With kickoff to Northwestern’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland just over two weeks away, it’s time to begin examining the Wildcats’ opponents during their 2022 season via the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll be breaking down the teams that NU will face each week, discussing their 2021 campaigns, season outlooks and more.
Smack dab in the middle of Northwestern’s regular western conference competition is Ohio State — a matchup that will almost always indicate an uphill battle for Fitz and co.
Returning Production: 76% (70% offense, 82% defense)
2021 Record: 11-2 (8-1 B1G)
Coach: Ryan Day
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2021 SP+ Overall: 2nd
2021 SP+ Offense: 1st
2021 SP+ Defense: 3rd
You would be hard-pressed to find many other college football teams who will find an 11-2 season disappointing. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, who experienced their first season with more than one loss since 2017, last year’s campaign did not go as planned.
Despite emerging victorious over the Golden Gophers in week one after a shaky first half actually sent the Buckeyes into the locker room down four points, Ohio State’s hopes to play for a national championship were dashed early on following a loss to PAC-12 powerhouse No. 12 Oregon in week two. Stroud put together his second-best performance of the season, throwing for 484 yards and three touchdowns, but the Ducks took advantage of an early 14-point lead and managed to pull off the upset by one score.
However, the Buckeyes bounced back and pummeled their next five opponents — Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana — scoring 272 and only giving up 64. Their next true challenge emerged with eastern foe Penn State on Halloween weekend. OSU’s secondary faced an absolute onslaught from PSU’s Sean Clifford who threw for 361 yards and one touchdown. What kept the Buckeyes in it was their stellar run defense, only allowing 62 yards on 29 attempts which eventually allowed them to pull ahead with a 33-24 victory.
A near bump in the road didn’t stop OSU from rolling over Nebraska, No. 19 Purdue and No. 7 Michigan State in its usual fashion. And then came the Wolverines. For once, it was not the Buckeyes’ year as Michigan emerged victorious 42-27 in The Game and relegated (if you can even call it that) Ryan Day’s squad to the Rose Bowl. Despite missing out on the usual CFP appearance, an exciting shootout in Pasadena afforded the Buckeyes yet another come-from-behind performance where they snatched a three-point victory and a final AP Poll ranking of sixth overall.
Where C.J. Stroud showed inexperience last year, he is predicted to make large strides in leading at the helm — on average, the redshirt-sophomore is favored at around +200 to win the Heisman ahead of Alabama’s Bryce Young and USC’s Caleb Williams. After a relatively shaky start (by Ohio State standards) in his first three performances last season, where he recorded two of his lowest completion percentages of the year and threw three of his six interceptions, Stroud improved significantly down the road and proved himself worthy of the hype (more on him below).
He also led what eventually became the best offense in the country from which six starters will return. Critically, alongside Stroud remain last year’s leading rusher TreVeyon Henderson and leading receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (also more on him below). Though the program experienced significant loss in the passing game with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson departing to the NFL, Henderson was OSU’s most prolific scorer last season and it would be ignorant to say receivers besides Smith-Njigba won’t step up on a program known for its depth.
Opening the season against an incredibly strong Notre Dame program will be revealing as to whether those losses really did hurt the Buckeyes or if they will continue to set the national standard on the offensive side of the ball.
Last year’s Buckeye defense was splotchy compared to the Chase Young era lockdown force the program grew used to. It allowed uncharacteristically high numbers of points to teams it wouldn’t have in previous years (20 points to Tulsa?) which earned them ninth place in the conference with 22.8 points allowed per game. The fault doesn’t lie necessarily on either the secondary or the defensive line — both performed below their ceiling.
The secondary allowed 21 scores through the air last year despite breakout star Ronnie Hickman’s impressive campaign at safety, and linebacker Tommy Eichenberg put up a better season than most college players hope to have in their lifetime but neither the LB core nor line could lock down the run. That being said, the Buckeyes return the most defensive production of any team in the Big Ten for 2022 and a new defensive coordinator and LB coach in Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State.
Knowles is known for building the Cowboys’ historic 2021 defense that ranked in the top five nationally in sacks, tackles for loss, and critically, rushing defense. What the Buckeyes lacked last season, they now have the tools and personnel to improve. Scary.
Three Players to Know
QB CJ Stroud
Once he hit his stride, Stroud was an absolute machine last season. Last year’s Big Ten Offensive Player, Quarterback and Freshman of the Year and now a Heisman favorite, the California native set 13 school passing records, four school total offense records and five Rose Bowl game records in his first year as a starter. The accolades on his resume could go on and on, but what you really need to know about Stroud is he captained the number one offense in the nation last season and it doesn’t look like he nor the program have plans of slowing down.
WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Stroud could not have done what he did last season without a prime receiver on the end of his passes, and that is exactly the role Jaxon Smith-Njigba played. Touted heading into 2022 as arguably the best receiver in college football, Smith-Njigba managed to pull in a team-leading 95 receptions for a conference record-breaking 1,606 yards while surrounded by two eventual first round draft picks in Wilson and Olave in 2021. It was impossible to ignore Smith-Njigba’s impact while watching OSU’s offense run last season, but he will have to continue to route defenses who will see him as their number one priority for the foreseeable future.
S Ronnie Hickman
Hickman is the kind of player who plays his best games against the toughest opponents. He notched 15 tackles against Penn State, 12 tackles against Michigan and 10 against Oregon en route to becoming the first Buckeye in six years with more than 100 tackles in a season. With improvements on their way to the D-Line and LB cores, Hickman’s ability to lock down the backfield in his second year as a starter will come in clutch to completing what will likely be a top defense in the country.