Pat Fitzgerald took the highly unusual (for him) step of closing practice Tuesday to anyone not employed by Northwestern. Sorry, boosters and media. This week is different.
So what does the Big Ten coach of the year have cooking?
“The triple option,” one assistant coach joked as he jogged off the field.
Northwestern faces Ohio State on Saturday night with a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth on the line. Do the Wildcats have a chance against the Buckeyes, a 14-point favorite that has lost to Northwestern only once since 1972? We’ll get to that in this list of five key questions.
The Tribune enlisted Fox Sports analysts James Laurinaitis, Robert Smith and Dave Wannstedt for help. Wannstedt coached the Bears (who could forget?), and Smith and Laurinaitis starred for the Scarlet and Gray. And now to the questions:
1. Can the Buckeyes play like that for a second straight week?
If they do, it’s over. Ohio State’s best would beat Northwestern’s best 100 times out of 100. The Buckeyes shredded the nation’s No. 1 defense Saturday, gaining 567 yards and scoring 62 points against Michigan.
“That was as clean a game offensively as I’ve seen in a long time,” Fitzgerald said. “A-plus in my book.”
But here’s the thing: A week ago, suggesting the Buckeyes deserve a playoff berth would have put you on the fringes of sanity. This is a team that got run off the field by Purdue, then gave up 450 yards at home to Nebraska, beat Michigan State because of its punter and gave up 339 yards on the ground to Maryland. And then, against its rival, Ohio State finally showed up.
“The offense has been there all season,” Laurinaitis said. “With the defense, I’m not sure whether to believe it. They played with passion (against Michigan).”
Said Smith: “I’d like to say a performance like that is a sea change, a psychological shift, and no way could they could revert. But I’ve been around the game too long. They know they have zero chance to make the playoff without this win, but you never know with the kids.”
2. What is the Wildcats’ plan to contain Dwayne Haskins?
Study what Michigan did and then do the opposite. For real, the defensive schemes are miles apart. Michigan plays man-to-man, often forgoing the second safety to add a pass rusher. It’s a high-risk, high-reward scheme. The Wolverines got burned going solo against elite Buckeyes athletes such as Parris Campbell.
Haskins went 20-for-31 for 396 yards and six touchdowns. He said he was “licking his chops” when he saw the one-on-one matchups.
Northwestern bends but rarely breaks and is perfectly content to give up some yards and field-goal tries. The Wildcats have allowed 18 plays of 30-plus yards, six fewer than the Big Ten average. Said NU defensive backs coach Matt MacPherson: “When you play zone, you get a lot of eyes on the quarterback — and then it’s population to the ball.”
Wannstedt said Northwestern’s plan is this: “Make Ohio State go eight plays — execute eight in a row without a mistake. Northwestern is not a big blitz team and doesn’t get a bunch of negative plays, but you don’t see guys running free. Their linebackers are as well-coached as any in the Big Ten. You can’t trick ’em much. They force the quarterback to read coverages and the receivers to make adjustments and sit down in holes (in the zones).”
Said Laurinaitis: “Against an explosive offense, Northwestern can live with the checkdown (pass). Stop the run and trust your linebackers, who have been great in space all year. Make Dwayne Haskins be patient. Hope you can manufacture some pressure or that (defensive end Joe) Gaziano can beat somebody.”
3. Should Northwestern slow down its offense?
Ohio State plays hyperfast, having squeezed off 975 plays, third in the FBS. Northwestern is not far behind, 15th nationally. The Wildcats would love to limit the Buckeyes to about 12 possessions. To do that, they’ll need serious production from freshman tailback Isaiah Bowser and a high completion percentage from Clayton Thorson.
“If you sense your defense can’t get stops,” Laurinaitis said, “then you slow it down.”
Bowser is averaging 122.3 rushing yards in his last six games.
“He is really patient for a freshman,” Laurinaitis said. “He does a nice job in the hole, he jump cuts and waits for the blocks to develop. The right guard, Tommy Doles, pulls well. When Jeremy Larkin had to retire, I thought Clayton would have to throw for 400 yards a game for Northwestern to compete. It’s been the opposite. The freshman back has bailed out Thorson at times.”
Ohio State ranks 18th nationally with 34 sacks, and Northwestern is allowing 2.4 per game — though that rate has decreased as the offensive line has coalesced throughout the season.
Fitzgerald wants Thorson to deliver passes quickly, putting it like this: “We can’t make love to the ball. We have to get it out of our hands and make sure we’re in timing and rhythm and on point.”
4. What are some other variables?
The fast track (FieldTurf) and ideal scoring conditions at domed Lucas Oil Stadium favor Ohio State. The NU defense was at its best in the cold of Iowa City and Minneapolis. Remember the Shirtless Brigade that stormed the field in pregame warmups at Minnesota? (Congrats if you do not.)
— Northwestern is down to its third-string kicker. Punter Jake Collins has nailed his last two field goals, from 29 and 25 yards. His range is probably 35, though Fitzgerald joked that it’s 70.
— Ohio State lost a starter in its final series Saturday. Right guard Demetrius Knox suffered a left-foot injury and will be replaced by redshirt freshman Wyatt Davis.
— Northwestern is the nation’s least-penalized team — 26.7 yards per game. Ohio State has been flagged for 76 per game.
— The No. 6 Buckeyes are currently on the outs of the College Football Playoff. They either need Texas to beat No. 5 Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game (11 a.m. CT kickoff) or to get the selection committee’s attention by beating the bejeezus out of Northwestern. Ohio State did this in 2014 (romping over Wisconsin 59-0) but not last year (27-21 over Wisconsin).
“There’s pressure when you’re playing for style points,” Laurinaitis said. “Last year whenever J.T. (Barrett) missed an open receiver, you could feel the whole stadium (groan).”
5. Does Northwestern have a shot?
Wannstedt: “Absolutely — because they believe it. You cannot underestimate that. They’ve won 15 of their last 16 Big Ten games.”
Laurinaitis: “I always give teams a chance in college football. The players are still kids. But Ohio State is favored by 14 for a reason.”
Smith: “I don’t think so. I love Coach Fitzgerald, but it’s a huge mismatch. I have it 38-17.”
Teddy Greenstein’s pick: Northwestern puts up a great fight, but in the end it’s mathletes versus athletes. Ohio State 30, Northwestern 24.