed content with taking time off the clock with low-risk, low-reward runs.

While the Cats’ offense stalled, Ohio State made just enough explosive plays to take the lead. Stroud’s 44-yard quarterback keeper in the fourth quarter set up the Buckeyes’ third touchdown and put the game out of reach. 

Spectators at Ryan Field who braved Saturday’s storm witnessed a unique football game, from once-in-a-decade weather conditions that affected all three phases of the game to the incomprehensible fact that a team on a seven-game losing streak led the No. 2 team in college football at the first quarter break.

But for the NU fans mixed into the sea of Ohio State red, the result was all too familiar — an eighth-straight Cats loss.

“Our staff put together a really good plan to be prepared for the elements and we executed except for a couple plays,” Fitzgerald said. “Those ended up being the difference in the game.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jhnriker

Related Stories:

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

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

Football: Mental Performance Consultant Jen Schumacher teaches student-athletes, coaches about mental skills