Eight days before Ohio State's game against Wisconsin, Ryan Day's team rolled. Again.
This, the Buckeyes' seventh blowout win in a row, came with a 52-3 score under the lights as Ohio State trampled Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.
At some point – as soon as Saturday – Ohio State will get a stiff challenge. Though it only held a 7-3 lead after the first quarter, that didn't happen on Friday.
We're taking a closer look at 11 plays from the 49-point victory that we can learn from as the Buckeyes ready for their top-15 matchup with the Badgers.
1st quarter – 12:49: J.K. Dobbins rushed for an 8-yard gain to convert a first down.
- Justin Fields, on the second third down of the first drive of the game, checked into a run in a 3rd-and-8 situation. The decision was nearly spoiled due to a nickelback blitz off the edge.
- What Dobbins did on this play highlights why he has put himself in conversations about the best running back in the country. The untouched blitzing nickelback had a free shot at the back two yards behind the line of scrimmage. But a jab step to the left from Dobbins before cutting inside caused the missed tackle. Then, as he has done so well this year, he finished through contact to pick up enough yards for the first down.
- Also of note: Nicholas Petit-Frere and Jonah Jackson did a nice job creating a hole at the line of scrimmage, and Branden Bowen took care of a linebacker, allowing Dobbins enough space to operate.
1st quarter – 10:13: Chase Young sacked Aidan Smith for a 9-yard loss.
- For much of the game, Northwestern moved quarterback Aidan Smith around, trying to keep him away from Young. That's just what teams have to do against a pass rusher who is viewed as the best college football player in the country.
- On this sack, Young's only of the game, he never allowed the right tackle to get his hands on his chest plate, swiping them away as he side-stepped and found a free lane to the quarterback.
- Through seven games, Young has 9.5 sacks in 271 snaps. The other five defensive ends who have played the most snaps – Tyreke Smith, Jonathon Cooper, Tyler Friday, Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Zach Harrison – have combined for five sacks in 570 snaps. At some point, Larry Johnson would certainly like to find somebody who can consistently get pressure across from Young. But thus far, that hasn't lessened Young's impact.
1st quarter – 6:15: Isaiah Bowser rushed for a 12-yard gain before Jordan Fuller tackled him.
- It's worth mentioning that Northwestern had five rushes for at least eight yards in its two first-quarter drives. At the end of the first 15 minutes, the Wildcats were averaging 5.8 yards on nine carries. A problem, right? Sure. But not one that should bother the Buckeyes much going forward, and not one that bothered them the rest of the game.
- In the final three quarters, Northwestern averaged 2.8 yards on 38 carries. Back to normal for a defense that ranks fourth in the nation with an average of 2.6 yards per carry allowed through seven games.
- On this play, because Ohio State did not have Baron Browning at its disposal, it used Pete Werner as the middle linebacker on third down and brought in Josh Proctor as a fifth defensive back. Typically, Browning would play middle linebacker and Werner would be at strongside linebacker.
- Robert Landers executed a well-timed swim move but couldn't get his hands on Bowser quickly enough, and Malik Harrison overran the play and got buried by the left tackle. Would this be a concern if it happened again and again? Sure. But it has been seven games, and no team has consistently picked the Buckeyes apart on the ground.
1st quarter – 0:09: Justin Fields completed a 20-yard pass to K.J. Hill.
- This is the Justin Fields difference. What he does here, few quarterbacks can make happen.
- Northwestern dropped eight players, rushed three, yet still got immediate pressure with a defensive end who took advantage of miscommunication between Wyatt Davis and Branden Bowen. Fields didn't panic. He side-stepped into open space and avoided getting sacked by a second rusher while keeping his eyes downfield.
- In that situation, many quarterbacks who run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash would take off on the ground. Knowing the situation, Fields didn't. Instead, he found his footing, never took his eyes off his receivers and hit Hill to convert the first down.
- This is the perfect example of Fields' ability to maneuver in the pocket, threaten defenses with a possible quarterback scramble and maintain enough composure to make a safe, on-time throw on the move.
2nd quarter – 14:25 and 14:16: Justin Fields threw an incomplete pass out of bounds, and then completed a 14-yard pass to Chris Olave.
- Altogether, Nicholas Petit-Frere had a quality first start against Northwestern. He didn't grade out as a champion, though, and the first play in this sequence surely counted against him. Northwestern's defensive end knocked away Petit-Frere's hands, giving him a shot for a sack.
- Fields, though, managed to see him coming and shrugged the end off before making the smart decision to throw the ball away out of bounds. With ample size, he's a difficult quarterback for defensive players to get to the ground.
- The next play, Fields got all the protection he needed before delivering a pass to Olave to convert the first down. Ohio State has thrived while relying on these sideline throws, for it has wide receivers who can create the necessary separation and a quarterback with an arm to make those tosses look simple.
2nd quarter – 11:55: Tommy Togiai tackled Drake Anderson for a 2-yard gain, and then he tackled Aidan Smith for a 4-yard gain.
- Togiai currently has a pair of fifth-year seniors – Davon Hamilton and Robert Landers – listed ahead of him on the depth chart at nose tackle. But through seven games, he has played more snaps than either of them. Back-to-back plays like these show why Larry Johnson hasn't been shy about putting him in the game.
- The sophomore nose tackle blew up the first play by using his strength to knock back the center, forcing to running back to make a cut earlier than he'd prefer. Haskell Garrett got knocked to the ground via a double team, but Togiai's penetration and subsequent tackle made the difference.
- The following play, Togiai had to run all the way from the right hashmark to the home sideline. That pursuit has been a key of Ohio State's defense and set up a third-and-long situation.
2nd quarter – 10:16 and 9:42: J.K. Dobbins ran for 68 yards, and then he ran for a 5-yard touchdown.
- Jonah Jackson made the key block to spring Dobbins to the second level, shoving the defensive tackle two yards backward and into a linebacker who had overpursued. That opened up a lane for Dobbins, who burst through it and made a safety miss to turn what could have been a 20-yard run into a 68-yard gain.
- The following play, Dobbins waved off a substitution to finish the drive off with a touchdown. The threat of Fields running pulled the read defender down the line, opening up the outside for Dobbins.
- Sometimes, it's simple. How has this rushing attack improved from last year's? A more explosive, more powerful Dobbins running behind an improved, punishing offensive line.
2nd quarter – 3:52: Chris Olave caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from Justin Fields.
- Before Wisconsin gives Ohio State a dose of play action from under center, the Buckeyes dialed up their own against Northwestern.
- Northwestern's safety saw the route coming, but Olave had just enough separation for Fields to place a ball in his arms, just in time for him to get both feet in bounds, NFL style.
- The Buckeyes haven't gone under center quite as much as it looked like they might in the first game of the season. However, that's still a part of their game opponents must prepare for to avoid moments like these.
3rd quarter – 9:53: Justin Fields threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Austin Mack.
- Was Mack open? Open enough. At least, enough for somebody with Fields' arm. Had he underthrown this pass, it could have led to an interception or a jump ball. Instead, he put enough air under it to complete it and give Mack time to run for six points.
- Fields' ability to turn what could be risky throws into safe ones has been relatively unexpected. Everybody knew about his athleticism, arm talent and success through the camp circuit as a recruit, but questions about his decision-making and touch remained due to his inexperience in college. He has answered most thus far with shocking ease.
4th quarter – 10:31 and 9:54: Antwuan Jackson Jr. tackled Drake Anderson for a 1-yard loss, then Sevyn Banks intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown.
- With so many defensive starters heading to the NFL after this season – Chase Young, Robert Landers, Jashon Cornell, Davon Hamilton, Malik Harrison, Damon Arnette, Jordan Fuller, Jeff Okudah and possibly Shaun Wade – it has been a welcome sign for Ohio State's defensive backups to play as well as they have in the first seven games.
- Jackson is currently blocked on the depth chart as the fourth-string 3-technique, but he has stood out late in a few games. On the first play of this sequence, he made one of his 2.5 tackles for loss for this season.
- Banks followed it up with a pick-six. He'll be vying for what could be as many as three starting cornerback openings in the spring, so any experience he has this fall could prove to be invaluable in a few months.
4th quarter – 7:46: Master Teague rushed for a 73-yard touchdown.
- Dawand Jones, Matthew Jones, Harry Miller and Gavin Cupp took advantage of a slanting Northwestern defensive line to give Teague an opening.
- The block that truly made the touchdown happen, though, came from Mitch Rossi. The walk-on tight end kicked out the standup defensive end who was crashing down the line. Rossi, at a clear size disadvantage, stymied him, giving Teague a lane.
- Teague's performance through seven games has him sitting pretty as a possible Dobbins successor in 2020. He has the fifth-most rushing yards among all players in the Big Ten.
Other Observations from Saturday's Game:
- Ohio State didn't need Thayer Munford to beat Northwestern, but his presence undoubtedly aided the Buckeyes. I would argue that he and Jonah Jackson have been their best-performing offensive linemen in the first seven games. Josh Myers would have a strong case, too, and Wyatt Davis and Branden Bowen also have played with consistency.
- In totality, this is one of the top offensive lines in recent program history. Few mental errors. Few whiffs. Punishing against the run. Holds up well in passing situations.
- The offensive line – especially Myers, Davis and Jackson – really thrives at the second level. That's been evident throughout the season, and it was again apparent on Friday.
- The Brendon White question remains unanswered. Amir Riep, Josh Proctor and Jahsen Wint all got into the game before him and played in roles that most people assumed prior to the season would be White's. White got into the game for 16 snaps with the backups in the second half, but he still doesn't have a clear role on this year's defense. And the way the Buckeyes have performed on that side of the ball, there's not much motivation to make significant changes.
- Ohio State has backed up its plan to rotate defensive tackles, and it's working. None of the five who play the most – Hamilton, Landers, Togiai, Cornell and Garrett – have turned in monster statistical seasons. But together, they've been an impactful unit.
- Shaun Wade had multiple near-interceptions. He has found himself around the ball a fair bit in the first seven games.
- Teague only got two carries before the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes have been content on allowing Dobbins take the vast majority of meaningful carries. We might find out on Saturday against Wisconsin whether that philosophy will translate to a more competitive game.