EVANSTON, Ill. -- Before the season began, there were a few personnel issues on Northwestern’s roster that stuck out more than others. A rebuilt offensive line featuring three new starters was probably the most frequently cited, while the No. 2 cornerback spot looked shaky. Less discussed was the lack of depth at defensive tackle, namely the hazardous line Northwestern was toeing by having just three DTs (Will Hampton, Chance Carter and Sean McEvily) with any game experience.
That is a thin group at full strength -- that became clear the moment stalwart Brian Arnfelt graduated in the offseason. An injury to one of the above three had the potential to cripple Northwestern’s depth. On Saturday night, Northwestern’s worst defensive tackle nightmare came true. Without junior Sean McEvily, who was ruled out Thursday after sitting out against Maine, Northwestern was forced to play Carter and Hampton for most of the game.
What followed was predictable: Ohio State and its big, bruising offensive line cracked open big holes for running backs to burst through, and the Buckeyes took advantage, particularly in the second half, in a 40-30 win at Ryan Field.
Without McEvily, Northwestern never generated enough push at the point of attack to slow the Buckeyes’ run game completely. At halftime, the Buckeyes had logged 108 yards on 21 carries; those numbers swelled to 248 and 48 at the end of regulation, thanks in large part to senior Carlos Hyde’s career-best 168-yard, three-touchdown night.
"Sean is a very dynamic athlete," senior linebacker Damien Proby said. "In terms of slowing Carlos down, he's a very explosive running back with a very explosive and experienced line in front of him."
Stopping Hyde wouldn’t have been easy for Northwestern even if McEvily was available. Ohio State has bigger, stronger athletes in the trenches and Hyde, listed at 6-foot, 235, is one of the most physical running backs in the Big Ten. But the ability to plug another big body in at the position would have helped Northwestern avoid getting worn down late in the second half. Hyde ran through gaping holes for big chunks of yards, and typically picked up a few more after first contact.
Northwestern didn’t have an answer for Ohio State’s lead back.
“He's a pretty good player, number one," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Number two, it looked like on a few of the plays we didn't fit very well. Then there were some missed tackles at the point of attack."
There was no word on McEvily’s injury after the game. He was seen in a walking boot at practice this week, but the diagnosis released to the public was “lower-body injury,” which says close to nothing about when McEvily might be nearing a return (McEvily was "day to day" last week, according to Pat Fitzgerald). Northwestern will definitely need him next week at Wisconsin. The Badgers rank first in the Big Ten in rushing at 7.44 yards per carry, and will no doubt look take a cue from the success Ohio State had – specifically, Hyde’s – pounding the ball against Northwestern’s tired front.
This is an injury Northwestern can’t afford to have linger on throughout the season. Carter and Hampton are bound to tire over the course of the season, and Northwestern doesn’t have very much depth behind them.