Following a heartbreaking loss in Lincoln and a much-needed bye week, the Wildcats return home to face a daunting opponent in No. 3 Ohio State. NU will be a heavy underdog in Vegas, but if the ‘Cats can limit the big play potential of Justin Fields and control the game’s pace, they might just be able to pull off the upset of a lifetime. Here are the battles you should keep an eye on for Friday’s under the lights showdown at Ryan Field:
Chase Young vs. Northwestern’s offensive line
Before looking over Chase Young’s stats, let’s first examine his physicals. The junior stands at six feet five inches tall, weighs in at 265 pounds and has one of the fastest get-offs in college football, making him a matchup nightmare for just about any team. The edge rusher has lived in the opponent’s backfield this season, recording eight and a half sacks and nine and a half tackles for loss.
Opposite Young, Northwestern’s offensive line has allowed 12 sacks this year, averaging out to about two and a half per game. However, the o-line does have some hope with star left tackle Rashawn Slater potentially due back from injury. Regardless, they will face an extremely difficult task in hoping to contain Young, one of the best pass rushers in the country, and may choose to double-team the big man to prevent him from running amok in the Wildcat backfield.
Northwestern’s quarterbacks vs. Ohio State’s secondary
Let’s face it, the Hunter Johnson experience has been a disappointment thus far. The highly-touted recruit has thrown just one touchdown in five games, hardly looking like the five-star Northwestern fans expected. Meanwhile, backup Aidan Smith looked somewhat impressive in his first career start vs. Nebraska, throwing for 136 yards on 19 completions and rushing for 64 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries.
But he has put up nearly identical passing stats vis-a-vis Johnson across the whole of 2019, with each racking up just a single touchdown to go with four interceptions and hovering near a 50 percent completion rate. Regardless, I would expect to see some sort of two QB system vs. Ohio State, though it might not matter who sees the lion’s share of the playing time.
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State’s secondary has been elite. The Buckeyes have recorded eight interceptions over six games, with junior DB Jeff Okudah leading the team with three. The group has held opposing teams to a mere 152 passing yards per game, while only giving up three touchdowns on the year through the air.
To put it simply, this matchup doesn’t bode well for Northwestern. The offense slowed to a halt vs. Wisconsin, and, to be honest, has done so to some degree against every single opponent this season, partially due to poor quarterback play. Both Hunter Johnson and Aidan Smith will have to be on top of their game (we’ve yet to see exactly what that looks like) for Northwestern to have any chance in this contest.
Justin Fields vs. Northwestern’s linebackers
The Northwestern defense has once again been a bright spot this year, and the ‘Cats’ linebacker corps has led the way. After a somewhat slow start to the season, Chris Bergin, Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher have now racked up 38, 37 and 33 tackles, respectively (only Travis Whillock leads them, with 44). On top of that, Fisher recorded the only interception of Northwestern’s season vs. UNLV.
Meanwhile, Justin Fields has not only looked like a favorite for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, but a clear contender for the Heisman Trophy. Fields has thrown for 18 touchdowns and only one interception so far this season. Additionally, the sophomore has scampered for 283 yards and eight touchdowns. Given NU’s struggles with mobile quarterbacks in recent seasons, Fields’ two-way capabilities make him especially dangerous.
It’s very clear that Northwestern’s linebackers, along with the rest of their defense, will have their hands full on Friday. The threat of his legs means we will most likely see either Fisher or Gallagher spying him throughout the game, while the other drops back into coverage, though defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz surprisingly opted to only rarely use a spy against a pretty mobile QB in Adrian Martinez a week ago.
Fields has seemed unstoppable this season, so perhaps the best method of attack will be to turn him into a pocket passer. The Wildcats’ linebackers, with some help from the four guys in front of them, have excelled recently with open-field tackling, but when the runner has a full head of steam, things change. Northwestern simply cannot afford to have Fields burn them, especially on the ground.