The Ohio State Buckeyes (6-0), fresh of a bye week, will hit the road to begin the second half of their schedule with a rare Friday night game against the Northwestern Wildcats (1-4).
So rare, in fact, that this will mark just the second time Ohio State has played a regular season game on a Friday. The first came on Oct. 2, 1959, when the Buckeyes traveled to Los Angeles to take on USC in a game they lost, 17-0.
Friday’s game will feature two teams on entirely different trajectories as Ohio State enters the contest having breezed through its six games, while Northwestern has dropped three straight.
A popular pick as the scary, no-good “trap game” of the year for the Buckeyes by many when the schedule was announced, Ohio State is favored in the game by four touchdowns, which might seem generous given the dreadful offensive woes Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his team are currently experiencing.
Still, the Buckeyes have been prone to throwing up all over themselves in an inexplicable loss in recent years. Perhaps the weird scheduling and the potential lull of a bye week could keep this game interesting? Perhaps Ohio State could get caught looking ahead to next week’s massive showdown with Wisconsin?
Here is a look at what the Buckeyes will see from Northwestern Friday night as they look to stay undefeated and on track for their collision with the Badgers next week in Columbus.
There’s no way around it. Northwestern’s offense is bad.
Northwestern ranks 125th out of 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in yards per game, averaging just 293 yards. Even worse, they average just 14.4 points per game, good for the third-worst points per game average in the FBS.
T.J. Green and Hunter Johnson battled for the starting quarterback job throughout the preseason, a job that Green ultimately won.
But Green was lost for the season during Northwestern’s season opener at Stanford, and Johnson’s general ineffectiveness has led Fitzgerald to turn to third-string quarterback Aidan Smith in search of any type of positive momentum for his offense.
Smith split time with Johnson in the Wildcats’ losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin before making his first career start against Nebraska on Oct. 5, a game in which he completed 19 of his 32 attempts for 136 yards and tossed an interception. Through his three games of action this season, Smith has thrown just one touchdown and four interceptions.
It remains to be seen who will lead the offense Friday against Ohio State as both Smith and Johnson are listed as co-starters on Northwestern’s depth chart. Johnson, a former five-star recruit, is certainly the more talented of the two, while Smith is best described as a game manager.
Regardless of which quarterback sees the most snaps Friday, if neither can stop throwing the ball to the wrong team —they have combined for eight interceptions through five games — it won’t much matter who runs the offense.
At running back, Northwestern will likely feature two in sophomore Isaiah Bowser and freshman Drake Anderson.
Bowser, a Sidney, Ohio native, burst onto the scene for the Wildcats last year and ran for 866 yards. He has battled injuries throughout the year but is listed as the starter on the team’s depth chart this week.
Anderson has run for 366 yards and three touchdowns on 74 attempts this season as the beneficiary of Bowser being banged up, including a combined 159 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries against Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Northwestern’s already-abysmal passing game has taken a further hit in recent weeks as Bennett Skowronek, its top returning pass-catcher, has missed the last two games and does not appear on this week’s depth chart.
A big target at 6-foot-4, Skowrownek leads the Northwestern receivers in yards with 141 yards on 12 grabs this season. He caught 45 passes for 562 yards and three touchdowns a year ago.
Riley Lees figures to continue being the go-to target for the Northwestern quarterbacks with Skowronek out, and he leads the team with 19 catches. However, it has been backup receiver J.J. Jefferson who has caught the only two — yes, two — touchdown passes on the year for the Wildcats.
Upfront, Northwestern had to replace three of their five starters on the offensive line this offseason. One of the two who is returning is tackle Rashawn Slater, who is in his third year starting for the Wildcats and has made more than 30 starts dating back to 2017.
Most of Slater’s starts came at right tackle, but he was moved to left tackle ahead of this season to protect the blindsides of his quarterbacks.
Along with Slater, center Jared Thomas anchors the line. He started all 14 games last season for the Big Ten West Division champions.
As a unit, the Northwestern offensive line has already allowed 12 sacks through five games this season. That doesn’t bode well for them as Ohio State, led by Chase Young, leads the nation in sacks with 28 already on the season.
While the Northwestern offense has been putrid this season, their defense has been respectable despite being on the field often.
The Wildcats rank in the top 30 in the country in both average yards per game (319) and points per game (19.8).
Against Wisconsin on Sept. 28, Northwestern held Wisconsin to just 243 yards of total offense, including limiting Heisman candidate running back Jonathan Taylor to 113 yards on the ground, in its best showing of the season.
Junior linebacker Paddy Fisher is the unquestioned leader of the defense and has been a force since his redshirt freshman season in 2017 when he led the team with 113 tackles and earned Second-Team All-Big Ten honors.
He was even better last season, again leading the team in tackles with 116 total stops en route to being named a First-Team All-Big Ten selection and a Third-Team Associated Press All-American.
Fisher has 37 total tackles and an interception this season, and he is coming off a 10-tackle performance in the Oct. 5 loss at Nebraska.
While Fisher may be the leader of the defense, defensive lineman Joe Gaziano might be the most disruptive talent on the field for Northwestern.
Gaziano came into this season with 21 career sacks to his name dating back to 2016, including a nine-sack performance in 2017 that led the conference. He has already nabbed 3.5 sacks this season, which leads the team, and has also forced and recovered two fumbles.
Defensive linemen Alex Miller and Earnest Brown IV have also recorded 2.5 and two sacks, respectively.
If there is any potential threat to keep an eye on, perhaps it will be Gaziano and the Northwestern pass rush lining up against the Ohio State offensive line, which has allowed 13 sacks this season.
In the secondary, Northwestern is led by its safeties in juniors Travis Whillock and J.R. Pace.
Pace led the team in interceptions last season, picking off four passes, and has recorded one so far this season. Whillock leads the team in tackles with 44 total stops, 20 of which have been solo, and also has a sack and two fumble recoveries.
Northwestern ranks 14th in the country in passing yards allowed with an average of 176 yards, although that is as much an indictment on the quarterbacks the Wildcats have faced as it is an endorsement of their pass defense.
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, possibly the best quarterback Northwestern has seen this season, threw for 228 yards and three touchdowns against the Wildcats in their Sept. 21 meeting.
Charlie Kuhbander once again handles the placekicking for Northwestern after going just 5-9 last season. This season, he is 6-8, including 2-2 from 40 yards or more. His long on the season is 44 yards.
Punter Daniel Kubiuk has punted 33 times this season and is averaging 37.8 yards per attempt. He has a long on the season of 53 yards.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.