COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio State passed its toughest road test of the season last weekend, beating Penn State 44-31 behind a second-half scoring explosion that opened up what had been a close game.

The victory kept the Buckeyes at No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25, the same spot they occupied in the initial College Football Playoff rankings unveiled Tuesday night.

Now Ohio State is back to the grind. Another trip looms, this one to Evanston, Illinois, to play Northwestern at noon on Saturday.

Ohio State has won nine straight over Northwestern, including the last four in Evanston. The last time the Buckeyes lost in the series was 2004, when the Wildcats won 33-27 for their first win over the Buckeyes since 1971.

Here are a few things to know about the game.

Wildcats have played more like kittens

After a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Nebraska in its opener, Northwestern has lost seven in a row, including many close calls. The Wildcats lost by 10 at Penn State and by a touchdown at home against Maryland, but also fell to Southern Illinois of the FCS in the team’s second game.

To say the season has been frustrating is an understatement, and playing the Buckeyes next isn’t helping.

“They’re a complete team,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Here, it’s play complementary football, win the turnover battle and play tough, physical, four-quarter football, and obviously we’ve been inconsistent at that all year.”

Northwestern ranks 117th in yards per play (4.75) and has been especially poor passing. The Wildcats are completing just over 61% of their attempts, with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Only 24 plays have gone over 20 yards.

Even with a talent like Evan Hull (579 yards, three touchdowns, 45 receptions, two TDs), the offense best qualifies as anemic. The big plays are too few and the giveaways too many – Northwestern has turned the ball over 19 times, tied for worst in the nation.

After years of annoying opponents, a previously fierce Wildcats defense has been mostly declawed. They are allowing 28.8 points per game, including at least 31 points in consecutive games against Wisconsin, Iowa, and Maryland, teams that don’t exactly have prolific offenses.

But Ohio State coach Ryan Day is guarding against his team being complacent.

“These are good Big Ten defenses that make you work,” he said. “We know that Pat takes pride in that unit, and we’re going to have to play well to hit some big plays.”

Fitzgerald is in his 17th season at his alma mater, so he’s learned a bit about underdog mentality and springing upsets. And he may have a secret weapon to stop the Buckeyes.

“I have not seen anything where they have a weakness,” he said. “But we haven’t cut the grass at Ryan Field since our last home game (Oct. 8). So there will be somewhere between two to four feet high. Maybe sprinkling system will come on at 7, again at 10.”

Buckeyes need to work on the ground game

Championship teams need to have a strong running game, but that’s one part of Ohio State’s offense that has been sputtering.

After averaging over five yards per carry for the season, the Buckeyes have struggled to run the ball in the last two games against Iowa and Penn State. They managed just a combined 164 yards for 2.98 yards per carry.

“You have to continue to do what you’re doing and get better every week,” Day said. “If you don’t, not only do you show weakness, but you set yourself up for failure down the road.”

It isn’t totally dire for the Buckeyes. They rank among the top 20 teams nationally in yards per carry and are 34th in yards per game, both figures that many teams would be happy with. But when you have championship aspirations, you aim higher.

“We’re not all the sudden gonna go pass-happy. We’re not doing that,” Day said. “There are some things that we can certainly clean up in the running game, but I don’t know that there are glaring issues.”

Well, there could be one.

Ohio State ran the football 100% of the time when lined up with the quarterback under center or in the pistol formation, compared with 19.6% when he’s farther behind the linemen in the shotgun.

Opponents learn tendencies, and if the Buckeyes don’t change that one up they will become that easier to defend. To counter that, Day has favored using his receivers for screen passes. It has paid dividends at times, although not as much against Penn State.

Day sees it as an extension of the Buckeyes ground game, so it isn’t going away any time soon.

“It’s part of the run game,” he explained. “What it does is it forces them more to run to that side of the field. We want them to defend the entire field. And if they put a lot of guys in a box, then we need to spread the ball on the perimeter. So we always say that we want to be able to attack them inside, attack them outside and then throw the ball down the field.”

Northwestern could be the cure for the ailing Buckeyes’ ground game, as it allows 4.57 yards per carry.

Another weapon emerging in Stover

For years, Ohio State routinely brought in highly decorated tight ends, then turned them into glorified offensive linemen.

Jeremy Ruckert came to OSU as a five-star talent from New York but finished his senior season with just 26 catches and three touchdowns. He’s now in the NFL, as are a number of other Buckeyes tight ends, which might make people wonder whether Day and his coaching staff are wasting a position of value.

This season, it’s apparent that Ohio State realizes what it has in tight end Cade Stover. The senior has nearly reached Ruckert’s output, with 24 passes and three touchdowns, including one against Penn State where he was hit twice and still made it to the end zone.

“Cade Stover, what can you say about that run he had? Clutch,” Day said. “When Cade broke those tackles for the touchdown, it reminded me of (former Ohio State receiver) Ben (Victor).”

Stover came to Ohio State as a defensive standout, playing linebacker as a freshman in 2019. He played defense for the next two seasons, dabbling in offense in 2021. He played linebacker in the Rose Bowl against Utah due to a shortage at the position, but when he moved over full-time to tight end in the spring of 2022, it was as if a new toy has been opened.

“I’m having a blast,” Stover said, noting that he never expected to be scoring touchdowns. “It’s just an honor really to be trusted in that situation and just have an opportunity to make plays.”

Stover — nicknamed “Farmer Gronk” because he grew up on a farm in Lexington, Ohio, just outside of Mansfield — is respected by his teammates and coaches alike and seems to have a limitless ceiling.

“Listen, Cade was unbelievable on Saturday,” Day said. “It was his leadership on the sideline, I mean, he never wavered. He was right there. Any team in America would love to have a player like Cade.”

His touchdown against Penn State was his first since the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin, but Stover has been heavily involved in the offense. He has been targeted at least four times in each of the last three games, catching a total of 11 passes for 109 yards. As teams figure out how to cover Ohio State’s receivers, Stover is often the forgotten component. And that’s just fine as far as he’s concerned.

“I’ll just do whatever they want me to,” he said. “If teams forget about me, that’s great. We have so many great receivers that that’s probably what I would do if I was running a defense. It has given me a lot of opportunities to make plays.”