The Wildcats face their toughest task of the season Saturday as they go against the No. 4-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. This season, the perennial powerhouse centers around quarterback Justin Fields, a former five-star recruit-turned Heisman Trophy runner-up and one of, if not the, most dynamic players in all of college football. He is 18-1 in his time at Ohio State and has proven himself to be one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks of recent memory.
So how does a defensive unit stop one of the top players in the nation? Well, stopping him altogether is near impossible, but a team can certainly slow him down.
Where Fields excels
Fields has the privilege of throwing to two of the best receivers in the conference in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. The pair have combined for 70 receptions, 1100 yards and 10 touchdowns. Fields almost exclusively throws to these two and challenges secondaries when they leave either of them in a one-on-one matchup. This results in a high number of over-the-top deep balls where Fields knows a receiver with an impressive vertical like Wilson has a high catch probability.
When neither of the two-star wideouts is open, Fields is able to scramble in the pocket and buy himself more time. His running ability is what makes him so difficult to prepare for. If a team blitzes him, he can easily escape the pocket and use the open space in the middle of the field to pick up large chunks of yards.
Take this play against Indiana as an example. Fields is blitzed yet still avoids the rush to scamper for a nine-yard score.
With an unblocked defensive tackle right in his face, Fields is able to roll outside the pocket, outrun three defenders and use his athleticism to leap over the goal line. His ability to improvise is a reason why the Buckeyes have the Big Ten’s top rushing offense along with one of the best aerial attacks.
Where Fields has slipped up
For Fields, mistakes come few and far between. He has a 10-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his college career and just two multi-interception games. When looking at the six times he has turned the ball over, there is a clear pattern in when he is beaten.
Fields can be lured into making a poor decision from ball-hawking safeties. Look at this play from the 2019 Fiesta Bowl as an example. Fields drops back and believes he has Binjimen Victor open down the sideline. Instead, the safety Isaiah Simmons is in position to swoop into coverage and intercept the throw with Fields never seeing him in coverage.
Where Fields has found trouble is throwing on the run. When scrambling, the junior has a tendency to try to create something that might not be there, which has led to turnovers. But with his mobility and skill, it’s somewhat understandable.
In the game against Indiana earlier in the year, Fields struggled the most he has all season. All three of his interceptions this season came against the Hoosiers with two of them resulting from poor decision making. In this play, the Georgia transfer struggles to escape from a closing pocket and rather than taking the sack, he lofts a ball to a tightly-covered Olave and is picked off.
Getting Fields to throw on the run rather than take off and run is how to exploit him. He will pick apart a defense when given time in the pocket, but when he drifts away he is vulnerable.
How Northwestern can overtake Fields
Again, there is no stopping Fields, but a unit as strong as Northwestern might be able to slow him down. The ‘Cats will be the strongest defense Fields has faced this season.
The main focus for the ‘Cats should be forcing Ohio State to beat them with weapons other than Olave and Wilson. The third-leading receiver for the Buckeyes, Jameson Williams, has a mere 78 yards this year. Ohio State has not found a reliable third option in the passing attack, so forcing Fields to pass to other targets could slow down the high-powered offense.
Additionally, Northwestern should focus on minimizing one-on-ones with Olave and Wilson and always having two safeties over the top in passing situations. The ‘Cats will most likely need this game to be a low-scoring affair to come out with a win and that begins with stopping big plays through the air.
When Fields looks to throw deep, NU needs to make sure that a safety is in the area and ready to rush into coverage. Brandon Joseph has excelled in this department all season, which makes him a prime candidate to force a rare Fields turnover.
To counter Fields’ ability to create for himself and scramble, Northwestern should highly consider deploying a spy on Fields for the majority of the game. Having the likes of Paddy Fisher or Blake Gallagher to follow Fields in the pocket will minimize his beating Northwestern with his legs, where we’ve already seen multiple quarterbacks find success against NU this season.
While they went down in defeat and still allowed 42 points, the Hoosiers have done the best job of any team this season containing Fields, forcing the three interceptions. Too many times, he was looking to be a hero and it ended up in the other team’s hands. Northwestern can at least try to emulate Indiana’s successes.