No. 4 Ohio State at Northwestern
When and Where: Friday, Oct. 18, Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill., 8:30 p.m. EDT.
Coming off a bye week and facing a trap game, fourth-ranked Ohio State looks to stay sharp and unbeaten Friday night when they face Northwestern in a cross-division Big Ten matchup.
The Buckeyes (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten East) slipped a spot in the most recent Associated Press Top 25 poll as voters were impressed with LSU's second win over a top 10 opponent and slotted the Tigers higher.
Ohio State, which has outscored opponents by a staggering 296-53 in its six wins, also hosts West Division co-leader, fellow unbeaten, and No. 6 Wisconsin on Oct. 26.
Northwestern (1-4, 0-3), which won the West Division by three games last season and lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, will be hard-pressed to duplicate that feat as it looks to avoid its first four-game skid since Oct. 11-Nov. 8, 2014. The Wildcats have not started 0-4 in conference play since 2013 but are in danger of doing so after a 13-10 defeat at Nebraska on Oct. 5.
Aidan Smith, making his first collegiate start, completed 19 of 32 passes for 136 yards and an interception. Hunter Johnson sat out due to a knee injury, and the Clemson transfer is questionable for this contest.
The Wildcats have been held to 15 or fewer points in all but one of their games and are averaging 14.2 on the season. Last season's 45-24 defeat to the Buckeyes in Indianapolis was their seventh straight in the series.
Ohio State has won 31 of the last 32 meetings, with Northwestern's lone victory a 33-27 triumph at home in 2004.
Buckeyes look to maintain focusThere was not much in the way of injuries or issues for the Buckeyes during the bye week, which meant first-year coach Ryan Day was able to spend most of the time taking the pulse of his team and also keeping them focused on the task at hand without peeking ahead to the Badgers.
“Yeah, the same thing that we’ve been talking about all along, which is all you’re worried about is this game right here, and we all know what happens if you start losing focus, and we cannot do that," Day said at his weekly media availability. "So this week we’ve talked about having a white belt mentality, which is a mentality that you’re starting right from scratch and that you don’t take anything for granted, you don’t make any assumptions, and if we do that, then we’ll be fine. If we start to look ahead or start to let our egos get in the way, then we’re in trouble.”
Quarterback Justin Fields has played his way into Heisman Trophy consideration with his 1,581 yards of total offense and 26 touchdowns passing and running. What has impressed Day has been the way the sophomore has seamlessly stepped into the Buckeyes offensive system following his transfer from Georgia.
Justin Fields got a week off to recharge his body and work on his fundamentals after showcasing his toughness to Ryan Day in the first six games of Ohio State's season. https://t.co/LSilxRgegd— Eleven Warriors (@11W) October 16, 2019
“He was working with just about all of it, you know, and he’s learning it more and more," Day said of Fields. "And it’s the same thing with the bye week. We’re trying to enhance the best we can and work on our fundamentals. He has certain things he needs to work on, and he’s going to do that. But we’ve kind of thrown the whole thing at him, and he’s been able to handle it.”
Fields' efforts running the ball has had a knock-on effect for his running backs as J.K. Dobbins and Master Teague have combined for 1,242 yards. Dobbins is second in the nation in rushing at 826 yards, one better than Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor for the Big Ten lead, and is averaging 7.1 yards per carry.
Day, though, offered plenty of respect for Northwestern's defense, noting it still has many of the same characteristics that helped it reach the Big Ten title game last season.
"Really that whole defense is back from last year, Big Ten Championship game," Day said. "I think they’re a top 30 defense in the country. I believe they held Wisconsin under 300 total yards. I mean, they’re good.
"They know exactly how you’re trying to attack them. They make adjustments. It’s a defense that’s been around for a long time, and they know exactly what you’re doing."
Wildcats bracing for Buckeyes offenseWhile Day gave Northwestern its due defensively at his press conference, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald was equally complimentary and concerned about how his team needs to find a way to at least slow down field and the Ohio State offense
"... Just a stud of a guy and he’s playing outstanding football," Fitzgerald said of Fields, whom he recruited unsuccessfully. "He’s doing a great job of playing within the framework of what Coach Day wants him to do, and then he’s taken it to the next level by being able to be really explosive with his feet and being really smart when he’s doing that."
Pat Fitzgerald recruited Justin Fields, and loved the QB.— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 14, 2019
He shared a quick story about the process today.
"And then all of the sudden, you guys gave him too many stars. It would have been great if you kept him where he was when we recruited him." @coachfitz51 x @justnfields pic.twitter.com/kBGZy2Bb6F
Fields' successful transition to Ohio State is a stark contrast to Johnson, whom much was expected of after he transferred to Northwestern from Clemson and sat out last season. Both Johnson and Smith have completed less than 50 percent of their passes on the season, which puts a staggering amount of pressure on Northwestern's defense to keep the Wildcats in the game.
They did that to a large degree against the Badgers last month -- Northwestern held Wisconsin to 10 points offensively -- but the explosive Buckeyes offense could completely change the dynamic of the game in rapid-fire fashion and Fitzgerald knows that all too well from last season's title game.
"We had some plays in the championship game where we had outstanding coverage and we had a guy there to make a play, but 7 (Haskins) made a great play," Fitzgerald recalled. "You watch this year’s offense and it’s the same thing from that last kind of three weeks (of the 2018 season). So, they just do a great job and they’ve got weapons everywhere. Everywhere.
"So, it starts and ends with the quarterback, but everybody else is first-team All-Big Ten in my book. They're phenomenal."
Northwestern ranks 123rd in passing offense at 140.4 yards per game and tied for 111th on third down conversion rate at 33.3 percent. That could loom large against a Buckeyes defense that ranks third in the country at 25.6 percent.
Ohio State is:
- 8-0 ATS in its last eight games following a straight up win.
- 7-0 ATS in its last seven games following a straight up win by 20 or more points game.
- 5-0 ATS in its last five games vs. Big Ten teams.
- 1-6 ATS in its last seven games vs. Ohio State.
- 0-3-1 ATS in its last four home games.
- 1-4-1 ATS in its last six home games vs. teams with a winning road record.