Smarting from upset, Buckeyes face improved Northwestern

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Ohio State considers last week's stunning upset by Penn State an aberration, and recent history shows the Buckeyes probably aren't going to lose two in a row.

Teams coached by Urban Meyer have dropped consecutive games only four times in 15 seasons. And Northwestern comes to Columbus as a three-touchdown underdog. The Wildcats haven't won here since 1971.

But No. 6 Ohio State (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) is vulnerable. The passing game has been beset for the past three games with lapses on the offensive line, receivers who can't get open and an inability by quarterback J.T. Barrett to hit game-changing bombs. The running game, too, bogged down in last week's loss.

''Offense always starts with protection,'' he said. ''That was not our best game in protection and giving (Barrett) time to go through his reads.''

Northwestern is playing well, having won four of its last five after a slow start. The Wildcats' last three games have been victories over Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana.

''That's as an improved team as I've ever seen from the beginning until now,'' Meyer said. ''Outstanding. Three big wins, two on the road. Defining wins. The defense is outstanding, gigantic inside guys, so just a very good team.''

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Saturday's game ''is where the heavy lifting starts.''

''You get to the end of October here, you get to November, this is when the rubber hits the road in the Big Ten,'' Fitzgerald said. ''We've got a heck of a steep mountain to climb here these next five weeks, and nobody's got a stiffer challenge than us this week when we've got to take on the Buckeyes.''

Here are some things to watch when Northwestern visits Columbus for the first time since 2007:

TALE OF 2 HALVES: Northwestern went up 24-3 at halftime against Indiana last week, but was shut out in the second half and had to hold on for a 24-14 win. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said he's addressing consistency issues and a lack of effort by some young players in the second half. ''We're an immature team,'' Fitzgerald said. ''We're a 4-3 football team for a reason. We've just got to keep coaching the heck out of them, and that's what we're going to do. Hopefully, we'll get better this week or we'll get killed in Columbus.''

ROTATING RECEIVERS: Meyer has been questioned about his rotating of outside receivers, most of them inexperienced before this season, and whether that could be contributing to the failure of Barrett to get the passing game clicking. Meyer said he likes the rotation and has no plans to change it because he wants to be able to have fresh players on the field late in the game. But he's still looking for one of the young receivers to emerge as the deep-ball threat the team sorely needs. ''There's not a big differentiation in our group right now,'' he said. ''You kind of hope one would separate, and I don't see that quite happening. Noah (Brown) is a pretty reliable guy and had some nice plays, the other ones need to elevate.''

WHERE IS CURTIS?: Meyer has called hybrid back Curtis Samuel the team's most dynamic playmaker. Samuel ranks second in the Big Ten with 142.6 yards per game and 37 receptions. He's the team's leading receiver. Still, he touched the ball only 10 times against Penn State - eight passes and two rushes, one a breakaway 74-yard touchdown run. Meyer acknowledges Samuel should get the ball more but won't dictate that he be involved on specific plays, preferring instead to let Barrett continue to read the defense and take what it gives him.

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Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy

For some of his other recent stories: http://bigstory.ap.org/content/mitch-stacy

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