Lost in all the hype is the understanding that when a football game actually kicks off this weekend, Northwestern needs to score points to hang with Braxton Miller and Ohio State.
The Buckeyes boast one of the stingiest defenses in the country, and rank near the top of the BCS in explosiveness per play and yards allowed per passing down. That 55-yard Treyvon Green touchdown run from week one likely won't be seen Saturday, and neither will the 47-yard score from Tony Jones that came against Syracuse. Northwestern will be forced to engineer pro-style drives against a pro-style defense, one with an especially disciplined and physical front seven.
Twenty-six of the Cats' 53 drives this season have gone for five plays or fewer, an especially disconcerting stat considering Ohio State held Wisconsin to that on nine of its 13 drives last weekend. NU will have to rely on staying steady and consistent, rather than the "explosion plays" that Pat Fitzgerald always stresses. When it comes to finishing those drives, the Wildcats don't have much room for error against a team that regularly cracks 50 on the scoreboard.
"We've worked at it real hard," Pat Fitzgerald said of his team's red-zone offense. "We've done a lot in practice. Now we've got to go execute in the moment. It's nothing magical, just have to do your job."
Thus far, Northwestern's done its job quite admirably, ranking 15th in the nation in red-zone success rate. That rate only factors possessions that end in points though, and exchanging sevens for threes will squander any chances of an upset. It seems trite, but in the midst of College Gameday, Venric Mark's return and a primetime TV spot, Northwestern has to cash in when it can. The Wildcats' 12 touchdowns in 19 red-zone trips--a 63 percent clip--pales in comparison to Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska and ties lowly Illinois. Though it can't bank on pick sixes, Northwestern's secondary still sits second in the country in interceptions, and turning turnovers to touchdowns is their best chance of winning Saturday.
Ohio State won't make it easy. The Buckeyes have held opponents scoreless on a third of their red-zone trips, and led by top NFL prospect Ryan Shazier, are nightmarish in the middle. The defense is most susceptible on the outside, allowing five passing touchdowns by the goal line compared to just two rushing touchdowns.
"You've got to be able to run the football down there, somehow, someway," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "If they're truly going to take that away, you have to find your matchups and mismatches."
Getting Mark back helps. Though I've said that Treyvon Green should at least start the game--and I'm standing by that--Mark should undoubtedly be exploited in the red-zone, where he gives the Cats an important outside dimension on the read-option. When run with Mike Trumpy, defenses the caliber of Western Michigan's and Maine's had no trouble sniffing it out. You can imagine what Shazier and Co. will do if Northwestern's ballcarrier is just a half-step too slow.
But the biggest mismatch remains in the passing game, where NU touts two receivers standing at 6-3 and a physical target over the middle in Dan Vitale. The Buckeyes' two top corners, Bradley Roby and Doran Grant, both stand at 5-11.
"The field is stretched differently," McCall said. "You don't have to defend as much depth, so you have to make them defend width."
Tony Jones' speed and sharp route running may be nullified in the endzone, but Christian Jones' size and possession tendencies should be a great look. Vitale's ability to draw a linebacker or safety should open up the back of the endzone as well.
Treyvon Green told reporters today that the NU coaches "really haven't told me much about what my role is now," and we don't know what to expect from Mark.
When Northwestern gets within striking distance, an offense with two dynamic running backs should switch to a pass-first mentality.
They've got the pieces to convert; now it's only a matter of keeping the defense honest and not forcing Mark on the read-option too quickly and too often. When you're an underdog like the Wildcats, you've got to make adjustments, take the risk and let it fly.