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October 9, 2013

THE OSU review: Northwestern

If you watched it, then you know. OSU is lucky, although not entirely undeserving, to be undefeated.

Another week, a second straight ranked conference foe for the Buckeyes, only this time it was No. 16 Northwestern off a bye on the road at night. On a day when Braxton Miller and the Ohio secondary stuck their metaphorical chin out and pointed to it, as if to say, "Go ahead, Coach Fitzgerald, knock us out," the Wildcats swung and missed, largely due to both their O-Line and D-Line wearing down in the second half.

This was probably a game Northwestern should have won. They came out on fire as the Buckeyes came out flat. The Wildcats D was able to frustrate Urban Meyer's spread, limiting it to 205 yards, no offensive touchdowns, two turnovers, and two field goals in the first half. Meanwhile, Northwestern moved the ball with relative ease, turning short fields into points behind their multiple look dink-and-dunk offense, taking a 20-13 lead into the half.

But as the clock continued to tick on into night, and as the Wildcats psyches began to pucker, the Northwestern offense started settling for field goals, and the defense got taken to the woodshed and beat beyond submission with a 2x4 named Carlos Hyde (26 rushes for 168 yds and three TDs).
The Fitzgerald era-defining victory was there for the taking, and as the Wildcats are wont to do, they blew yet another fourth quarter lead (for the fourth time in big games dating back to last year) and let the Buckeyes off the hook.

Northwestern was one questionable spot on a fourth down play from having a chance to score in the final minutes, but a fumbled snap in that key moment of their entire season to go along with a complete and utter inability to even come close to slowing Hyde broke up the upset party before it even began.

I will say that, while most point to that fumbled snap with 2:43 left in the game as the deciding miscue, the Wildcats were so scared of Hyde that they tried to bleed their own clock by running up the gut three straight times leading up to that … … On a critical drive, after two first downs, Northwestern ran right into the teeth of the Buckeyes' defensive strength, as if somehow something would change.

I do think Kain Colter got the first after scooping up the snap, but it was just a tire-fire last sequence when it mattered most that derailed an otherwise impressive effort.
The Buckeyes were tested for the second straight week, with significant chinks in the armor (a porous secondary, inconsistent offense, etc.) getting exposed by a worthy opponent.

But to their credit, they also won on the road despite a relatively ugly effort, which is what it takes to win the Big Ten conference. It's clear this team has weaknesses - they are not god's gift to Midwestern football and are still a ways from holding a candle to the nation's elite - but throughout this run, whenever a win has hung in the balance, whenever one aspect gets off track and backs the team up against the wall, some other aspect or unit or player rises up to fill the void and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Whether it's Miller-to-Brown long bombs against Cal, Kenny Guiton to the rescue against Purdue, or now Hyde against Northwestern, this team gets game changing play whenever and wherever it needs it most.

Urban Meyer is 18-0 as head coach in Columbus. His team has weathered its only early tests and is confident in its ability to develop and improve for a stress-free, kiddie-pool run up to The Game. They are not immune to playing poorly, and if an inspired Iowa or Indiana puts together some quarters of good work against them, they could faceplant when they shouldn't. That is not out of the realm of possibility. But in the meantime, all they do is continue to win and wait for an opponent to beat them.

When Ohio Was on Offense

There was a time earlier this fall when every pass Ohio threw went for six points, every option give broke into the open field with ease, and turnovers and punting were simply ghost stories that Urban scared his offense with around the campfire. But for the past two weeks, quality and more evenly matched defenses have succeeded in giving this offense the business, frustrating a rusty Braxton Miller, and even planting tiny seeds of doubt in the minds of the faithful about who should be helming the ship.

This was one of Miller's worst games in a Buckeye uniform. Northwestern successfully guarded the edges, blanketed receivers in man coverage, prevented big plays from developing, and took every opportunity to poke, punch, and rake the ball loose. Miller looked uncomfortable and hesitant, slow to keep and run, missing reads and overthrowing receivers (15-26 for 203 yds, 17 carries for 68 yds), fumbling twice (once as he was about to cross the goal line) and throwing one pick with no touchdowns. It was only the fourth game in his career (in which he's played extensive minutes) where he has not accounted for a touchdown. As a result, the receivers really didn't play much of a role, although Philly Brown had six grabs for 127 yards, his longest and best reserved for a key fourth quarter drive.

To Meyer's credit, I think he knows just how valuable Miller's experience in the fire is, and as poorly as he can play from time to time, it may just not be worth finding out if Guiton can match up with Ds that can actually play. That may change going forward, but the defensive opposition disappears until late November so this could be moot regardless.

And late in the fourth quarter, after Northwestern stormed downfield to snatch back a 30-27 lead, Miller rewarded his coach's faith by juking a blitzer, rolling to the left, denying himself the easy first-down pickup with his legs and opting instead for that throw down the sideline to P. Brown who broke free for 38 yards. This set up Hyde's game-winning seven-yard TD and is an example of how hard Miller is trying to manage the game from behind the line of scrimmage. I'll bet his coaches pulled him aside at one point and told him to stop keeping it for meager gains: let Hyde take the beating, you scramble to find time and the open man.

When he gets flustered, Miller misses reads and takes the entire defense on himself - sound familiar? - which can lead to inaccurate throws, turnovers, and plenty of wear and tear on his body. But he stayed the course in this game on a night when he just didn't have it and was able to hand off to Hyde enough times to win. And that's what makes this offense tough to defeat: when they can't spread wide and bomb it away over the top, they can still read-option teams to death with a pro-style bruiser like Hyde.

Hyde was phenomenal and took over in the second half, bursting through tackles and gaining six every time he touched the ball. After running for "only" 56 yards on 10 carries in the first half, he exploded late to finish with 26 carries, 168 yards, and three TDs (as well as four receptions for 38 yds). His longest run on the day was only 17 yards, and yet he still managed to average 6.5 a carry and account for 15 first downs.

It felt like Hyde picked this team up and put them on his back to personally preserve their winning streak. It was the type of performance you see every once in a while in the Big Ten when everybody knows who's getting the ball and yet the defense simply cannot stop that individual from leeching their will to live. Hyde often came off the field gasping for breath, visibly winded from all of the Wildcat trucking he was doing out there. He had similar success in last year's Game, and I'm sure his coaches will turn to him often in Big Ten play to bleed clock and wear defenses down.

The Buckeyes' senior-laden O-Line deserves a lot of credit as well, run blocking quite well for the duration and keeping penalties to a minimum (the only flag for Ohio on the day was a 10-yd holding penalty on OL Marcus Hall). In a season in which Michigan is desperately tweaking O-Line combinations in search of consistency and push, the Buckeyes trot the same five out all game to not necessarily dominate teams physically but rather solidly open creases just wide enough to get runners to the second level. In a second quarter example, there was a key third down run on which center Corey Linsley absolutely pancaked a Northwestern tackle to break Hyde free for eight yards and a first down.

However, Northwestern was able to get pressure home when they blitzed, and stud DE Ifeadi Odenigbo hit Miller's arm as he threw to produce the interception. Even when Miller had time, he overthrew his receivers downfield or couldn't complete due to blanket coverage. For being somewhat suspect coming in, the NW corners played extremely well, and the entire defense's obvious commitment to constantly stripping and punching at the ball until the whistle blows got into Miller's head.

So, credit the OSU coaches for eventually realizing, "Hey, I'm pretty sure they can't stop Hyde," because they couldn't. Not for a single play. When it was clear Miller was all out of sorts and that they needed to keep Northwestern's O off the field, the offense downshifted into read-option pound mode, which we should all recognize is obviously possible, all spread system expectations aside.

When Ohio Was on Defense

It's becoming pretty clear what this defense brings to the table at this point. The D-Line is a strength, with young, unproven starters and depth developing into difference makers. Three-tech DT Michael Bennett causes quite a bit of havoc on the inside with his speed and ability to get upfield, especially when not double-teamed. And while viper end Noah Spence and five-tech Adolphus Washington aren't always stat hounds, they must be accounted for on the edges at all times.

Another revelation is true freshman Joey Bosa, who continues to play beyond his years, adding another disruptive piece to the front four. While it took them a while to get it going, the defense eventually tallied five sacks on the night, consistently pressuring Northwestern's more statuesque QB Trevor Siemian (which begs the question why Northwestern went away from Colter as QB, but whatever).
The LBs - at least those who we'll refer to collectively as The LBs Other Than Shazier (who had 10 tackles) - didn't exactly play as lights out as they did against Wisconsin. MLB Curtis Grant grew pretty tentative due to mighty-mite RB Venric Mark's size and slipperiness. But still, Northwestern never broke a double-digit run, averaging 2.2 yds on 43 carries, which, uh, isn't a lot. This rush D is impressive, possibly even elite, and a once-worried-about gut of the defense has been pretty successfully shored up.

After scoring touchdowns on two of their first four possessions and moving the ball pretty consistently on Colter keepers, Mark runs, and quick passes, Northwestern went beddy-bye in the middle quarters, stalling repeatedly in the red zone, turning it over, and committing some costly penalties. As excited and confident as they were in nabbing that 20-13 halftime lead, you started to get the sense that the Wildcats were pulling back into their shell to weather the comeback storm, just praying that field goals would be enough to beat the Buckeyes. Note to anyone who plays against any offense with a pulse: field goals are never enough.

The Buckeyes have a split personality on defense: you can't run on them, but you can throw all day. While they held the Wildcats to 94 yards rushing, they let Northwestern's QBs combine for 25/31 for 343 yards passing, with a great many of those yards coming after contact in the secondary. WR Rashad Lawrence had a field day on CB Bradley Roby, much like Jared Abbrederis did in the last game, both WR1s combining for 18 receptions and 356 yds. While Meyer said after Wisconsin that it was by design that Roby got left on an island for the most part, now we have ourselves a gaping hole of a statistical breach.

Free safety C.J. Barnett stepped up to lead the team with 11 tackles to help alleviate some of the loss of his safety-mate Christian Bryant (who the team has said is a deeply significant loss due to attitude, leadership, and experience). CB2 Doran Grant also continues his strong play and provided an absolute momentum-changer with his fourth quarter interception. Grant bumped the out route off the line and then jumped right in front of the forehead-smack Siemian pass to give the Buckeyes the ball at the Northwestern 16.

A few plays later Hyde had his backwards reach TD, and any upper hand the Wildcats had enjoyed then completely vanished with that critical mistake.

But aside from those two, the rest of the secondary really struggled, with a ton of missed tackles, gaps in the coverage, and Bryant's replacement "Pittsburgh" Brown taking it on the chin all game - Brown let receivers get loose often, including Colter on Northwestern's first passing TD, and he also let Mark absolutely truck him over on an impressive run. You can be sure that the focus for the rest of the year will be on this unit and shoring up the tackling, but we're talking about a several-year epidemic at this point, so TBD. Five-star freshman safety Vonn Bell is getting talked about, so we may see him after the bye.

Special Teams

With six games now in our sample set, patterns here continue to emerge, the most significant being that the Buckeyes have a weapon at punter. Cameron Johnston only punted three times for a measly 38 yard average, but this was mostly due to favorable field position. He routinely drops punts inside the 20, and in the first quarter, punting from the Northwestern 38, Johnston punted a high 37 yarder that allowed his gunners to get downfield, follow the sideways bounce, and down it on the one yard line. Three plays later, when the Wildcats were forced to punt from their own end zone, Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier ran through unblocked (um, earth to Pat Fitzgerald: please account for all-conference performers even when they're on special teams) to swat the kick, twirl the punter like a ragdoll, and recover for OSU's only TD in the first half.

So far, field position is a battle that OSU is consistently winning, which in turn allows their defense to pin its ears back and win the offense another short field. Against Wisconsin and Northwestern, this played out and went a long way toward ensuring Ohio's chances for victory.
Oh, and that fake punt Urban has been foaming at the mouth to use all season finally saw the light.

When the Buckeyes were languishing away in a largely ineffectual first half and another drive stalled out at their own 32 yard line with under five minutes left in the second quarter, Meyer sent out the punting unit to see if Johnston could sprint to daylight and a first down. He could not. Northwestern saw it coming a mile away, and while Johnston looks fast and certainly capable of this kind of thing in the future, he still got dropped for a two-yard loss on a great diagnosis and tackle by the Wildcat special teams.

As much pressure as Meyer applies to opposing sidelines with his aggression, he can just as easily put his team in a bind when his go-for-its don't succeed. Teams know very well that this team will go whenever possible, and when they're not going for it, they're faking it, and when they're not faking it, they're at least calling timeouts and thinking about it (and then throwing hissy fits to get TOs back).

What Does It All MEAN?

OSU is now the first team in the country to be bowl eligible. They came through battles against two of the Big Ten's finest pretty battered and somewhat exposed but undefeated, and they now have a clear path through the conference basement to make it to Ann Arbor still riding this streak.

The secondary is a serious problem, as coverage and tackling mistakes have been exploited by passing attacks all season long. Miller can be inconsistent against tough defenses, with a propensity to get squirrely and inaccurate under pressure. There's also an elite playmaker still hiding underneath that hesitation, one who still flashes to the fore when needed most, but his play will be vital to their success down the stretch.

What is there to say? This one was close, really close, the first stretch in a while in which OSU looked truly lost. I think everyone would be better served by eliminating the national elite component of the Buckeye equation, at least for now. Clearly, they are the most complete team in the Big Ten (although not by all that much), and they continue to win both blowouts and close battles. But these two wins, while impressive in their own right, probably failed to impress national poll voters all that much. The Big Ten fails to impress much of anyone these days, and for good reason. All that will play itself out in time.

For now, Michigan must continue to improve and prepare for its own November gauntlet, at the end of which we'll get another chance to see the Buckeyes tested.

The Road to an SEC Evisceration

Aug. 31 Ohio 40 - Buffalo 20
Sept. 7 Ohio 42 -- San Diego St. 7
Sept. 14 Ohio 52 - Cal 34
Sept. 21 Ohio 76 - Florida A&M 0
Sept. 28 Ohio 31 - Wisconsin 24
Oct. 5 Ohio 40 - Northwestern 30
Oct. 19 Iowa
Oct. 26 Penn St.
Nov. 2 @ Purdue
Nov. 16 @ Illinois
Nov. 23 Indiana
Nov. 30 @ Michigan


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