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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 8: Ohio State

The 2018 Big Ten Championship rematch isn’t going to be any easier for the Wildcats this time around.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The final installment of our 2019 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.

Arguably the most highly-anticipated matchup of the upcoming season is the Wildcats’ Friday night tilt with Ohio State. Coming off of a bye and a really difficult stretch of schedule, NU will go under the lights for a rematch of their 2018 Big Ten Championship defeat against one of the best squads in the conference.

The Basics

Returning production: 63 Percent (Offense 42 percent, Defense 85 Percent)

2018 Record: 13-1 (8-1 Big Ten)

Coach: Ryan Day (1st Season)

The Stats

2018 S&P+ Overall: 6th

2018 S&P+ Offense: 4th

2018 S&P+ Defense: 26th

2019 S&P+ Projection (Feb. 11): 7th

2018 Capsule

In Urban Meyer’s last year in Columbus, the Buckeyes did what the Buckeyes normally do, thrashing their rivals and cruising to a berth in the Big Ten Championship. They lost one game through the entirety of the season, which is an extremely impressive feat for 99 percent of football programs. However, there was always something off about this Ohio State team. There were times when they wouldn’t put opposing teams away, and then there was the Purdue game: where a 49-20 blowout eventually cost the Buckeyes a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Last year’s Buckeye team wasn’t built like past years. There weren’t a lot of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball partially due to their best player Nick Bosa missing 11-of-14 games. The offense, customarily composed of top athletes around the board, was led by a talented, yet athletically limited pocket quarterback - and boy did they lean on him. Haskins broke Big Ten records across the board last year, earning him a spot as one of the top quarterbacks selected in the 2019 NFL Draft. This year, they can’t lean as heavily on the elite arm of Haskins, but there are plenty of reasons to assume they won’t necessarily have to.

Offensive Overview

Justin Fields is no joke. Losing Dwayne Haskins and immediately replacing him with Fields could be the quickest retool of all time. While Fields doesn’t boast the arm power or even accuracy of Haskins, he was the second-ranked prospect in the 2018 recruiting class for a reason. Fields has something that Haskins never had — top-level speed. Fields ran a sub-4.4 40-yard dash during spring training at Ohio State. He can make plays with his legs along with his arm, and I didn’t even mention his linebacker build at 6-foot-3 and 223 pounds.

Defensive Overview

For a defensive unit that is used to developing some of the best defensive backs on the professional level, last year’s Ohio State was unusually soft on that side of the ball. The Buckeyes found themselves in far more shootouts last year than most would have expected.

Unfortunately for Northwestern and the rest of the Big Ten, a team that loses most of their stars to the pros has 85 percent of their defense returning next year. That bodes well for their development as a unit and fielding a group with a breadth of experience. That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the Big Ten who will face an Ohio State defense that will likely be better than last years.

Three Players to Know

RB J.K. Dobbins

The junior running back has found himself on another preseason watch list. The Buckeyes’ 1,000-yard rusher is being viewed as one of the favorites to win the Doak Walker Award and for a good reason. He is an electric runner and the reason that Ohio State pulled out some of those games that they did last year. He hasn’t been as potent in the receiving game as other top running backs in the nation, but with a new offensive line and a mobile quarterback, there’s no reason to think that Dobbins won’t be able to continue his dominance into next season.

QB Justin Fields

In Fields’ 12-game sample size with Georgia last season, he threw for 69 percent on just 39 attempts and averaged over 6 yards per rush. As stated at the beginning of the article, Fields has all the tools to be an extreme success for Ryan Day’s group next year. With no real playing experience, Fields still tops preseason watchlists in the Heisman consideration and dominates the conversation for the top spot among Big Ten quarterbacks. In other words, he’s really freaking good.

DE Chase Young

What do you know, another top 5 pick coming from the Ohio State front seven. At least this time, he isn’t related to a Bosa. Edge rusher Chase Young is as big as he is talented. Standing in at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, one of the best in the nation possesses the combination of size and explosiveness that you see dominate the game at the collegiate level. In 22 games as a Buckeye, Young posted 12 sacks and 51 tackles. He is a force, to say the least, and has been honored as such. He was awarded an All-Big Ten selection last season and has certainly deserved all the hype following him. He’s an absolute stud and will be at the top draft boards all of next season.