Northwestern started the season with a great deal of optimism.
They were ranked No. 25 in the Coaches Poll. Voters liked that although they were retooling on offense, having lost six starters, one of their additions was redshirt sophomore and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson. As a recruit, ESPN listed the five-star prospect as the top quarterback in the country for his class.
Meanwhile, on defense, they had all but four players coming back from the unit that helped lead the Wildcats to the 2018 Big Ten title game.
Since that auspicious time? They have won just once, beating a UNLV team that currently sits in sixth place in the Mountain West. They've lost to Stanford, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and fell to Nebraska on a last-second field goal by a backup defensive back pressed into service by injuries.
Johnson has labored to live up to the hype. He has thrown four picks to just one touchdown, has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes (48.3), and has perhaps been leaped on the depth chart by junior Aidan Smith. (This week's two-deep says either could start against the Buckeyes.)
The belief in the defense, however, was not misplaced.
"It's hard to find a yard against them. I think they're a top 30 defense in the country," said Ohio State coach Ryan Day this week, and unsurprisingly, he was right. They are 26th in total defense and 30th in scoring defense.
"I mean, they're good. They know exactly how you're trying to attack them. They make adjustments. It's a defense that's been around for a long time, and they know exactly what you're doing."
It's more than they've just "been around," they've been compiling some impressive numbers in that time.
That's why tonight the Buckeyes will face the country's current active leader in career forced fumbles (linebacker Paddy Fisher with 10), and the player just 3.5 sacks shy of setting the school record (defensive end Joe Gaziano with 24.5).
Despite Gaziano's proficiency, Northwestern isn't a team that typically puts pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They force you to inch your way down the field, keeping the play in front of them and not risking giving up big strikes. Northwestern is both fourth nationally in giving up the fewest number of 10+ yard scrimmage plays and 104th in tackles for loss.
As hard as it has been for opponents to score on Northwestern, though, they have struggled to score even more. Only Akron (14.3) and Rutgers (11.8) put fewer points on the board per game than the Wildcats (14.4).
Much of that has been tied to uneven play at quarterback. Johnson's numbers we've already mentioned. Smith has performed slightly better in ways, but the bottom line remains the same: four picks to just one touchdown and a sub-50 percent completion percentage (49.2).
To be fair, the signal callers have had defenders in their face. Northwestern is 86th in sacks allowed per game (2.4). And their problems in the passing game haven't prevented Riley Lees from recording 17 receptions in the last three contests.
Ohio State faces Northwestern at 8:30 p.m. Pregame on 610 WTVN starts at 6:00 p.m.
Other Northwestern Nuggets:
- The last time the Wildcats beat a top five opponent was 1959 against Iowa. They last defeated Ohio State in 2004.
- Tonight's game is the first Friday night tilt in the history of Ryan Field...something the Cats are not too happy about.
- Ryan Field is natural grass, and Northwestern sometimes keeps that grass extra long to slow down opponents. Ryan Day said the Buckeyes let their practice field grass grow to five inches this week.
- The Wildcats game notes call Paddy Fisher "Mr. Steal Your Ball." So...there's that.