Northwestern faces its toughest test of the season on Saturday in Columbus, when it'll take on No. 6 Ohio State. The Buckeyes are coming off a crazy loss to Penn State, which blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown late in the fourth before coming up with a stop to seal the upset.
Northwestern comes into the contest playing its best football of season. The Wildcats are winners of three straight Big Ten games and sit just a game behind Nebraska in Big Ten West standings.
No one is giving Northwestern much of a chance in this contest. The betting line opened at Ohio State -23, but money coming in on Ohio State has pushed it all the way up to -27 on some sites. Most expect a ticked off Ohio State team to bounce back in a big way by bullying a team with inferior talent in front of 100,000 people. That very well might happen, but there's a reason they play the games on grass and not on betting sites. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will/won't pull off one of the biggest upsets and best wins in program history.
Why Northwestern will beat Ohio State
1. Northwestern will be able to get to the quarterback
Ohio State's offensive line is tremendous at run-blocking. Per Football Outsiders, it ranks 3rd in the opponent-adjusted Adjusted Line Yards and first in Opportunity Rate, a statistic that measures what percentage of carries go for five yards (on plays outside the 5-yard line). But it's less impressive when it comes to pass-blocking; the Buckeyes give up sacks on 8.6% of pass downs, which ranks 78th among FBS teams. Penn State was able to put consistent pressure on Ohio State's Heisman candidate quarterback J.T. Barrett, sacking him six times. Right tackle Isaiah Prince was particularly exposed; look for Northwestern's coaching staff to move Ifeadi Odenigbo, who usually matches up with the left tackle, over to that side on some occasions to try and take advantage of that matchup. The Ohio native has seven sacks in the last three games and, well, let's just say he's ready to show out on Saturday:
The prodigal son is coming back to his home state to finish what he started— Ifeadi Odenigbo (@IfeadiOdenigbo) October 24, 2016
Northwestern will need to convert this pressure into turnovers to stay in the game, which it will.
2. Northwestern's newfound balance on offense will give OSU problems
We've discussed Northwestern's balanced offensive attack that's been on display for the last two-and-a-half games in detail. Justin Jackson is producing steadily as ever, but it's the development in the passing game that's been particularly encouraging. Clayton Thorson seems to have turned a corner, posting 730 yards, 9 touchdowns and only 1 interception during the three-game winning streak. He's now third in the Big Ten in yards per game, tied for second in passing touchdowns and fourth in interception rate. And then there's Austin Carr, whose progression from walk on to best receiver in the conference is the stuff of movies. Northwestern will score early to keep the crowd from becoming too big a factor, which will cause Ohio State to alter its game plan and get out of sorts. The Wildcats showed against Iowa and Michigan State that they can win shootouts on the road, and Thorson, Jackson and Carr lead Northwestern to a program-defining upset.
3. The entire state of Ohio is way too focused on the upcoming election to focus on football
Unconfirmed reports out of Columbus say Urban Meyer is so torn on who to vote for that he "hasn't slept in weeks." THIS IS AN IMPORTANT ELECTION! FOOTBALL PEOPLE TAKE POLITICS SERIOUSLY!
Why Northwestern won't beat Ohio State
1. Ohio State, woken up by last week's loss, is angry and motivated
The Buckeyes, who entered the season as a popular pick to get to the College Football Playoff, hit a huge bump in the road last week. Sometimes it takes a loss to wake up a drowsy giant, and this is exactly the effect it will have on Ohio State. Urban Meyer is one of the best coaches in the business, and he'll coach his team harder than he has all year in practice this week. Any chance of the Buckeyes overlooking this game is out the window, and Ohio State will take out its frustration from last week on Northwestern. Last year, after Ohio State lost its only game of the year to Michigan State, they pounded rival Michigan, No. 12 at the time, 42-13 at the Big House. Now, they face unranked Northwestern at the Horseshoe. This could get ugly.
2. Northwestern wasn't playing defenses like Ohio State's during the winning streak
After the first half of last week's game against Indiana, Northwestern looked to have truly figured things out on the offensive side of the ball. Including that half and the two previous contests, Northwestern had scored 116 over 10 quarters. But in the second half, play calling went conservative, the protection broke down, the run blocking wasn't as effective, and Northwestern was shut out. Ohio State's defense, which ranks 7th in the country in S&P+, will have done its due diligence and present Thorson and NU's offensive line with multiple different coverage looks and blitz packages. Plus, it doesn't hurt to have multiple former five-stars on that side of the ball. Northwestern won't be able to move the ball against Ohio State anywhere close to as easily as they have recently.
3. The sheer talent difference is too much for Northwestern to overcome
Over the past five recruiting classes—so the five classes currently at Ohio State—the Buckeyes haven't ranked outside 7th in recruiting rankings. They are bigger, faster and stronger than Northwestern is. The Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein summed it up nicely with this tweet:
I asked Fitz if he has ever beaten Ohio State on a recruit. He offered a quick and definitive: No.— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) October 24, 2016
I'm not sure if that's totally true — ESPN says Ohio State offered Odenigbo — but it goes a long way in showing you the talent difference between the two sides. There are three general scenarios in which superiorly talented teams lose to inferiorly talented ones. The first is a lack of focus; after last week's loss for Ohio State, that's not really a possibility. The second is if they're poorly coached; Urban Meyer is 56-5 at Ohio State. The third is when the underdog plays a nearly perfect game, benefits from a few turnovers and gets a lucky break or two. If Northwestern is to have a chance, the third possibility will have to become a reality.