Oct. 18 NCAA Football Preview and Picks — No. 4 Ohio State (6-0) at Northwestern (1-4)

(Justin Fields photo courtesy Greg Bartram/USA TODAY Sports)

This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.

Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.

When and Where: Friday, Oct. 18, Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill., 8:30 p.m. EDT.

Coming off a bye week and facing a trap game, fourth-ranked Ohio State looks to stay sharp and unbeaten Friday night when they face Northwestern in a cross-division Big Ten matchup.

The Buckeyes (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten East) slipped a spot in the most recent Associated Press Top 25 poll as voters were impressed with LSU’s second win over a top 10 opponent and slotted the Tigers higher.

Ohio State, which has outscored opponents by a staggering 296-53 in its six wins, also hosts West Division co-leader, fellow unbeaten, and No. 6 Wisconsin on Oct. 26.

Northwestern (1-4, 0-3), which won the West Division by three games last season and lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, will be hard-pressed to duplicate that feat as it looks to avoid its first four-game skid since Oct. 11-Nov. 8, 2014. The Wildcats have not started 0-4 in conference play since 2013 but are in danger of doing so after a 13-10 defeat at Nebraska on Oct. 5.

Aidan Smith, making his first collegiate start, completed 19 of 32 passes for 136 yards and an interception. Hunter Johnson sat out due to a knee injury, and the Clemson transfer is questionable for this contest.

The Wildcats have been held to 15 or fewer points in all but one of their games and are averaging 14.2 on the season. Last season’s 45-24 defeat to the Buckeyes in Indianapolis was their seventh straight in the series.

Ohio State has won 31 of the last 32 meetings, with Northwestern’s lone victory a 33-27 triumph at home in 2004.

Buckeyes look to maintain focus

There was not much in the way of injuries or issues for the Buckeyes during the bye week, which meant first-year coach Ryan Day was able to spend most of the time taking the pulse of his team and also keeping them focused on the task at hand without peeking ahead to the Badgers.

“Yeah, the same thing that we’ve been talking about all along, which is all you’re worried about is this game right here, and we all know what happens if you start losing focus, and we cannot do that,” Day said at his weekly media availability. “So this week we’ve talked about having a white belt mentality, which is a mentality that you’re starting right from scratch and that you don’t take anything for granted, you don’t make any assumptions, and if we do that, then we’ll be fine. If we start to look ahead or start to let our egos get in the way, then we’re in trouble.”

Quarterback Justin Fields has played his way into Heisman Trophy consideration with his 1,581 yards of total offense and 26 touchdowns passing and running. What has impressed Day has been the way the sophomore has seamlessly stepped into the Buckeyes offensive system following his transfer from Georgia.

“He was working with just about all of it, you know, and he’s learning it more and more,” Day said of Fields. “And it’s the same thing with the bye week. We’re trying to enhance the best we can and work on our fundamentals. He has certain things he needs to work on, and he’s going to do that. But we’ve kind of thrown the whole thing at him, and he’s been able to handle it.”

Fields’ efforts running the ball has had a knock-on effect for his running backs as J.K. Dobbins and Master Teague have combined for 1,242 yards. Dobbins is second in the nation in rushing at 826 yards, one better than Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor for the Big Ten lead, and is averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

Day, though, offered plenty of respect for Northwestern’s defense, noting it still has many of the same characteristics that helped it reach the Big Ten title game last season.

“Really that whole defense is back from last year, Big Ten Championship game,” Day said. “I think they’re a top 30 defense in the country. I believe they held Wisconsin under 300 total yards. 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.”

Wildcats bracing for Buckeyes offense

While Day gave Northwestern its due defensively at his press conference, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald was equally complimentary and concerned about how his team needs to find a way to at least slow down field and the Ohio State offense

“… Just a stud of a guy and he’s playing outstanding football,” Fitzgerald said of Fields, whom he recruited unsuccessfully. “He’s doing a great job of playing within the framework of what Coach Day wants him to do, and then he’s taken it to the next level by being able to be really explosive with his feet and being really smart when he’s doing that.”

Fields’ successful transition to Ohio State is a stark contrast to Johnson, whom much was expected of after he transferred to Northwestern from Clemson and sat out last season. Both Johnson and Smith have completed less than 50 percent of their passes on the season, which puts a staggering amount of pressure on Northwestern’s defense to keep the Wildcats in the game.

They did that to a large degree against the Badgers last month — Northwestern held Wisconsin to 10 points offensively — but the explosive Buckeyes offense could completely change the dynamic of the game in rapid-fire fashion and Fitzgerald knows that all too well from last season’s title game.

“We had some plays in the championship game where we had outstanding coverage and we had a guy there to make a play, but 7 (Haskins) made a great play,” Fitzgerald recalled. “You watch this year’s offense and it’s the same thing from that last kind of three weeks (of the 2018 season). So, they just do a great job and they’ve got weapons everywhere. Everywhere.

“So, it starts and ends with the quarterback, but everybody else is first-team All-Big Ten in my book. They’re phenomenal.”

Northwestern ranks 123rd in passing offense at 140.4 yards per game and tied for 111th on third down conversion rate at 33.3 percent. That could loom large against a Buckeyes defense that ranks third in the country at 25.6 percent.

Notable Trends

Northwestern is:

  • 1-6 ATS in its last seven games vs. Ohio State.
  • 0-3-1 ATS in its last four home games.
  • 1-4-1 ATS in its last six home games vs. teams with a winning road record.

Ohio State is:

  • 8-0 ATS in its last eight games following a straight up win.
  • 7-0 ATS in its last seven games following a straight up win by 20 or more points game.
  • 5-0 ATS in its last five games vs. Big Ten teams.

*****5-Star Pick*****

Northwestern UNDER 11.5 points (-110)

The Wildcats have struggled offensively for most of the season, and the problem with this matchup comes down to their lack of consistency at quarterback. With both Johnson and Smith completing less than 50 percent of their passes, the Buckeyes are going to walk their safety into the box to help contain Drake Anderson.

Northwestern has neither the deep threat nor the consistency to go vertical for the Buckeyes to back off making the quarterback beat them, and Ohio State has a good defense in its own right.

****4-Star Picks****

UNDER 50 points (-110)

The high-side hook and since tick higher by one-half point offers a chance to be aggressive in taking the under, with the expectation Ohio State will hold Northwestern under 14 points. The under is 7-2 in Northwestern’s last nine Big Ten games and 4-1 in its last five overall. The Wildcats’ defense is good enough where the Buckeyes will have to earn most of their points, and that also plays into taking the under.

Ohio State -17 first half (-105)

This will likely come right down to the wire, with a 21-3 halftime score not out of the realm of possibility. Northwestern has been held to a first-half field goal in each of its three conference games, and there is just a lack of big-play explosiveness that looms large in this contest. Ohio State has that, and when every potential individual breakdown can result in six points, the Buckeyes are the pick.

***3-Star Picks***

Ohio State -27 (-110)

The expectation is this will not happen until late in the contest given Northwestern’s rigid defense, but the biggest reason in taking the Buckeyes is the struggles of the Wildcats offense. If Ohio State’s offense gets going quickly, it will put a huge amount of pressure on whoever is under center for Northwestern, and quite frankly, the offense is just not good enough to keep up.

Yes, the Wildcats played well defensively against the Badgers. But Wisconsin is a straightforward offensive team. Ohio State is a much different and far more dynamic offense, which means Northwestern likely will try to turn Fields into a pocket passer. That means Dobbins and Teague should be able to find success if they can turn the corner on the ground game.

UNDER 27 points first half (-105) 

If the Wildcats play as expected defensively, it will keep Ohio State in front of them to slow the tempo. Northwestern has a quality linebacking corps that can make this happen, but this pick is also counting on Fitzgerald’s team to not score a touchdown in the first two quarters for a fourth straight game.


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