It won't get any easier for the Wildcat passing game on Saturday, for a number of reasons. For starters, Northwestern will be lacking any established rushing threat, since Sutton is out for the season with a wrist injury that required surgery, and Conteh suffered a knee injury this week that will keep him out of the game. They'll also be facing the Big Ten's leading pass defense in the Buckeyes, and they're not even sure their starting quarterback will be healthy enough to play. Bacher sat out Northwestern's victory over Minnesota last week with a hamstring injury, but his backup made a big splash in his first start for the Wildcats.
All junior Mike Kafka did while subbing for Bacher last week was to set an NU record for rushing yards by a QB, with 217 yards on 33 carries, and threw for another 153 yards and two touchdowns on 14 of 19 passing. So maybe they have a rushing threat after all. Kafka is a solidly built (6'3", 220) kid, with better than average speed, but the yardage won't come as easily against the Buckeyes as it did against the Minnesota defense.
Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald hasn't tipped his hand yet as to whether Bacher or Kafka will be his starter on Saturday, but if nothing else, he knows a lot more about his backup than he did a week ago.
The offensive line is young, with only two starters back, but Al Netter is a promising tackle, and just one of three redshirt freshmen starting on the line for Northwestern. Fitzgerald's focus on the OL in his recruiting looks like it's paying off, but they're in the 'growing pains' stage at the moment.
There's nothing like a game-winning defensive touchdown to give a struggling unit some confidence. That's exactly what happened for the Wildcats against Minnesota last week, in a tie game that looked to be headed to overtime, when Gopher QB Adam Weber's pass was tipped and intercepted near midfield by safety Brendan Smith in the games waning seconds. Smith's touchdown on the long return came with just 12 seconds left on the clock, and the Wildcats will be trying to carry that momentum into Saturday's contest against a Buckeye offense that has had their own share of troubles.
The defensive line for Northwestern is led by junior defensive end Corey Wootten and senior tackle John Gill. Wootten (6'7", 270) combines great size with rare athletic ability that jumps out at you when you see this team play. At linebacker, you'll see Prince Kwateng and Nate Williams in on a lot of tackles. They are both active, physical players that run well and hit hard. The secondary for the Cats is pretty good too, with some new blood in the person of redshirt freshman cornerback Jordan Mabin (Nordonia).
The Northwestern defense must be wondering which Ohio State offense is going to show up on Saturday....the one that hasn't scored an offensive touchdown in two of its last three games...or the one that exploded for 45 points in the third one. The off-week for the Buckeyes served to give Beanie Wells some time to bounce back from his ongoing physical problems, and also provided the coaches time to work with Terrelle Pryor on the concept of getting back up on the horse after taking a fall.
The freshman quarterback took it pretty hard when his 4th quarter fumble was the turning point in the loss to Penn State. Everything we've learned about the competitive fire burning in Terrelle Pryor leads us to believe he'll bounce back with a solid performance against Northwestern, but the overall emotional state of this Buckeye team is impossible to predict until we see them hit the field.
So What Happens?
Northwestern has had a fine season so far, and deserve all kinds of credit for a great leap forward in 2008. It is fair to point out though, that their conference wins have come against Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota, and their non-conference wins have been over Syracuse, Duke, Ohio and S. Illinois...not exactly the Murderers Row of college football. Just sayin'.
All the question marks about the Buckeyes' team mindset notwithstanding, I just don't see this Northwestern team hanging around with Ohio State for four quarters. If Bacher (the passer) plays at QB, he faces the league's best pass defense. If Kafka (the runner) plays, and has 33 rushing attempts again, the Wildcats could end up with two injured quarterbacks instead of one. The NU offense is down to their third string running backs, and their QB's have thrown nearly as many interceptions as they have TD's. This unit shouldn't score more than 14 points on OSU.
On the other side of the ball, I expect Pryor and the well-rested OSU offense to bounce back with enough production to put some touchdowns on the board. They'll have to do it without Ray Small, however, as the junior wide receiver has been suspended for violating team rules, and will not play this week. That won't slow down the Buckeyes rushing attack at all though, and the tandem of Wells and Pryor keeping the ball on the ground should allow the Bucks to control the pace of the game, and come away with their 28th win in the last 29 games against the Wildcats.
I'm thinking 30-13.
Links:OSU Athletic Dept. Game Notes 2008 Northwestern Roster