The implications for Northwestern’s Big Ten Conference showdown with the Ohio State Buckeyes are well established. ESPN deemed it significant enough for its College Gameday broadcast, the first time the flagship program visited Evanston since 1995–not-so-coincidentally, during the Wildcats’ Rose Bowl season.
Saturday’s game has been called the biggest game in Northwestern history, surpassing anything even in the Rose Bowl campaign.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, a star on that Rose Bowl team, knows the stakes.
“We’ve been in this type of challenge before…and executed and played well. Some of the other games, maybe we didn’t do a great job as coaches of just reinforcing to our leadership where we needed to be from a focus standpoint,” Fitzgerald said on Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference.
In last year’s 10-win campaign, the Wildcats lost games to Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska by a combined 19 points. The single-digit defeats to the Wolverines and Cornhuskers effectively kept Northwestern
Tonight is this year’s Wildcat team’s first chance to get over that big-game hump. Urban Meyer is a head coach well acquainted with winning on the most prominent stages, including in his one season at Ohio State.
But that his team was prevented from performing on the biggest stage a year ago is added motivation tonight in Evanston.
Ohio State was barred from postseason play in 2012, so Wisconsin went into the Big Ten annals as conference champion. Everyone knew better. Ohio State was the true champion, and with one more win over a Nebraska team it had already routed, 63-38, would have played for the BCS championship.
The Buckeyes served notice with a 31-24 defeat of the Badgers last week, though the game’s story was not as close as the one-touchdown difference might suggest.
Quarterback Braxton Miller’s return included four touchdown passes. That would seem as though it doesn’t bode well for a Wildcat defense ranked No. 119 in passing defense, with 307.5 yards yielded per game.
However, Northwestern’s secondary has seen offenses predicated on the pass, via Syracuse, Western Michigan and Cal’s Bear Raid. The Wildcats have surrendered yards, yes. But completions come at a premium; just 57.4 percent, which is slightly better than Ohio State’s 58 percent yield.
All those pass attempts allow the Wildcat defense opportunities to make plays, evident in 10 interceptions, third most in the nation.
Conversely, Ohio State has been adept at limiting mistakes, boasting a 2-to-1 takeaway-to-turnover margin. The Wildcats’ dynamic pass rush duo of Tyler Scott and Dean Lowry must set the table for Ibraheim Campbell, Traveon Henry and the rest of the Northwestern secondary with effective pressure off the line.
Northwestern gets its own star back in a balanced offensive side, with do-everything running back Venric Mark returning from a leg injury. Mark’s playmaking ability on the perimeter must spread the Buckeye defense, in order to open the middle of the field for the three-man rushing attack of Kain Colter, Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy.
That’s easier said than done. Ohio State allows just 2.84 yards per rush, one of the stingiest yields in college football. Wisconsin’s multidimensional run game was held to just 3.9 yards an attempt last weekend for 104 yards.
Opponents Wisconsin and Cal have been able to throw some on the ballyhooed Buckeye secondary, and tonight promises to test the passing acumen of quarterbacks Colter and Trevor Siemian.
Much of the talk underlining this game for Northwestern is about that 1995 season, but this may be more reminiscent of another landmark moment in Wildcat history. With two loaded offenses and the lights shining on Evanston, a redux of the Wildcats’ 2000 defeat of Michigan may be in order.