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Five key takeaways from Northwestern’s depressingly unsurprising loss to Ohio State

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The Wildcats made a bad loss slightly worse than expected. But what does that mean about the team going forwards?

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Oof. That’s probably not how NU fans thought the Big Ten Championship rematch would go back in August. But after weeks of disappointing play, last night’s 52-3 blowout felt less like a shock and more like an inevitable outcome Here are five things to take away from the ‘Cats’ disheartening 49-point Friday night defeat:

Northwestern’s Defense is Not Elite, Only Good

It’s true that Paddy Fisher and Co. have done an admirable job in mitigating the train wreck happening on the other side of the ball. However, we should probably relent from calling them one of the best units in the country at this point. Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s “bend but don’t break” strategy dis wonders against the Wisconsins and Nebraskas of the world, but was easily exposed by Ohio State last night.

The Wildcat defensive backs, as expected, gave the Buckeye receivers a large cushion all night, and Ohio State responded by running countless comeback routes, curls and hitches, pounding out drives rather than going for home runs.

When they face teams whose athletes are at a similar level to their own, the cushion the DBs give off the line of scrimmage can force opposing quarterbacks to dink and dunk to receivers that can’t take advantage of open space. Northwestern’s athletes are not comparable to those of Ohio State, though, and boy oh boy does OSU get out of those open-field tackles. This defense is still very good, but we shouldn’t talk about them on the same level as the truly elite groups nationwide anymore.

At Least Aidan Smith Can Run

Yes, this is a backhanded complement. Would you rather I talk about the Mick McCall-led passing offense that enabled 2.1 yards per attempt? Smith is struggling as much if not more than Johnson was with throwing the ball, but at least he’s providing yards elsewhere.

He finished with 11 carries for 33 yards, but if we remove the nine-yard sack by Chase Young, suddenly Smith bumps up to a more telling 42 rush yards on 10 carries. His ground game passed my eye test too, as he was able to run with power when needed and even made Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade slip when trying to tackle him. He still struggled mightily last night, but at least there’s something to work with in one aspect.

The Superback Position is Officially Dead for 2019

I pointed out all week how the one offense that succeeded against Ohio State this year was Florida Atlantic, who used their tight ends like their lives depended on it. Go find any Ohio State Twitter thread or Podcast and you’ll find that middle linebacker Tuf Borland is considered the one glaring weakness of the Buckeyes, particularly when forced to cover tight ends.

I realize the position title is different, but the superback, for all intents and purposes, is a glorified tight end. And how did Mick McCall decide to utilize Northwestern Superback Charlie Mangieri in this game? By targeting him exactly one time, on a throwback screen that was easily sniffed out by the Buckeyes’ front four, not allowing him to add on to his measly three receptions this season.

If it wasn’t already clear, it seems that the superback position is now completely irrelevant to the 2019 Wildcats, and they’re going to continue playing offense without any version of a tight end.

It’s More About Ohio State Than Northwestern

No one should feel too much worse about Northwestern’s football team after last night. It’s pretty clear that at this point, Ohio State is just that good.

Honestly, I thought the Wildcats actually showed some encouraging signs. Linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher did a great job tackling JK Dobbins on outside runs before he hit the gap, and Northwestern somehow opened up some holes for Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser to run through against a star-studded defensive front. Northwestern’s 157 rushing yards were the most Ohio State has given up all season by a 50-yard margin!

Northwestern and Nebraska proved to be of equal caliber two weeks ago. What did Ohio State do to the Cornhuskers? They traveled into Lincoln for a highly anticipated night game and blew them out 48-7. Don’t let that slight difference in score fool you, the beatdown was just as bad if not worse, as the Buckeyes led 48-0 near the end of the third quarter in that one before flat out coasting through the fourth. Ohio State is good enough to make any team look bad. It just happened to be Northwestern this time.

Don’t Give Up Just Yet

Yes, it seems bleak right now, but a bowl game appearance is still very achievable. I remember going through Northwestern’s schedule prior to the season, predicting that they would be 2-4 by this point, only to finish on a six game win streak.

Michigan State was bound to end its losing streak against the ‘Cats, the Nebraska game was basically a tie that ended with a 13-10 score and there is nothing wrong with losing to teams like Ohio State and Wisconsin. Surprisingly, the only loss that truly serves as an indictment against the team was the opener at Stanford, who has fallen off a cliff since.

The final stretch includes: Iowa, @ Indiana, Purdue, Massachusetts, Minnesota and @ Illinois. While I wouldn’t predict a 6-0 second half for the Wildcats at this point in time, it’s certainly possible. Indiana is hot but completely unproven. Purdue has tons of injuries. Massachusetts is self-explanatory. Minnesota might be the worst and most confusing undefeated Power Five team ever. Illinois is Illinois.

Everything hinges on Iowa next week. The Hawkeyes are basically a worse version of Wisconsin. They have a limited, run-oriented offense supported by a smothering defense, and the quarterback can be the team’s own worst enemy at times. Northwestern needs to turn the corner and upset Iowa on Homecoming this Saturday. It could possibly propel them on another late-season tear. Lose on Saturday, though, and it might just be time to give up. Let’s hope for that first scenario.