After missing three weeks with a leg injury, Venric Mark
will return against Ohio State. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
The term "biggest game in program history" gets tossed around a lot, but as with anything, the label typically isn't that simple. History is involved, and fans often can't fully put a game into context until a few weeks -- and in some cases, years -- have passed. However, with regard to No. 16 Northwestern's home date with No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday, the label doesn't seem to be too far off base.
Northwestern enters this game with more prestige and hype than at any point since the standout seasons of 1995 and 1996, thanks largely to a familiar face at the helm. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald was a linebacker the last time the Wildcats received this level of acclaim. He knows exactly what this game means to the school, even he refuses to tip his hand too much.
"Any time you get into these types of challenges it puts a lot of stress on what you're trying to accomplish on a play-by-play basis," Fitzgerald said during the Big Ten teleconference on Tuesday. "We're really focused on the here and now."
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What Fitzgerald has been able to do in today's college football landscape is impressive. It's hard enough to win at a school known more for its academic reputation than on-field success; to win consistently and continue to raise expectations is somewhat remarkable. Stanford has accomplished that feat behind a culture shift spearheaded by Jim Harbaugh and now David Shaw. Vanderbilt seems to be on a similar path under headman James Franklin.
Still, success is fleeting, and if a coach suddenly decides to abandon his post for the promise of more money, more resources and a higher profile (all things that are difficult to turn down), a program is left at risk of returning to its to former whipping-boy status. With the USC job now open following Lane Kiffin's firing over the weekend, both Franklin and Fitzgerald have already been mentioned as potential candidates. (Shaw shot down rumors, saying if he's on USC's short list, "It might be short, but it's one person too long.") And why wouldn't they be? If they've proven they can build a team under challenging conditions, athletic directors naturally think they can do the same when afforded the extra perks that come with an elite head-coaching job.
That's how little the room for error is at these kinds of institutions. Just ask Wake Forest, which under Jim Grobe was able to take advantage of a down ACC to win a conference title in 2006, the school's first since 1970. Grobe was courted by Arkansas and was given an enormous contract to stay at Wake. But after a string of bowl appearances, the Demon Deacons seem to have sunk back to the bottom of the ACC. In 2013, they're 2-3 with a blowout loss to Clemson and a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
One bad recruiting class, a few bad bounces or a departed head coach and a program's up-and-coming status can quickly disappear. Under Fitzgerald, the Wildcats look to have built something for the future, but Ohio State and its 17-game winning streak are standing in the way.
Can Northwestern take the next step? At a place like Northwestern, chances like this don't come around very often.
Shiny happy offensive people
Little by little, the Big Ten is moving away from its power-running reputation and toward the genesis of a whole new offensive world. Urban Meyer brought offensive innovation with him to Columbus, and it's helped the Buckeyes keep pace with the nation's elite. At Northwestern, Fitzgerald seems to have adopted a similar approach.
Ohio State's Braxton Miller is a rare breed of quarterback who can seemingly do it all. He has been put in charge of a more extensive playbook this year, and the coaching staff seems to trust him to make throws in the pocket instead of relying as heavily on his scrambling ability.
"I’d say he’s a dynamic athlete and he can score from anywhere on the field," Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott said during the Wildcats' weekly press conference on Monday. "We just gotta be really gap disciplined, and disciplined across the front, and across the backside as well. We just got to keep him in front of us and have great swarm because that’s how we’re going to get him down -- is if we have everybody flying to the ball and getting after him."
ELLIS: Where does Ohio State's Braxton Miller land in the Heisman Watch?
While the Wildcats may lack a Heisman-caliber guy under center, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian split time running the offense, and with running back Venric Mark set to return this week in some capacity, the Colter-Mark option could be unleashed on the Buckeyes. The 'Cats are getting seven yards a carry out of junior Treyvon Green, who has rushed for 404 yards and five touchdowns, and consistent production out of wideouts Tony and Christian Jones, who have combined for 585 receiving yards and five scores. Much like Ohio State, Northwestern hasn't yet been at full strength. It's entirely possible both teams haven't played their best offensive games to date.
Don't be surprised to see some extra wrinkles from both Meyer and Fitzgerald on Saturday. There is some gamesmanship at play here, and both coaches seem to understand the mantra that if a team is taking time to react, it has already lost.
"They do some similar things we do," Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "We're going to try and use that to our advantage."
Filling the void
For as good as Ohio State's 31-24 win over Wisconsin was last weekend, it didn't come without a cost. The Buckeyes lost senior safety Christian Bryant, who broke his ankle on the defense's penultimate play. Meyer praised Bryant's heart and work ethic in his postgame press conference. “That darn kid has done so much for our program,” Meyer said on Saturday. “He’s come so far, incredible leadership skills. He’s going to be even more valuable outside of football. Doggone it. That’s the hard part of the game.”
In Bryant's absence, Ohio State will look to junior captain Shazier to take on an even bigger leadership role. Meyer indicated as much during the Big Ten teleconference, and Shazier says he feels up to the challenge.
"It's a really tough blow because Christian is like one of the real leaders on the team," Shazier said. "He's like a brother, to not be able to see him out there is going to be tough. I think I can step up as a leader because I'm already a captain. I'm ready to go."
With ESPN's College GameDay coming to Evanston, there buzz surrounding Northwestern has spread to downtown Chicago. Rooting interests around the Windy City have historically been reserved for Illinois or Notre Dame, but with both teams struggling, there's an opening for Northwestern -- or Northern Illinois, the winner of 16 of its last 17 games -- to capture the hearts of a very proud sports town.
While a loss on Saturday wouldn't necessarily stunt Northwestern's growing reputation, a win by the Wildcats could go a long way toward sustaining momentum moving forward. Ohio State carries a lot of weight nationally, and as the world's foremost scholar-athlete Ric Flair once said, "To be the man, you gotta beat the man."
• Northwestern RB Venric Mark: It may seem a bit odd to include an all-conference player in a breakout performers section. After all, how does someone break out once he's already broken out before? But Mark's case is different. A leg injury has sidelined the Tomball, Texas, native since the Cal game, a contest in which he was already hobbled and largely ineffective. After racking up 2,166 all-purpose yards last season, however, he could provide a major spark to the 'Cats' attack.
"It’s a heck of a free-agent pick up," Fitzgerald said at practice this week. "You get an All-American back that hasn’t played yet -- it makes a big difference. We’ll see as the week progresses. I’m optimistic that things will go well.”
For Northwestern to find success against Ohio State, a healthy Mark is key. His first breakout game of 2013 couldn't come at a better time.
• Ohio State RB Dontre Wilson: It's only a matter of time before Wilson turns in his first truly explosive outing. The true freshman is one of those rare talents who is hard to keep off the field; even though the Buckeyes have plenty of depth at running back, Meyer has worked to come up with ways to get Wilson touches. He has been compared favorably to former Florida playmaker Percy Harvin, who starred under Meyer, and can make an impact on the ground, through the air and on special teams.
The ways in which Meyer elects to use Wilson could lead to some mismatches against Northwestern's defense.
• Rodger Sherman, SB Nation & Sippin' On Purple: "Northwestern gets a bad rap for having an average home attendance of, like, 17 fans per game and sometimes having 50-50 looking crowds if an opponent brings a big visiting contingent. That conception is kinda true, but ain't entirely inaccurate: Yeah, the school put a tarp out for some of the games this year. Yeah, there will be, like, 15,000 Ohio State fans there Saturday. Maybe more.
But first off, you underestimate how loudly you cheer when you know there's a section of fans wearing the other color across the way from you. It gets raucous when two teams are trying to shout each other down. And secondly, Northwestern is hype for this like they've never been hype for anything before. Contrary to popular belief, Ryan Field can get rowdy, and never will it have been rowdier than Saturday night under the lights."
• Luke Zimmermann, SB Nation & Land-Grant Holy Land: "The Buckeyes did everything they could against Wisconsin. When you have a 17-point lead against a team that good going into the fourth quarter, you're doing something right. Whether philosophically they took their foot off the gas or not remains open to interpretation, but there's not a lot of reason to expect the on-the-field product to look diametrically different this coming weekend, even with the loss of starting safety Christian Bryant."
The extra point
While at first glance it appears everything is lining up for Northwestern to shock the Buckeyes at home, the pregame hype may actually serve a counterintuitive purpose. The Wildcats' best shot at beating Ohio State might have been sneaking up on the Buckeyes. There's no way to sneak up on an opponent when hosting GameDay and playing on national television in prime time.
Meyer and his team know this game is one of the few true tests left on their seemingly manageable schedule. It's one of the rare chances the Buckeyes have to convince pollsters of their legitimacy as a national title contender. As impressive as Northwestern's recent football success has been, Ohio State is too strong, too deep and too athletic. The Buckeyes should wear the Wildcats down by game's end.