clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Northwestern vs. Ohio State preview: Three questions for the Wildcats' defense


Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

(If you missed it, here's the same story about how Northwestern's offense shapes up against Ohio State's defense.)

I am so very very very very scared for when Ohio State has the ball against the Northwestern Wildcats.

I think this is a game. I think there's a distinct chance that Northwestern beats Ohio State. And Northwestern's defense deserves a lot of credit: they legitimately outperformed Northwestern's offense last year, which got a lot of hype for having dynamic playmakers, and are responsible for providing the 14-point margin of victory in two separate games this year with a pair of two-touchdown games.

But while Northwestern's defense at its best has seemed capable of making a difference, at times, Northwestern's defense at its worst has gotten shredded effortlessly. And man, Ohio State is so stacked top to bottom with speed and talent. Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall could both be better running backs than anybody else Northwestern plays this year, and I'm not even particularly scared about what the Buckeyes do on the ground in comparison to what Braxton Miller might do.

So, suffice it to say, I've got a bit of trepidation. But I still think this is a game. When asked to participate in LGHL's preview (WHICH YOU SHOULD READ), I said that one of the keys for Northwestern is turnovers, something Northwestern has been able to get in droves over the past two years: 29:15 ratio last year, 11:7 with 10 interceptions this year. If Northwestern can get a few turnovers in a shootout, it's huge. That's Northwestern's guide to victory.

But just saying YO GET TURNOVERS is tough, since a lot of the time -- especially in the first few games -- they're haphazard. What can Northwestern do besides banking on luck to win Saturday? Some questions:

1. Can Tyler Scott (and, you know, those other highly touted DE's) make a difference?

I think Northwestern's biggest strength this year, defensively, is its pass-rush. Tyler Scott's an all-conference guy, Dean Lowry's a beast as well, and when they come in, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson have shown great instincts to get to the quarterback. Whether they've actually gotten there or just gotten a hand up to make a pass difficult, these guys have been strong.

Incidentally, a rare weakness in Braxton Miller's game is his decision-making when things start to go wrong. He's been sacked, as Bill Connelly wrote, over 30 times since the beginning of last year with a bit over 300 passing attempts. That's a really high percentage. For all his athleticism and his incredible arm, he hasn't really figured out how to segue from looking downfield into not getting tackled by the big guys running at him.

Northwestern has to get to Braxton Miller on several occasions Saturday. If he has time to make decisions, he will destroy Northwestern. The Wildcats have to force him into throws faster than he wants, or get him to go down with the ball.

And we talked about turnovers being luck, but these DE's can cause them. Tip balls. Strip on sacks. Ending Ohio State's drives early via turnovers from the front four and sacks putting the Buckeyes in X-and-long scenarios could be huge for a defense that likely won't force a lot of routine three-and-outs.

2. Protect Dwight White

Week-to-week, there's no matchup that concerns me more than Dwight White (or, if Northwestern decides to make a depth chart change, which they haven't yet) Matthew Harris vs. the opposition's defense. It has ended poorly on many occasions since Daniel Jones' injury in the season-opener, and opposing coaches seem to notice it right off the bat. Since Northwestern lines up cornerbacks by side, opposing teams can put their best WR against White, and the freshman has been forced to play back and give receivers lots of short yardage or play up and give up bombs.

Ohio State has several receivers who can hurt Northwestern just based on speed and talent alone -- Devin Smith, Corey "Philly" Brown, Dontre Wilson, although he's maybe more dangerous as a runner -- and Braxton Miller has a good enough arm to punish defenders for momentary bad decisions. Did you see that pass MountainTiger highlighted, a brilliant 40-yard strike delivered at the exact instant a defender chooses to cover another player? How is that not incredibly terrifying?

No schemes can create a better cornerback than White out of the middle of nowhere. But NU can do its best to hide him. Instead of putting Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern's most talented safety and also a guy who has become somewhat of a menace picking the ball as a centerfield-type, alongside VanHoose, who occasionally holds his own, I think he should be on White's side of the ball as often as possible, as opposed to Traveon Henry and Jimmy Hall, who are less experienced and seem to be better at playing closer to the line of scrimmage and therefore less helpful at covering up for White's weaknesses. (Then again, Campbell does have all those picks, so maybe Northwestern knows how to scheme for him.)

3. Cover play-action effectively

Northwestern's been ineffective at two things, and the fact that they've been ineffective at each of them somehow makes them less effective at the other. Without a strong presence at defensive tackle, Northwestern hasn't done much stopping runs up the gut. And since that threat is so worrisome, Northwestern has to really bite on play action plays, and that llows opposing quarterbacks to do damage.

This is a problem, since Ohio State has two good running backs in Hyde and Hall, and has also shown the ability to run play action extremely effectively. As noted: that play MountainTiger highlighted. Ahhhh. AHHHHHHHH.

This might be the thing that dooms Northwestern. If they sell out too hard to stop the rush, Northwestern's secondary could be screwed. If they drop everybody back, Ohio State's running backs could pick up seven yards a play. Ohio State is talented enough that any time they have a play where their athlete is pitted one-on-one against Northwestern's athlete, whether those are matchups of defensive backs against wide receivers or linebackers against running backs. they're probably expected to win.

As such, Ohio State's play action is asking Northwestern to pick its poison. I think the poison I would choose would be Ohio State's run game: Northwestern should do everything they can to prevent big plays through the air while hoping linebackers Damien Proby, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Collin Ellis, and Drew Smith are sound enough to make plays on running backs before huge chunks of damage are done. The absence of Sean McEvilly, Northwestern's most talented defensive tackle, is a big one here, since it robs NU of push up front.

But this is a tough cookie to crack, and it might be the one that cracks the Wildcats.

tl;dr Northwestern could be in trouble and stuff

More from Sippin' On Purple: