Ohio State's struggles with Northwestern are cause for concern, but not panic
Any attempt to pass the ball in the Upper Midwest on Saturday afternoon was an exercise in futility. So anyone in a panic over Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud’s passing line against Northwestern’s woeful defense — 10-of-26 for 76 yards — should take a deep breath.
The winds off Lake Michigan do strange things when seasons change. Northwestern quarterback Brendan Sullivan was more accurate than Stroud, but still finished with 79 passing yards by completing 10 of his 14 attempts.
And one did not need to be on the lakeshore to have peculiar things happen Saturday. Winds routinely gusted over 30 mph in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, too.
Conditions were just as sketchy at Camp Randall Stadium, 150 miles northwest of Evanston. Taulia Tagovailoa, either the second- or third-best Big Ten quarterback, was 10-of-23 for 77 yards in Maryland’s 23-10 loss at Wisconsin. Badgers counterpart Graham Mertz was 5-of-17 for 77 yards.
Two games. Four quarterbacks who were unable to pass for 80 yards. Stroud was 220 yards below his season average, and Tagovailoa 210.
Lesson? Don’t trust anyone who says weather was not a factor in Ohio State’s 21-7 slog over the Wildcats. Perhaps only the service academies could have excelled in these conditions.
But that also doesn’t mean that there’s no reason to be concerned about the Buckeyes.
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Though Ohio State finally broke through against the nation’s 109th-best run defense, this was the third straight game that running the ball often felt like a struggle for the Bucks. And that’s beginning to feel like the issue that will make or break whether Ohio State wins a Big Ten or national championship this season.
Will Ohio State get the running game in motion?
The Buckeyes didn’t need the running game to function all that smoothly in wins over Iowa and Penn State.
Ohio State ran for 66 yards on 30 carries against the Hawkeyes and 98 yards on 26 carries against the Nittany Lions. Between the passing game and a defense that forced 10 turnovers, the Bucks combined for 98 points in those wins.
But Mother Nature was able to do what no defensive coordinator has been able to this season — turn Ohio State into a run-first team. And for much of the game, that didn’t result in much good for the Buckeyes. Ohio State went into the half with 72 rushing yards.
Miyan Williams didn’t have a carry of more than 5 yards until his 13th touch. And because he is who he is, Williams broke through in a big way with a 7-yard gain that set up his 27-yard touchdown on the very next play.
By the end of the game, Ohio State’s ground numbers were respectable enough. Williams finished with 111 yards and 2 touchdowns on 26 carries. Stroud added a greatly unexpected 79 yards on 6 carries. Ohio State ran for 207 yards and 5.9 yards per carry, which typically gets the job done.
But that’s also the norm against a Northwestern defense that allowed 257 rushing yards to Maryland and 216 to Miami (Ohio).
Ohio State’s run game isn’t clicking the same way it was when gashing Wisconsin, Rutgers and Michigan State for 791 yards in 3 games.
Will Ohio State need the running game to click?
An obvious caveat to Saturday’s slow start was the absence of TreVeyon Henderson. The Buckeyes are clearly better on the ground when they can mix-and-match with Henderson and Williams. Against Northwestern, Williams was a 1-man gang with Stroud’s scrambles sprinkled in.
But both backs were available in the previous 2 games in which the Bucks rushed for less than 100 yards, so only having Williams was a surprising upgrade in production. Maybe this solidifies his argument to be RB1.
There’s also a chance it ultimately will not matter which player is Ohio State’s running back, or even if the Buckeyes have trouble establishing the run. Because there may not be a set of circumstances that permits an opposing defense to make Ohio State this 1-dimensional for the rest of the season.
Inclement weather is to be expected in a Midwestern November. But the near gale-force winds that hit Saturday were exceptional even by those standards. It would take some very freaky weather to once again make Stroud a non-factor in the passing game.
And perhaps that is the one way in which Ohio State lucked out this week. Playing on the road against a more capable defense, the Buckeyes might have found themselves in some real trouble in these conditions.
Instead, Ohio State got Northwestern — a team that found a formula for beating the Buckeyes, but wasn’t good enough to take advantage of that unusual circumstance.