EVANSTON, Illinois (WCMH) — Ohio State had a tougher-than-expected trip to Evanston, Illinois, against a Northwestern team that didn’t play as if it was a 38-point underdog.
Crazy weather conditions and some self-inflicted cuts kept the Buckeyes from really asserting control until midway through the fourth quarter. OSU eventually made enough plays to win 21-7, and while it wasn’t what people expected, it was a victory.
And at this point in the college football season, that’s the most important thing.
Here are three takeaways from the Buckeyes’ win:
Some Improvement In The Ground Game
Regardless of the weather conditions, Ohio State entered the contest with a focus on improving a ground game that had sputtered the last two weeks. The Buckeyes averaged 2.20 yards against Iowa and 3.77 against Penn State, with both games showing less than 100 rushing yards total.
The numbers showed improvement against a Wildcats defense designed to stop the ground game as OSU averaged 5.9 YPC and had 207 rushing yards. Miyan Williams had 111 of them, but the surprising figure was quarterback C.J. Stroud, who added 79 rushing yards after coming in with minus-4 for the season.
“It’s all about winning,” Day said. “That’s always been the focus. Really, for half the game you could not throw the ball in this type of weather. But even when the wind was at our back, it was hard to do anything in the pass game. It was not for a lack of trying. If we could have run the ball a little bit better, maybe we could have got some momentum going.”
While the numbers are somewhat encouraging, there are a couple that could still be a source of worry.
Ohio State was faced with third-and-two or less on four separate occasions, and only converted once. The offensive line did a poor job holding blocks and allowed Northwestern to knife into the backfield and corral Williams before he could get up a head of steam.
Northwestern did a good job stacking the box and hitting holes, but Day wasn’t having it.
“No excuse,” he said. “We need to be better… but (Northwestern) did a good job, especially early.”
Ohio State was without leading back TreVeyon Henderson, who didn’t make the trip after aggravating a prior foot injury late in last week’s win over Penn State.
With Northwestern selling out to stop Williams, Day added a new wrinkle.
“They had two extra guys down (in the box defensively),” he said. “That’s the way they are built. We tried to throw the ball at times. Finally, we equated some numbers and got C.J. involved with the run game and found a way to win the game in a very difficult situation.”
Stroud broke off a 44-yard run to the Northwestern five-yard line late in the game, which set up Ohio State’s final touchdown.
“We had to find another way to win,” Stroud said. “I’m like that every game, where I tell coach run me if he wants to, or if he doesn’t it’s up to him.”
Reversal Of Fortune For Stroud
Even though his first collegiate touchdown was a 48-yard run against Michigan State in 2020, Stroud is not known for having nimble feet.
He makes his living with uncanny accuracy and a high football IQ.
So when the air attack misfired, it was time to go to Plan B. Or rather, Plan R, for run.
“I was ripping through it a little bit,” Stroud said. “It’s hard to tell where the ball is going (in this kind of weather). It was tough, but you have to find ways to win.”
To do that, Day flipped the script and called some designed quarterback runs. It was a new wrinkle, one that caught Northwestern off guard. In addition to the 44-yard jaunt, Stroud also had a 16-yard scamper, and he also extended a number of pass plays by scrambling.
“We know how important it is to keep C.J. healthy, and he’s not going to take shots unless we need him to,” Day said. “We needed him to today and he did it. You can see he’s capable when we need him to do it for us.”
The sudden specter of the quarterback run allowed the Buckeyes to finally wear down the pesky Wildcats and made defenders just hesitant enough for Williams to do his thing inside.
While Stroud said that he still thrives on the passing game, he isn’t against tucking the ball and running with it.
“It felt good to get a couple of runs in today,” he said. “Hopefully coach Day calls some more. Everybody in the world will be happier with me.”
Defense Saves The Day
Much as it had to do in the season opener against Notre Dame, Ohio State’s defense stood up and was able to help change the momentum of the football game.
Northwestern took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on an 87-yard, nine-play drive, gashing the Buckeyes with outside zone runs and a sprinkling of quarterback option and designed quarterback runs. The Wildcats averaged 8.7 yards per carry on the drive and pushed Ohio State around decisively.
OSU allowed only 200 yards of offense the rest of the way against Northwestern and limited NU to less just 37 percent on third-down conversions after that scoring drive.
“I thought our guys (on defense) won the line of scrimmage and kept playing,” Day said. “Running the ball that much, it was like playing a Navy or an Army that was coming at you with the triple option. It was gutsy by the defense. They kept us in the game.”
There wasn’t any energy at all from the offense in the first half, so it was up to the stop troops to generate a turnaround.
Northwestern played a smart, conservative game, using the wind to its advantage and leaning heavily on its ground game.
“As the game wore on you realized the pass wasn’t going to happen,” Day said. “You just bring guys lower and lower in the box. I thought the short-yardage situations were excellent.”
Northwestern failed on all four of its fourth down attempts and finished the day averaging just 3.5 yards per carry.
One thing that Ohio State couldn’t do was turn the Wildcats over. Northwestern entered the game ranked 126th at minus-9 in turnovers and had lost the football in every game this season. Ohio State came in plus-9 with back-to-back four turnover contests.