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Taming of the Wildcats: Scouting Northwestern football

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Northwestern then-redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) throws a pass in the first half of a game against Stanford at Ryan Field on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015 in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern won 16-6. Courtesy of TNS

Northwestern then-redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) throws a pass in the first half of a game against Stanford at Ryan Field on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015 in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern won 16-6. Courtesy of TNS

The Ohio State football team walked into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Sunday to dissect film on its last game — but it wasn’t business as usual. The Buckeyes had their first post-defeat film session of the 2016 season, after dropping a 24-21 contest at Penn State.

A couple of late blunders by the special teams allowed the Nittany Lions to topple then-No. 2 OSU, but it was a culmination of big plays allowed and a lack of cohesiveness on the offensive side of the ball. Meyer said after the game that his team  was not “a very good team, right now.” As they move on to Northwestern on Saturday, the Buckeyes hope that the first home game in three weeks will rid the errors that plagued them in Happy Valley.

“It’s not business as usual,” Meyer said. “If you lose a game, you accept it. That’s the message to our players. We work so hard so that doesn’t happen. It happened; move on. Get ready for a very good team coming in here.”

The Northwestern Wildcats (4-3, 3-1 Big Ten), started the season at 1-3, but have won their last three games, including victories over Iowa and Michigan State. Wildcats’ coach Pat Fitzgerald has his team playing its best football coming into a matchup with a No. 6 OSU team fresh off of a loss.

Offense

The Wildcat attack begins and ends with junior running back Justin Jackson. He leads the Big Ten with the most carries (171), the most rushing yards (792) and rushing yards per game (113.1). He also ranks fifth in the conference in rushing touchdowns (6).

Last week, OSU faced one of the conference’s top backs in Saquon Barkley, who ran well against the Buckeye defense. Barkley gained 99 yards on 12 carries (8.25 yard average), with two rushes more than 20 yards. Jackson provides the OSU defense with similar challenges, however he doesn’t have the size Barkley has. Standing at 5-foot-11, and weighing 193 pounds, Jackson is coming to Columbus having gained 453 yards on 88 carries and having scored three touchdowns in his past three games.

“They got a great running back,” said junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan. “I think he leads the Big Ten in rushing yards. (He was) second last year to (Ezekiel Elliott) in the All-Big Ten.”

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson is in his second season as the starter for Fitzgerald and has shown significant improvement.

Thorson has completed just 57.9 percent of his passes, but has thrown for 1,686 yards and 14 touchdowns, while running for three more scores. Like Jackson, Thorson is coming into Ohio Stadium playing his best football. He has thrown for three touchdowns in each of the past three games, which is a reason why Meyer said Northwestern is a thriving team.

“That’s as improved a team as I’ve ever seen from beginning to now,” he said. “Three big wins, two on the road — Defining wins.”

Redshirt defensive end Tyquan Lewis said on Monday that there’s a feeling inside the locker room, at least for the defense, that the team is ready to prove itself again on the field. Having the last game stand as an “L” on OSU’s schedule doesn’t sit well with Lewis or the team.

“I feel more anxious to get out there,” Lewis said. “It’s not that big of a thing to me, to go to work. It’s more so getting over the feeling.”

Defense

The production of the passing game has been lacking during the past three weeks when compared with earlier games in the season. Against Northwestern, OSU redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett might be going up against the perfect defense to assert himself through the air.

The Wildcats rank dead last in the Big Ten — and 111th in the NCAA — in passing defense, allowing 282.4 passing yards per game. As a whole, the defense averages 414.1 yards allowed per game, ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten.

To make things worse, just this week, four-year starter senior cornerback Matthew Harris retired due to concussions. He has been out since suffering a concussion in Week 2.

However, a big reason Northwestern is respectable against the run is because of redshirt senior defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo. The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Circleville, Ohio, native has been terrorizing quarterbacks all season. He leads the Big Ten and ranks third in the NCAA with eight total sacks.

Coming off of a game where the OSU offensive line allowed 11 tackles for loss and six sacks, this week may be just as tough as a task to give Barrett ample time to pass and create holes for redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber and junior H-back Curtis Samuel.

There’s not a question of ability within our team at all,” said redshirt junior guard Billy Price. “We got very talented guys in our room. You got to focus in on what we have and continue to develop and execute higher.”

Breakdown

Coach Meyer and the Buckeyes hope to answer several questions that arose from the loss to now-No. 24 Penn State. The past two seasons, OSU has had great success following a loss, especially on offense. Against Northwestern on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at the ‘Shoe, the Buckeyes should be able to re-establish their offense as one of the most potent in the conference.

Last week, Samuel failed to get a touch in the first quarter and only ran the ball twice in the game. This week, there should be a higher emphasis on getting the ball to the team’s No. 1 playmaker.

On the defensive side of the ball, the amount of big plays allowed last week overshadowed the defense giving up only 276 total yards. Going up against a more up-tempo offense might benefit OSU, which had success earlier in the year against that style of play.

Barrett said that the team’s identity will be put to the test this week because they have a smaller room for error for the duration of the season.

“We’re going to find out what we’re made of,” he said. “Everybody could be fine when we’re winning games … but as far as backs against the wall … that really shows your true colors.”

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