Northwestern-Ohio State on Friday night? It’s not the best time for ’Cats to be on CFB marquee
Northwestern is 1-4 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten. Its offense is broken. Its hope of defending its West division title is beyond lost. Another bowl game? Any bowl game at all? Probably not. “No chance” might be more like it.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson rolled right near the goal line. Superback Cameron Green ran with him, wide open in the end zone.
Easy touchdown. Just like that, the upstart Wildcats trailed mighty Ohio State by a tantalizingly close score of 24-21 in the third quarter of last December’s Big Ten championship game.
The Buckeyes took control from there, but it’s still remarkable what the Wildcats accomplished in getting to Indianapolis. They swept the West division, part of a 15-1 stretch in league games, dating to 2017, that few could have imagined.
To coach Pat Fitzgerald, it felt less like the culmination of the program’s success and more like the start of something really big.
“I have 100 percent confidence that this is going to become a consistent theme of our program,” he said heading into that game. “I look at us as a program that has been built on bedrock, not on sand.”
But the Wildcats have fallen — far and fast — since Indy. As they prepare for their next meeting with Ohio State, Friday night at Ryan Field, they sit at 1-4 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten. Their offense is broken. Their hope of defending their West title is beyond lost.
Another bowl game? Any bowl game at all?
“No chance” might be more like it.
Yes, a rare Friday night on the college football marquee — thanks entirely to the unbeaten, No. 4-ranked Buckeyes — seems like a lot more than this team can handle.
But play the game, it shall, with a quarterback and everything. Hunter Johnson, the high-profile Clemson transfer who has appeared overwhelmed in Northwestern’s offense, is listed as the co-starter with Aidan Smith — who began the season as a third-stringer — on the team’s weekly depth chart.
Johnson and Smith, who have one touchdown pass apiece the season, are at the very bottom of the FBS pass-efficiency rankings. Near the very top is Buckeyes breakout star Justin Fields, who has 18 passing touchdowns and only one interception.
Fields can run all day, too. Considering the weapons he has around him, it’s kind of — no, completely — unfair.
“It starts and ends with the quarterback,” Fitzgerald said, “but everybody else is first-team Big Ten in my book.”
No one more so than Chase Young on the other side of the ball. His relentless pass rushing has established him as one of the top defensive players in the country.
Johnson will have more pressure on him than usual to be decisive with the ball. With Young and the Buckeyes’ defense full of prime-time athletes swarming, it won’t be the least bit easy.
All first-year coaches should be half as lucky as OSU’s Ryan Day, successor to Urban Meyer. Right out of the gate, Day has a first-class seat on the playoff train.
Fitzgerald, meanwhile, is trying to keep the vibes as good as they can be around his team and his quarterback.
“Do I expect that Hunter will get his play up to where [Fields’] is at right now? I believe to,” the coach said. “I believe in that. I believe that’ll happen, but it’s going to come with work and it’s going to come with time. And for some players, it just clicks; it just clicks right away, because I don’t know why. I couldn’t tell you why.”
Johnson’s play has been so poor, it’s a bit hard to understand.
Even given Northwestern’s losing past, the Wildcats’ all-out struggle in 2019 has been hard to figure, too.
NO. 4 OHIO STATE AT NORTHWESTERN
The facts:Friday, 7:30 p.m., BTN, 720-AM.
The records:Ohio State 6-0, 3-0 Big Ten; Northwestern 1-4, 0-3 Big Ten.
The storyline: Chaos in Evanston! There will be a Buckeyes-fan takeover in the stands, on the streets, in parking lots, etc. This won’t be all that unfamiliar considering the typical breakdown of fans in the stands at Ryan Field, but Buckeyes supporters are a breed apart. That’s a nice way of saying they’re insane. Oh, and the Buckeyes are really good at football, too.
The line:Buckeyes by 28.
Greenberg’s pick:Ohio State, 38-14.