Rinse and repeat. Somehow, a nightmarish season for the ‘Cats hit a new nadir after Saturday’s loss to Iowa. Unfortunately for Northwestern (1-7, 1-4 B1G), the schedule doesn’t lighten up as No. 2 Ohio State (8-0, 5-0 B1G) comes to Ryan Field. After knocking off Penn State 44-31 last week, Ohio State’s playoff chances remain strong. If the Wildcats want any chance of upsetting this juggernaut Buckeye squad, they’ll have to play 60 minutes of flawless football. These are some of the key matchups to keep an eye on this upcoming Saturday.
Ohio State’s pass-catchers vs. Northwestern’s secondary
Last season’s Rose Bowl hero, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who many expected to be in the running for the Biletnikoff Award, has battled injuries all season and may make his return for the Buckeyes this weekend. Even if “JSN” isn’t able to go, the Northwestern defense will have its hands full trying to stop Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr.
Egbuka has hauled in 788 yards and eight total touchdowns in his breakout season. Harrison, the son of Colts Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison, has enjoyed a similar breakout campaign, totaling 783 yards and ten scores. Harrison, a sophomore, is already drawing NFL buzz, with many scouts crowning him as the early favorite to be the first receiver off the board in the 2024 NFL Draft. Last week, he helped propel the Buckeyes to a crucial win with 10 catches for 185 yards. This receiver room, coached by former NFL WR Brian Hartline, is no joke.
Meanwhile, the ‘Cats received a boost in the back end with the recent return of A.J. Hampton Jr., but the unit remains depleted without junior safeties Coco Azema and Jaheem Joseph. Last week, Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras enjoyed his best game of the season against the Wildcat secondary. Northwestern needs to right the ship to contain the explosive Ohio State passing offense.
Peter Skoronski vs. J.T. Tuimoloau
The pride and joy of the Wildcats, and one of the few silver linings from this season, has been the stellar play of offensive tackle Peter Skoronski. The Park Ridge product has been an anchor for Northwestern’s offensive line and a wall against opposing edge rushers throughout his time in Evanston. There is compelling evidence to prove Skoronski has been the best offensive lineman in the nation. While he’s trending toward being an early first-round pick in April, Saturday will be a crucial test: Ohio State provides the steepest competition Skoronski will line up against in his college career.
Enter J.T. Tuimoloau.
The former five-star recruit and ESPN’s No. 4 overall prospect from the 2021 recruiting class burst onto the national scene against Penn State last weekend, recording this video game stat line that is basically the football equivalent of hitting for the cycle: six tackles (including three for a loss), two sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one tipped pass (that led to an interception), two interceptions and one touchdown.
When LeBron James tweets about you, it’s probably a sign that you’ve done something pretty special. Tuimoloau will cause havoc for Ohio State on Saturday and ensure Skoronski has no room for error. The difficulty of playing Ohio State is that even if Northwestern decides to dedicate extra help to blocking Tuimoloau, the Buckeyes have an arsenal of highly decorated defensive linemen (including former five-star Zach Harrison) that can take advantage of one-on-one matchups to make Brendan Sullivan squirm in the pocket.
Bonus Matchup: Let’s stay in the trenches, but flip to the other side of the ball. Northwestern’s Adetomiwa Adebawore and Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. are also both future NFL players who will be lining up across from one another this weekend. Keep an eye on this one.
C.J. Stroud vs. College Football’s Elite
Let’s be realistic for a moment. There is a reason Ohio State is favored by 38.5 points. This game may very well be out of hand by the second half, maybe even the second quarter. For fans interested in tight competition, pivoting their attention to the Heisman Trophy race may be the best call.
Stroud is in the thick of the battle for college football’s most prestigious award. and Saturday’s matchup at Ryan Field provides the gunslinger ample opportunity to bolster his stats and make a push. Currently, Stroud is in the top tier of contenders for the honor. Per oddsmakers, after a massive win against Kentucky, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker has surpassed Stroud as the frontrunner. With a big performance, Stroud could retake the lead and become the first Big Ten Heisman winner since Troy Smith in 2006.