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Five things we learned from Northwestern’s loss to Ohio State

Northwestern players looked like they can compete with any team, but coaching decisions held them back.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 05 Ohio State at Northwestern Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the midst of torrential rain and howling winds. Northwestern and Ohio State battled to scrounge points across the board. Neither team was able to move the ball through the air, as the winds forced the ball to either sail or die. At the end of a four-quarter war in the trenches, the Number Two team in the country was able to escape dreary Evanston with a 21-7 win and dropped the ‘Cats to 1-8. Here are five things we learned from NU’s most recent loss in a season full of them.

Cam Mitchell can go toe-to-toe with the best in the nation

In an up-and-down season for the junior, he showed what the top of his game could look like. Mitchell had a tall task on Saturday, matching up with OSU star receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. and the Buckeyes’ top-ranked passing offense. The Bolingbrook native stepped up, breaking up three passes and only allowing 21 yards. Mitchell held the future first-rounder Harrison to his lowest yardage total of the season.

Did the weather play a factor in OSU struggles passing? Absolutely. However, Mitchell did a fantastic job playing the hip of the receiver before driving on the ball and swatting passes. He hit hard but also showed off his incredible ball skills, earning a 74.0 PFF grade. Mitchell said postgame that he views himself as a very good player, and games like Saturday back that up. NFL scouts who turn on the tape will have to take notice of No. 2 for the ‘Cats, and his draft stock should rise.

Brendan Sullivan may be the ‘Cats’ answer at quarterback

10-for-14 for 79 yards and no touchdown does not jump off the stat sheet, but it is undeniable that the sophomore makes plays that can only be described as Houdini-esque. The snap by Sullivan in the fourth quarter on a third down to escape five defenders, roll all the way back to the other side of the field, and fire a strike to Cam Porter to continue the drive was the best play the Wildcats have had all year.

There has not been one game so far where Sullivan has played poorly, and he will continue to develop. Teams are now forced to respect the QB as a running threat, allowing the running backs more room to operate. Sullivan’s made some rookie mistakes at times, but he has continually made plays when improvising — a skill that cannot be taught. He has opened up the offense and made it multi-dimensional. Sullivan has room to improve but should definitely be the starter come Week One of 2023.

It’s time to have a serious conversation about coaching

It seems like every week, NU fans are calling for a coach’s head, and it is probably justified. The Wildcats had every opportunity to pull off the upset on Saturday, yet some questionable decisions made by Pat Fitzgerald and his staff made that task nearly impossible.

Although it worked on the only Northwestern scoring drive of the game, the use of the Wildcat formation throughout the game was baffling. This is not 2008, when Tony Sparano did it with Ricky Williams in Miami; it is, 2022 and most teams know how to defend it. After the defense forced a huge turnover on downs inside Buckeye territory, Mike Bajakian called the Wildcat three times in a row, with all three going nowhere and forcing the ‘Cats to punt as the wind was too bad to kick a field goal. OSU played nine in the box, knowing that the play call was a run up the middle.

As if that drive was not bad enough, on the Wildcats’ opening drive of the second half, they ran the Wildcat seven out of eight plays. On six of those snaps, Brendan Sullivan was not even on the field. There is no threat of a passing game if your quarterback is standing on the sideline, allowing Ohio State to play downhill and stuff the run easily. Surprising to nobody, OSU stopped NU on the ‘Cats’ side of the field on a fourth down and punched it in to go up 14-7. Sitting in the press box, it was assumed that there was some version of a pass or trick play off of the Wildcat, but the closest thing was a jet sweep to Malik Washington that got blown up in the backfield. It was truly dumbfounding to watch, and it falls on the playcaller’s shoulders.

This team has yet to play complementary football, as one side of the ball always seems to struggle. It is on coaching to get it done, and so far neither coordinator has shown that they can put their guys in a position to succeed week in and week out. I firmly believe that there are few coaches in the nation who can do what Fitzgerald has done at NU, but he is loyal to a fault. His seat is warm, but he deserves a chance to right the ship; however, he needs to take a hard look at his staff in January if he wants to turn this program around.

Northwestern needs to set the edge

While the interior defensive line did a fantastic job clogging up the middle, the ‘Cats struggled to keep the Buckeyes inside the box. Although it got called back for holding, OSU gashed Northwestern to the outside from the very first play of the game. NU was unable to contain C.J. Stroud, as the future top-five pick broke off multiple long runs, including a 44- yarder that all but ended the game.

Looking ahead, NU needs to get either faster on the edge so it can play sideline-to-sideline, or have its D-line close really hard inside. If not, teams will continue to run jet sweeps, stretch and QB keepers until the Wildcats prove they can stop it.

Mother Nature may be Northwestern’s best defender

In the two games where the weather has been a massive factor, Northwestern’s defense has looked like one of the best in the nation. In Happy Valley, the ‘Cats forced five turnovers and held No. 11 Penn State to just 17 points. In even worse conditions on Saturday, NU limited Stroud to both career lows in passing yards and completion percentage.

That is a massive turnaround for a team that just gave up 33 points to a Spencer Petras-led Iowa team. If Northwestern plays three more rain games, Jim O’Neil’s job may be a little safer.