Ohio State travelled to Evanston to face Northwestern for the first time since 2008. While the previous 4 meetings ended with an average score of (51.25 – 8.5), this one seriously broke the trend with the teams posting a 40-30 final. Braxton Miller struggled tonight with 3 turnovers, 2 fumbles and a pick, but threw 15/26 for 203 yards and ran 15 times for 68 yards. Northwestern ran a quarterback by committee with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian who combined for 24/29 passing for 350 yards 2 touchdowns and an interception. Kain Colter was amazing tonight connecting on all 11 of his passes.
Carlos Hyde was your player of the game for the night. Where the Buckeye offense was struggling, Carlos powered 26 carries for 169 yards and three touchdowns, and 4 catches for 38 yards. In the passing game, Corey “Philly” Brown grabbed 6 passes for 127 yards. Northwestern’s Venric Mark carried 17 times for 60 yards, and caught 4 passes for 57 yards, while Rashad Lawrence received 8 passes for 147 yards.
For the first time this season Ohio State began the game with the ball, and they certainly didn’t waste any time. The offense came out of the gate fast and carved up the Northwestern secondary. Braxton Miller hit 4 straight passes to the left side of the field to rapidly bring the Buckeyes inside the red zone. A fifth pass to Evan Spencer on the right side didn’t gain much, and caused the Buckeyes to switch to the run – a mistake with the defensive look the Wildcats were presenting. The drive resulted in a short field goal after a near interception on third down.
Things looked similarly easy for the Wildcats in the early parts of their drive. A screen pass to Venric Mark, and a nice toss to the sideline found soft spots in the OSU coverage and gained the Wildcats decent yardage. But the Buckeye defense stiffened and forced a punt once Northwestern had made mid-field.
The Buckeyes switched strategies on the second drive. Their first play saw Hyde run straight up the gut with some fantastic blocking from the line for 10 yards. It was the second play that things took a turn for the worst. Braxton Miller ran a zone read with Carlos Hyde. The d-lineman looked to follow Hyde, causing Miller to pull the ball down. As he did, the lineman reached out and knocked the ball out of Miller’s grasp. No-one was around to scoop up the football except for players in the purple and black. Northwesterns offense took immediate advantage of the great field position, dropping a touchdown pass from 9 yards out to Kain Colter who ran as a receiver on the play.
Carlos Hyde continued to get the ball. On three straight plays Hyde plunged into the middle, gaining great yardage every single time. When he became gassed, Miller and Rod Smith took over up the gut. But, like the OSU defense earlier, the Northwestern defense stiffened and forced a punt, which the Buckeyes dutifully pinned a couple inches outside the endzone. That payed off in a huge way. When forced to punt on fourth and short from the ten, the Buckeyes came after the punt. Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier both got their mitts on the kick, and Roby grabbed the ball in the endzone for the touchdown.
Venric Mark and Kain Colter weren’t about to let it rest with that. They easily marched the football down the field, victimizing Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown on several plays. Mark in particularly popped him a good one in a great demonstration of “low man wins”, knocking him on his butt and gaining an extra handful of yards on the play. Colter eventually plunged into the endzone from three yards out to regain the lead for the Purple.
In what was quickly turning into a game of back and forth, Braxton Miller responded in kind. He and Hyde continued the up-the-middle ground game, gaining big chunks of yardage every time. Unfortunately, like before, when the drive made it to the redzone it bogged down again. Particularly concerning was the missed pass on third and goal from the five, where Miller overthrew a wide open Chris Fields in the endzone. That was a direct result of Miller not setting his feet properly, something he was off-and-on with all game. Again the Buckeyes kicked a field goal.
Again the Wildcats trucked the ball down the field with little to no trouble. The Buckeye defense had great difficulty tackling the ball carrier. They allowed the QB to gain good yardage after evading pressure in the backfield. They allowed Venric Mark to run straight over them for a 41 yard gain on a short pass. The problem was in form tackling, where the Buckeyes seemed to still be inconsistent about whether or not they were going to properly wrap up the runner. Luckily for the Buckeyes, Northwestern struggled when they entered the redzone, and they too were forced to kick a field goal.
The Ohio State offense suddenly started to struggle in the teeth of the Wildcat defense. They were unable to gain much yardage, and were forced into a quick three and out with time dwindling in the 2nd quarter. Amazingly, Urban Meyer called for a fake punt near the Northwestern 30. Cameron Johnston attempted to run the snapped punt for a first down, but took the ball outside instead of up the gut. The result was Northwestern ball from their own 30 yard line, already up four points. That decision earned the Wildcats another field goal with only a minute left in the half.
Regardless of what is said about this game, credit has to be given to Northwestern’s defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. He game-planned a spectacular defensive strategy to counter the Buckeyes offense, which his defense excecuted to perfection in the first half. There’s no question that he earned his pay in this one.
Despite adjustments at the half, the Buckeyes defense still struggled to handle the Wildcat’s offense. Ohio State committed to running the 3-4 early in the drive, hoping that the extra guy in pass coverage could help slow down Northwestern. That change did not seem to work, as Kain Colter continued to victimize the OSU secondary, particularly the strong-side edge roughly 10-15 yards down the field. It’s not clear why that soft spot exists in our coverage, but it is roughly the same place that Abbrederis used against OSU last week. Michael Bennett eventually ended Northwestern’s drive and forced a field goal with a big sack on third down.
Braxton Miller was ready to make things happen on offense. He used short passes and Carlos Hyde runs up the middle to drive the offense down the field. But just as before, the Northwestern defense came up with a huge play near the goal line. With Braxton about to run into the endzone a defender again stripped the ball a couple yards out. The ensuing scrum ended with yet another turnover and Northwestern ball on their own ten yard line. Thankfully, the OSU defense was game to stop them. They forced a three and out and a punt that resulted in a kick-catch interference and excellent field position for the Buckeyes.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of frustration, the Buckeye offense finally put the football into the endzone. Taking advantage of the great field position, Braxton Miller (despite 3 turnovers to his name already) was given charge of the offense again. The Bucks rode his legs at the beginning, but quickly began feeding the ball solely to Carlos Hyde. The end result was a 4 yard touchdown carry by Hyde, and him breaking the 100 yard barrier for the first time this season.
The Buckeye defense continued to play soft coverage, allowing the same 12 yard reception on the left side of the field that they’ve allowed the last two games. They also allowed players to run free, gaining huge yards after contact. Eventually, the Buckeye pressure forced Northwestern into a punt that they were able to down inside the 10 yard line. It was again up to Braxton Miller to get the offense moving. An excellent check-down on third and short to Carlos Hyde converted a huge first down and gave the offense some confidence and momentum. It didn’t last long and the offense sputtered to a halt.
That worked out well for the Buckeyes. Doran Grant jumped the very route that Northwestern had been using to great effect. He easily picked the ball off, giving the Buckeyes perfect field position to turn the game around. On third and goal, Carlos Hyde did a great job gaining just enough yardage and holding the ball over his head as he was tackled. The move was enough to put half the football into the endzone for the touchdown.
The Wildcats had an answer. On the second play from scrimmage, Colter hit Rashad Lawrence with a bullet that Lawrence turned into a 67 yard play down to the OSU 10. A few plays later, with OSU very nearly about to hold them short on downs, Colter hit Cameron Dickerson for a touchdown with nine minutes left in the game.
Braxton Miller began another long Buckeye drive from deep in his own territory. A particularly nice play on 2nd and short made a big difference. Instead of running for the first down on the edge, Braxton noticed Corey “Philly” Brown open 10 yards down field. He stopped before crossing the line of scrimmage, and tossed a little touch pass to Brown for a more than 30 yard gain. OSU then used Carlos Hyde on the run and the check-down pass to score another touchdown and take a four point lead.
Venric Mark returned the kick to the Northwestern 40, giving the Wildcats great field position to start a key late game drive. The Wildcats continued to find success moving the football, getting into OSU territory with ease. But it all came down to a fourth and one. A bad snap caused Colter problems, and he wasn’t able to drive the pile forward enough to get the first down.
Northwestern did get one final chance with 28 seconds left. The Buckeyes were forced to punt the ball back to Venric Mark. Johnston did a good job putting the ball out of bounds deep enough so that Northwestern didn’t gain much yardage on the return. Northwestern got sacked on their first play, and then tried to run the hook and lateral to get the necessary 80 yards for the score. Unfortunately, that worked in exactly the wrong way, allowing the Buckeye defense to pounce on the ball in the endzone for the score.
It’s important to note that it was recognized that this would be a tough game even in the preseason. Northwestern’s offense has been steadily improving over time, and with the unfortunate injury to Christian Bryant last week, OSU was going to have a tough time stopping it. That bore out in this battle, and the Buckeyes were not ready for what they were going to face on the offensive side of the ball either. Second half adjustments made a huge difference in this one, in a game where the score was much more lopsided than the game.
Give great credit to Northwestern for the way they played this game. Expect that this team will be the one to escape the Legends division this year, meaning that if OSU wishes to go to the Rose Bowl, they’re probably going to have to beat this team again.
The Buckeyes are on the Bye next week. Their next game is in Columbus on Saturday, October 19th against the Iowa Hawkeyes. You’ll be able to see that game on one of ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2 at 3:30 PM Eastern time.