The Northwestern Wildcats make their first return to Ohio Stadium since 2007, seeking to ride a three-game winning streak back into Big Ten West Division contention. Conversely, Ohio State is coming off a surprising loss on the road at Penn State, regrouping for an opportunity to get back to its winning ways.
Northwestern has built its offense around junior running back Justin Jackson. Overshadowed by other players at his position within the B1G, Jackson has rushed for 792 yards this season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. With the exception of Northwestern's surprising 9-7 loss to Illinois State, Jackson has carried the ball at least 20 times in every game for the Wildcats.
Ohio State has an offense loaded with highly recruited players but has not settled into making any one individual a consistent focus of that offense. Hybrid back Curtis Samuel had an impressive 74-yard touchdown run at Penn State, but he carried the ball only twice in the loss to the Nittany Lions.
Northwestern at Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 29 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ohio State -27
Three Things to Watch
1. Ohio State Passing Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
As stated above, Ohio State has many players worthy of attention, but Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer conceded in his Oct. 24 press conference that within the wide receiver position group, "There's not a big differentiation in our group right now..." Curtis Samuel is leading all receivers with 37 receptions, followed by Noah Brown at 19. The lack of a true deep threat is allowing opposing defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage. Keep an eye out for Northwestern's Ifeadi Odenigbo, a strong pass rusher who could harass Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett all game long.
2. Northwestern Rushing Offense vs. Ohio State Rush Defense
Justin Jackson, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, will be the focus of the Ohio State defense throughout this game. While Northwestern has a capable quarterback in Clayton Thorson and a strong wide receiving corps, led by Austin Carr and his 50 receptions, Jackson is the catalyst that opens up the other areas for the Wildcats' offense. Ohio State focused on limiting the damage by Penn State's Saquon Barkley last week; look for the Buckeyes to have a similar defensive focus Saturday against Jackson.
3. A Predictable Ohio State Offense?
Every head coach has tendencies, and Urban Meyer is no exception. Meyer has consistently emphasized the importance of Ohio State's power running game throughout his tenure in Columbus. With Barrett at the helm, Meyer often relies upon his quarterback, especially in short-yardage situations, to run the ball. This tendency has led to predictable play calls that just about every fan in the stadium is anticipating, meaning that opposing defensive coordinators are probably also looking for these Barrett runs as well. Will Ohio State expand its playbook against the Northwestern defense?
During his Oct. 24 press conference, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer stated, "It's not time to go dive into people. It's time to correct issues." An offensive line struggling with pass protection, poor special teams play and an inconsistent downfield passing game will give the Buckeyes’ coaching staff many areas to work on this week leading into this game against Northwestern. While Ohio State has the edge on the Wildcats in overall team speed, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has built a program that is capable of keeping pace with the Buckeyes. Look for Ohio State to pull away from the Wildcats in the fourth quarter, but this will probably be closer than Las Vegas oddsmakers are anticipating.
Prediction: Ohio State 42, Northwestern 24
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.