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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Ohio State

This’ll be fun...

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

After two consecutive games on the road, the ‘Cats will play at Ryan Field for the first time since Oct. 8. Unfortunately, any sort of goodwill or hope that may have existed before that matchup with Wisconsin has now completely evaporated. Ohio State is rolling as usual: 8-0, second-highest scoring team in the nation, and the No. 2 team in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the year. The Buckeyes have national title aspirations; the Wildcats are just trying to finish the season with multiple wins. To be blunt, there probably isn't even one reason that the ‘Cats should win. But because this is an Inside NU tradition, here’s three reasons Northwestern will beat Ohio State and three reasons it won’t.

Why Northwestern will beat Ohio State

Evan Hull

Hull definitely isn't as consistent as he was to start the year, when he had four straight games over 60 yards rushing. However, he's still the best skill player on this Wildcats team by far and is the main man for both rushing and receiving. The rushing yardage doesn’t tell the full story with Hull: he’s also gone over 30 receiving yards in every game but two, a massive achievement considering Northwestern’s passing attack is barely middle-of-the-road, currently sitting at 59th in the nation. Hull will also surely receive a lot of touches Saturday; he’s gone below 15 touches in a game just twice (Wisconsin and Penn State) and had more than 30 touches twice.

Ohio State had its struggles last year with dynamic running backs. While the crushing defeat was mostly Hassan Haskins running rampant, the Buckeyes also struggled against Minnesota thanks to Mohamed Ibrahim’s 163 rushing yards. OSU then lost a week later to Oregon and C.J. Verdell’s 161 rushing yards. If Hull gets about 25 touches and is able to take them for about five yards a pop, Northwestern could stay in the game.

Ohio State getting complacent

Go ahead and laugh now, I’m fully aware of how good the Buckeyes are (we’ll get to that in a bit). However, they’ve had a penchant of starting pretty slow recently. Their game against Iowa was 16-10 well into the second quarter, and C.J. Stroud took a while to get going. Against Penn State, the Buckeyes were actually losing in the fourth quarter before Stroud and TreVeyon Henderson woke up and began making big plays.

Admittedly, Northwestern isn’t in the same galaxy as those two teams, but that’s even more reason for the Buckeyes to overlook them. Much like last year, it feels like Ohio State is just showing up and will save their energy for the one game a year that actually matters: Michigan. If they look past the ‘Cats and start really slowly, Northwestern could take advantage.

The crowd, I guess

This weekend is Parents and Family Weekend in Evanston, and there will be a lot of people in town. Perhaps some of them will be able to make it down to Ryan Field for the game and fill a stadium that was half empty the last time the Wildcats were on it. If the crowd makes a mark on the game, maybe they could inspire Northwestern to play with heart and pull off the upset of the century. (And maybe they’ll solve world hunger while they’re at it.)

Why Northwestern won’t beat Ohio State

CJ.. Stroud

You already knew where this was going. Stroud has been top-two in Heisman betting since last season ended, and he’s somehow lived up to the hype. He recently lost Heisman favorite status to Hendon Hooker but is still far and away the best player outside of the Volunteer State. He leads the FBS in passing efficiency and is tied for the lead in touchdowns; he's second in yards per attempt, third in yards per completion, tied for third in points responsible for and eighth in completion percentage. All credit to Hooker and Alabama’s Bryce Young, but I believe Stroud is the best quarterback in college football.

He’s also going up against one of the worst passing defenses in college football. The ‘Cats are simply atrocious when it comes to stopping the other team, especially against high-end talent like Stroud. Northwestern “boasts” the 83rd-ranked scoring defense, 110th third-down defense, and has given up 176 first downs already this year. Perhaps the biggest indictment of this defense: it made Iowa’s Spencer Petras (the 118th best quarterback in the nation by passing efficiency) look competent and borderline good. If the ‘Cats let a guy clinging to his job tear them up, imagine what they’ll let a Heisman candidate do.

The Buckeye defense

Unfortunately, the Buckeyes aren’t one-dimensional — their defense is top 10 in basically every stat that matters, on par with the Iowa defense that the Wildcats were stuck in the mud against for most of last Saturday. Ohio State is sixth in total defense and is allowing opponents to convert just 26.4% of their third-down opportunities. Coincidentally, Northwestern has been very bad on offense (tied for 90th in total offense) and very stoppable on third downs, converting just 48 of its 128 attempts. The Penn State game last week was the first time the Buckeyes allowed over 21 points in a game, and they’re going up against a team that has crossed that plateau just once in its last five games.

Basically everything else that matters in a football game

Of all the possible categories you could think of that could determine a football game — special teams, turnover margin, third down success, fourth down success — Ohio State beats Northwestern in all but one of those categories. That one category in which the ‘Cats have a leg up on the Buckeyes is penalties. Yeah... It’s that bad.

Northwestern has allowed 69 more first downs than Ohio State and picked up 32 fewer. Ohio State is averaging just 7.3 yards per punt return; Northwestern is averaging just four. The Buckeyes’ turnover margin is +9, the ‘Cats’ is -9. Iowa was the best remaining shot to pull off a win, and NU lost by 20. Now, Pat Fitzgerald & Co. have to deal with a team that is top 10 in the country in almost everything football. Hopefully they’ll at least win the penalty battle.