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Northwestern vs. Ohio State: Three matchups to watch

Northwestern trots into Columbus with a three game win streak on the line to face an Ohio State team fresh off their first loss of the season. Here are a few matchups to watch this Saturday.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Football is an 11-on-11 game, but when it comes down to it, you have to win at the individual level to win at the team level. Here are three individual matchups that will be key in Saturday’s game in Columbus between Northwestern and Ohio State.

Northwestern’s offensive line vs. Ohio State’s front seven

If we’ve learned anything from this season of Northwestern football, it’s that this team goes as the offensive line goes. Over its last three games (all wins), Northwestern has tallied 116 points, Clayton Thorson has a quarterback rating of 146.3, and Justin Jackson and Austin Carr have nine touchdowns between them, and it’s majorly due to the improved play of the offensive line. The Wildcats been fortunate enough during this stretch to face teams who have struggled to defend on every level (i.e. Michigan State and Iowa), but OSU poses a more treacherous challenge. They have premiere athletes across their front seven in guys like Tyquan Lewis and Raekwon McMillan and the Buckeye defense has allowed only two rushing touchdowns this season, tied for fewest in the FBS. Northwestern’s offensive success has been directly proportional its ability to run the ball this entire season and if they want any hope of upsetting Urban Meyer’s squad on Saturday, they’ll need to win the battle up front.

Ifeadi Odenigbo vs. Isaiah Prince, J.T. Barrett

Odenigbo has been on an absolute tear as of late, recording seven sacks and two forced fumbles over his last three games. Ohio State has only allowed eleven sacks as a team in 2016, but Barrett being buried six times against Penn State was a huge factor in the Buckeyes being upset on the road last weekend. Barrett’s mobility makes him a difficult player to keep between the crossfires as a defensive lineman, but Northwestern will have virtually no chance of slowing Ohio State’s high-powered offense (45.3 points per game, 501.7 yards per game) without generating consistent pressure on Barrett. Luckily, true sophomore Isaiah Prince has struggled lately, and NU could use Odenigbo, Joe Gaziano and others to create a mismatch. NU’s defensive line has performed admirably recently and getting Xavier Washington back for a second straight week will only help matters, but ultimately, the onus will fall on Odenigbo to lead the siege of the Buckeye offensive line and keep OSU’s most dynamic player on his heels.

Clayton Thorson vs. Ohio State’s secondary

This October has easily been the most efficient stretch of Thorson’s career thus far. His completion percentage for the month is 64.3 percent (up from his career 54.1 percent rate) and his only turnover was the ugly first quarter pick six against Michigan State two weeks ago. Ohio State’s defense has scored four defensive touchdowns already this season and, more specifically, safety Malik Hooker ranks sixth in the FBS with four interceptions in 2016. A lot of this matchup goes back to the offensive line and its ability to open up holes for Jackson and keep Thorson in comfortable down and distances, something they’ve been able to do over the course of NU’s current three game winning streak. But it will also be up to Thorson to be decisive with the time he is afforded and to not revert to the mistake-prone quarterback we’ve seen at times over his year and a half at the helm of the Wildcat offense.