No. 4 Ohio State rested, ready for Northwestern

Field Level Media

October 15, 2019 at 12:19 am.

No. 4 Ohio State had its most physical game of the season when it beat Michigan State 34-10 in its last outing, and Buckeyes coach Ryan Day welcomed last week’s bye.

“You get guys to heal up from the first six games,” said Day, whose team plays Friday night at Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. “You get a chance to take a deep breath and get an idea where you’re at, evaluate each player, each unit, where they’re at, where they want to go, where we want them to go.

“And then you get two weeks to game plan. You get to try some things, throw it out, work through it, a little bit more time to prepare and that’s always good.”

This game is a rematch of the 2018 Big Ten title game, won by Ohio State 45-24, but the teams are in very different places right now.

The Buckeyes (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) dropped from No. 3 in the AP Top 25 this week despite not playing, as LSU vaulted to No. 2 after its win over Florida. Northwestern (1-4, 0-3 Big Ten) has lost three consecutive games, scoring a total of 35 points against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

The Wildcats also were off last week, with the extra time helping coach Pat Fitzgerald decide on a starting quarterback.

Redshirt junior Aidan Smith made his first career start in a 13-10 loss to Nebraska on Oct. 5 because Hunter Johnson, a five-star sophomore transfer from Clemson, injured his knee in the previous game and was held out as a precaution.

“We want to be smart giving guys ample opportunity to heal and be ready for the rest of the season,” Fitzgerald said.

He said Monday that Smith being in the program longer and knowing the system gives him an advantage over Johnson. Smith is 12-of-31 passing for 137 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions this season. Johnson has thrown four interceptions in 89 pass attempts, with one touchdown.

While the Buckeyes are favored by nearly four touchdowns, they’ve been in this situation before and suffered shocking defeats the past two seasons on the road against a West Division opponent. They were ranked No. 2 last season but lost 49-20 to Purdue and were sixth in 2017 when they were upended 55-24 by Iowa.

Day said the challenge is to not look ahead to the Buckeyes hosting No. 6 Wisconsin on Oct. 26.

“We all know what happens when you lose focus,” he said.

Working in the Buckeyes’ favor is a defense that ranks first nationally in sacks (28). Defensive end Chase Young is tied for second in the country with 8 1/2. OSU is also fourth in scoring defense (8.8 points per game) and second in total defense (234.0 yards per game).

And the offense has been humming, averaging 49.3 points per game with Georgia sophomore transfer Justin Fields at the helm. He has completed 69.5 percent of his passes for 1,298 yards, with 18 touchdowns and one interception. J.K. Dobbins is averaging 137.7 rushing yards per game.

Northwestern is 125th of the 130 teams in total offense (292.8) and 128th at 14.4 points per game.

Fitzgerald said spirits are not down despite losing to Nebraska on a field goal as time expired.

“This team is fighting their butts off and I hope like hell they don’t listen to anybody outside our program because everybody outside of it is clueless how hard they’re working,” he said. “They’re not playing well enough, they get that, they understand that, but they’re working their butts off to improve.”