We take a look at the biggest takeaways from yesterday's game — both positives and concerns — as Northwestern fell 40-30 to Ohio State.
Save for the issues in the red zone (more on that later), Northwestern's offense moved the ball flawlessly in the first half. The Wildcats broke out a lot more of the pistol than we've seen in previous games, with Kain Colter and Venric Mark hooking up on the ground and through the air for some impressive gains. Trevor Siemian came in and capitalized on a struggling Ohio State secondary for some big gains, including a touchdown pass to Colter. It was the spread offense working to perfection. Mick McCall had said to BTN that NU had to "tempo the heck out of OSU" to win, and in the first half, that's what the Wildcats did.
However, in the second half, NU went away from the formula that it had success with in the first half. Trevor Siemian still did fine in the passing game, but the Wildcats sat Colter, taking his playmaking ability out of the game. That helped OSU finish with five sacks and could have cost NU some points.
The most perplexing part of the gameplan is how much the Wildcats used Siemian in the red zone, rather than Colter. Siemian is effective when he has a lot of field to work with, since he loves to throw the ball downfield. Colter, on the other hand, is very effective in short-yardage situations, particularly running the zone read and the option. On Saturday, with a Siemian-led red zone attack, NU got just one touchdown in four trips to the red zone. That could have been the difference.
The run defense is NU's biggest problem
Carlos Hyde is a good player, I understand that. But Northwestern can't give up 168 yards and 3 touchdowns to a player and expect to win. I'm surprised Hyde wasn't a major part of the Ohio State gameplan originally, considering stopping runs between the tackles has been an issue for NU all year. However, the Buckeyes eventually went Hyde's way, and once he got going he didn't stop. The interior of Ohio State's offensive line dominated the Wildcats' defensive tackles.
Heading into the season, the issues at defensive tackle were overlooked, but now that Sean McEvilly is injured, the void left by the departure of Brian Arnfelt is even more evident. The problem for NU is that the Big Ten is full of strong power running games. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Iowa's Mark Weisman and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah all await on the schedule, and while the Wildcats can keep up with anyone, they could struggle if they allow those teams to control the clock.
Put last year's defensive tackles on this team and NU is probably the best team in the Legends Division. With this year's defensive tackles, the offense has to be very good and the defense has to get come up with a lot of turnovers for the Wildcats to make it to Indianapolis. NU might be the Legends' best team, but the defensive tackles still have a lot to prove.
Strips, Tips and Picks
If the run defense can't improve, the defense is going to need to continue to take the ball away and disrupt the rhythm of opposing offenses. The Wildcats rank 10th in the country in total turnovers gained and are tied for second in interceptions. That's no accident. NU took advantage of Braxton Miller's lackadaisical ball security near the endzone and the Wildcats got an interception off a quarterback hurry from Ifeadi Odenigbo. The defensive line has done a good job of getting its hands up all season to tip passes, and if that keeps happening, NU can beat anyone.
The young corners
It seems like people only ever notice Dwight White when he messes up. There have been a lot of calls for White to lose his starting job to true freshman Matt Harris, but White got the start and performed well. Harris also played well when he saw time. In fact, Nick VanHoose arguably struggled the most out of all three corners. Give the young guys some time — no matter who is in, there's going to be a learning curve. White and Harris certainly held their own against OSU.