The reigning Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois Huskies will travel to Columbus to take on the reining Big Ten champion, National Champion, and #1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday. The game will air nationally on ABC at 3:30 EST.
To say Ohio State is loaded with talent would be an understatement. After defeating Alabama and Oregon to capture the first ever College Football Playoff championship, the story of the offseason in college football was the Buckeyes' quaterback situation.
After winning back to back Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards in 2013 and 2014, Braxton Miller missed the entire 2014 season with a shoulder injury. In stepped J.T. Barrett, who led Buckeyes to an 11-1 regular season record and posted a Big Ten record 44 total touchdowns before breaking his leg in a November victory over rival Michigan.
Having a third string quarterback make his first career start in the Big Ten Championship game might be a death blow for some teams, but most schools do not have a six-foot-five-inch, 250 pound beast who runs just as well as he throws in that position. Cardale Jones, or "12 gauge" as the kids call him would lead the Buckeyes to a 59-0 thrashing over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, as well as the aforementioned victories over Alabama and Oregon in the College Football Playoff.
Miller announced he would move to wide receiver just before the dawn of fall camp, and Jones beat out Barrett for the starting job in the Buckeyes' much anticipated opener at Virgina Tech. Jones threw for 189 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Ohio State's 42-24 triumph in Blacksburg and added another 99 yards and a score with his legs. While Jones is the unquestioned starter heading into the Northern Illinois game, Barrett will most likely see action as he has in the first to games.
As for Miller? He seems to have acquainted himself nicely in his new position.
Aiding whoever is behind center for Ohio State is all-world running back Ezekiel Elliot. Elliot rushed for 1878 yards (6.9 YPC) and 18 touchdowns last season, including a whopping 696 yards and 8 touchdowns in the Buckeyes' three postseason games. Gone is the crop top, but the production is still there as Elliot has rushed for 223 yards and 4 touchdowns in Ohio State's first two games.
Possible top overall draft pick Joey Bosa anchors the defense from his defensive end position. A year after leading the Big Ten in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (21), Bosa was suspended for the opener against Virgina Tech. His first game back? A 38-0 shutout over Hawaii, a game which saw the Rainbow Warriors gain only 165 total yards of offense.
Behind Bosa, Ohio State has arguably the best safety duo in the country in stud Vonn Bell and Tyvus Powell. Powell, who may be as entertaining off the field as he on, was the defensive MVP of the College Football Playoff national championship, making a team high nine stops. Bell is a likely first round pick and scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery and return last week.
Defeating Ohio State is a difficult task for any MAC team. Actually, it has been a nearly impossible task as Ohio State has not lost to a school from the Mid-American Conference since losing to Buchtel College in 1894, now known as Akron. With that being said, there is not a MAC team more equipped to give the Buckeyes trouble than Northern Illinois.
The Huskies have posted an undefeated 3-0 record against schools from the Big Ten the last two seasons, including becoming the first MAC team to defeat two Big Ten schools in the same regular season in 2013 by posting wins in Iowa City against Iowa and in West Lafayette over Purdue. In fact, dating back to Northern Illinois' 2009 victory at Purdue, the Huskies are 5-1 in their last six games in Big Ten stadiums, with the only loss coming at Illinois in 2010.
As for Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, he has faced NIU once in his illustrious career. He brought his nationally ranked Bowling Green Falcons to DeKalb in 2002. The result? A 26-17 defeat at the hand of the Huskies.
Northern Illinois comes to central Ohio with arguably the most productive quarterback and wide receiver duo in the nation through two weeks. A year after leading the Huskies to their third MAC championship in four years, Drew Hare has hit the ground running in 2015. His 718 yards passing and 78.1 completion percentage are both good for sixth in America. After only throwing two interceptions all of last year, Hare has yet to throw it to the wrong team in 2015, to go along with 6 touchdown passes.
North Dakota transfer Kenny Golladay has been Hare's favorite target. Golladay's 357 receiving yards are second in the nation, and trails Baylor's Corey Coleman by only three yards for the national lead. The return of Tommylee Lewis after sitting out the Murray State game should only strengthen the Northern Illinois passing attack.
After allowing 281 passing yards to FCS Murray State's KD Humphries in addition to 319 passing yards to Blake Decker and UNLV, the Northern Illinois defense must improve if they expect to be competitive against the defending champions on Saturday. Both Jones and Barrett struggled in Ohio State's victory over Hawaii, but if the defense struggles as it did against two lesser opponents, it will be a long day for the Huskies.
How Northern Illinois can stay competitive
If the 33 point spread does not give it away, Vegas does not expect the game to very competitive. You have to go back to the awful early Joe Novak days to find the last time the Huskies were this big of an underdog. While unlikely, there is a recipe where the game can be competitive into the second half.
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1. Establish the run early
The Huskies have uncharacteristically struggled to run the ball in the first half this season. When asked about the early run game issues, head coach Rod Carey alluded to both UNLV and Murray State stacking the box until Drew Hare and Kenny Golladay forced them to back off. It is very doubtful Ohio State comes out playing nine men in the box like UNLV and Murray State did. Ohio State is better up front, and in all likelihood will play the Huskies' run game straight up early on.
If the offensive line can move Joey Bosa and company around, which will not be an easy task, and get Joel Bouagnon rolling early on, it will force the Buckeyes to bring Bell or Powell into the box to slow down the rushing attack. That is when Hare can take advantage of Golladay or Lewis getting man coverage on the outside. Ohio State has much better defensive backs than either UNLV or Murray State, but Golladay has the combination of size and speed to give even the best corners trouble attempting to cover him. As for Lewis, Florida State struggled to cover the diminutive wide receiver in the 2013 Discover Orange Bowl. He also smoked Iowa for two touchdowns in the first half in Iowa City in 2013. If healthy, he can create separation against anyone.
2. Contain Elliot
Yes, run the ball and stop the run is one of the oldest football cliches in the book, but both are especially true in this case. Hawaii was able to hold Elliot to only 3.7 yards per carry last week, which was the main reason the Rainbow Warriors were only down 17-0 after three quarters. Jones is a freak athletically, but he still is not the most polished passer when you force him to stand back in the pocket and go through progressions.
If the Huskies can bottle up Elliot and force Ohio State into third and medium to long, you hope Perez Ford and company on the defensive line can get to Jones and force him into mistakes.
3. Win the turnover battle and steal a possession
Hey look, more cliches! If NIU wants to have any chance in this game, it is an absolute must they win the turnover battle. The Huskies just do not have the talent to go possession for possession and beat Ohio State. To piggy back off point #2, if they can put Jones into some uncomfortable positions, maybe he makes a mistake. As many big games as Jones has played in, this is still only his sixth career start.
For the Huskies, Hare has been the best quarterback in the country and taking care of the ball since he became the starter last season. Saturday will be his 15th career start and he has thrown two career interceptions. Rod Carey has shown a tendency to throw some surprises against teams from high level conferences. He ran a fake punt and a surprise onsides against Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Tyler Wedel burned Iowa on a fake punt in 2013, and Northern Illinois tried another surprise onsides against Arkansas last season. If the Huskies are close into the second half, I fully expect some sort of trickery.
4. Drew Hare must play well
Of any position on the field, the play of Drew Hare is the most interesting key to watch on Saturday. Hare has been nearly flawless in his first two outings, but he is taking a huge step up in class this week. If Hare can play well, not only will it give the Huskies a chance against the Buckeyes, but it will set up Northern Illinois for another successful season.
EDITOR'S NOTE: While you're at it, predict the score of the game below using SB Nation's new score predictor tool. You may have noticed a similar tool in the MAC Pick'em for the Minnesota-Kent State game. Now you can predict the Huskies to down the Buckeyes by 50 points (or vice versa, whatever). Enjoy!