They often say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. With that being said, let's preview this week's opponent: the Northwestern Wildcats.
To begin, shoutout to Northwestern.
The Wildcats went winless out-of-conference opponents and started the season 1-3. Since then, Northwestern team has won seven of their last eight, giving the Cat's their first-ever Big Ten West title. Now, Chicago's Big Ten is playing for its first conference championship since 2000. It has been an amazing season for the Cats of Evanston.
Pat Fitzgerald is a Wildcat Through-and-Through
A former linebacker at Northwestern University, Pat Fitzgerald made his head coaching debut in 2006 after the death of Randy Walker. Entering his 13th year as head coach, Fitzgerald is already the most-winningest coach in the history of the program.
Northwestern began the year unranked and, with the additions of Scott Frost to the division and Wisconsin's lofty expectations, were picked to have another mediocre season. After three games, including a gross loss to Akron, running back Jeremy Larkin was forced to medically retire from football.
Despite the retirement of his senior running back and a number of key injuries, the Wildcats pushed through the Big Ten West to punch their ticket to Indianapolis.
Yesterday, Fitzgerald was unanimously named Big Ten's Coach of the Year.
Led by four-year starter Clayton Thorson, Northwestern's offense depends on the run and attacks the perimeter through the air. Thorson, who has thrown for 2,675 yards this season, lives off of short passes and an occasional deep shot after lulling the defense to sleep.
While the Wildcats have used a number of running backs this season, true freshman Isaiah Bowser is beginning to take over the role as the feature back. A finalist for Ohio's Mr. Football award last year, he has run for over 700 yards over his last six games. Bowser is a powerful back with quick feet and powerful speed, something that the Buckeyes have struggled with all season.
Northwestern's conservative style continues on defense. The Wildcats defense is dominated by a bend-don't-break philosophy, forcing teams into long drives. The defense is happy to sit back in coverage and has allowed only ten plays of 40+ yards this season.
Northwestern's gameplan depends on athletic linebackers that can cover and stuff the run. Because of this, sophomore Blake Gallagher is arguably their team's most valuable player. Gallagher leads the team in tackles (second in the Big Ten) and is adept at making stops in the backfield.
History against Ohio State
Between Northwestern and Ohio State, this matchup is about as lopsided as they come. The Buckeyes lead the overall series 61-14-1 with their last loss coming in 2004. Do not be fooled, however, as the last time these two teams faced off, the Wildcats gave Ohio State all they could handle in Columbus.
On Saturday, the Buckeyes will be competing for consecutive Big Ten titles for the first time since 2009 after a season of controversy and underperformance. Northwestern will be searching for their first conference championship in almost two decades and the chance to play spoiler to Ohio State's playoff hopes.