Ohio State football sluggish in windy victory over Northwestern

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

EVANSTON, Ill. – The wind and rain whipped across Ryan Field on Saturday, forcing whatever game plan coaches devised to be altered.

That only partly explains No. 2 Ohio State's struggles against 38-point underdog Northwestern before escaping with a 21-7 victory.

With wind gusts up to 49 mph, Ohio State's passing game was rendered ineffective. C.J. Stroud threw for a career-low 76 yards on 10-of-26 passing.

Ohio State receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. runs after catching a pass on Saturday.

But the weather doesn't totally excuse the Buckeyes for struggling to run the ball for most of the game for the third straight week. Northwestern's run defense ranked 111th in the country entering the game. The Wildcats (1-8, 1-5 Big Ten) are not Iowa or even Penn State defensively.

Ohio State gained only 283 yards, its fewest since the Cotton Bowl over Southern California in 2017.

Stroud, a reluctant runner at best, was the Buckeyes' leading rusher at halftime with only 29 yards.

Ohio State running back Miyan Williams gains yardage on Saturday.

Stroud saved his biggest run for late in the fourth quarter when he broke a 44-yarder to the Northwestern 5 to set up a game-clinching 5-yard touchdown run by Miyan Williams.

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"I'm glad that game is over," said Ohio State coach Ryan Day. "That was like going to the dentist. ...

"I’ve never been around conditions like this. It must have been 30-mile-per-hour winds. And if you have ever tried playing golf in 30-mile-per-hour winds, it’s hard to get off the tee, forget throw a football."

With TreVeyon Henderson missing the game due to injury, Ohio State (9-0, 6-0) counted on Williams to carry the load. But especially in the first half, Williams had trouble finding space. He gained only 22 yards in 11 first-half carries. That included being stuffed on two third-and-1s and a fourth-and-1 because of poor blocking.

Ohio State linebacker Steele Chambers, safety Ronnie Hickman (14) and cornerback Denzel Burke (10) tackle Northwestern quarterback Brendan Sullivan on Saturday.

Williams finally broke free for a 27-yard touchdown that gave the Buckeyes their first lead, 14-7, midway through the third quarter. He finished with 111 yards in 26 carries.

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"We saw this coming, so we had a plan," Day said. "We were under center some, tried to handle it. There were times where I was concerned about the snap coming back in the shotgun it was so windy.

"We tried throwing the ball. Very, very difficult to throw the ball for sure this game, but almost impossible to into the wind. And when you play against someone who knows you aren’t throwing the ball, you put two extra guys into the box."

The Buckeyes' run defense also buckled at times against the Wildcats, who often used direct snaps to a running back. Northwestern took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a 75-yard drive that included runs of 13, 10, 8, 8 and a 16-yarder by Evan Hull in which he cut inside of JK Johnson for the score. Hull finished with 30 carries for 122 yards.

Ohio State linebacker Steele Chambers tackles Northwestern running back Cam Porter on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Ohio State's offense did next to nothing. Stroud's first five passes fell incomplete while the Buckeyes drove into the wind in the first quarter.

But OSU's offense remained stagnant well into the second quarter with the wind at its back. In its first six possessions, Ohio State didn't advance past the Northwestern 47-yard line.

The Buckeyes finally scored after taking over at the Wildcats' 46 on a short punt with just under 5 minutes left. Stroud converted a fourth-and-1 when he faked a handoff to Williams and ran for 16 yards. Two plays later, Emeka Egbuka scored on a 15-yard sweep to tie the game with 2:26 left before halftime.

The Buckeyes took the lead with a 45-yard touchdown drive on their first possession of the second half after OSU stuffed Northwestern on fourth-and-1. Stroud threw to Marvin Harrison Jr. to keep the drive alive before Williams broke a tackle just past the line of scrimmage and broke to the right to run for his 27-yard score.

Northwestern moved to the Buckeyes' 36 with 10 minutes left after converting three long third downs before third- and fourth-down incompletions ended that threat.

Ohio State then forced a three-and-out on a possession starting at the Northwestern 11 before the Buckeyes added their final touchdown after Stroud's 44-yard run.

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