A lot of trends were working against Ohio State as the night wore on in Evanston, but they managed to turn the game in their favor before it was too late.
Much was made about whether or not Urban Meyer should have benched Braxton Miller for Kenny Guiton in the second half. I stood in the Miller camp all along, and he showed both his unique ability and his need for continued growth as the Buckeyes successfully rallied.
While Miller's third-quarter fumble was a damaging play, his 38-yard pass to Philly Brown was one that Guiton could not have made. The wily senior is a good passer who makes the right decisions most of the time, but he would have been sacked by blitzing Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis. And for all of the frustration that sometimes arises when Miller ignores open running lanes to try to make a bigger play downfield (even though his feet are some of the biggest weapons on the team), he showed why he keeps his eyes up all the time when he spotted Brown wide open for a gain of about 30 yards more than he probably would have gotten on his own.
While it can be infuriating watching Miller eschew running lanes at times, payoffs like that make it hard to argue with what the kid is doing. Obviously there is a balance to strike between making big plays and making safe ones – a balance that Miller is still working to strike more consistently, but he is making progress. Again I am curious how he would look if he hadn't lost all those game reps against San Diego State, California and Florida A&M, but that is a ship that has sailed.
Northwestern frustrated the Buckeyes all night on both sides of the ball, but the physicality of the Ohio State offense took over late. The Northwestern defense wilted under the repeated blows from the Buckeye offensive line and rugged runner Carlos Hyde, who made his own holes at times but often had a lot of room to work with thanks to the veteran front line.
For most of the night, the only thing that happened that did not fit the perfect script of an upset was Bradley Roby's blocked punt. Otherwise it looked like the offense's untimely turnovers and dropped passes plus the blown assignments on defense would add up to equal Ohio State's undoing.
But the Buckeyes would have none of that, and that is a credit to their confidence and the work of the coaching staff to make them mentally tough.
Then it helps to have the physical advantage to finish things off.
What we can expect to learn this week: With practices closed, we will have to wait a little bit to see the results, but I am wondering if there will be some depth chart churn during the open week in the schedule.
This is almost a perfect week for the Buckeyes' first of two breaks – only last week would have been better because of the uncertainty in the secondary with the loss of Christian Bryant.
In looking back at the defense's performance in Evanston, big plays allowed are what stick out the most.
Yes, Northwestern's passing game was efficient, but that is how it is designed. Short, easy passes are also what Ohio State often chooses to concede against a spread offense that also has a mobile quarterback. That doesn't fit the personal taste of some people, which is fine, but whatever style of game you want to play you'd hope to be effective at it.
Bend-but-don't-break is no way to play the game if you're going to continually break.
For all of the smart design that goes into the Northwestern offense, it is a unit that does not have a lot of playmakers. The top two are quarterback Kain Colter, who was 12 for 12 passing but did almost no damage (eight carries for 16 yards) on the ground, and Venric Mark, who was held in check other than a 41-yard reception.
Of course, Mark's big play was not a result of his talent so much as a missed open-field tackle by Bradley Roby. And so it went all night that Northwestern was able to manufacture big plays through the air as Mark, Rashad Lawrence, Mike Jensen, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale all had catches that gained more than 15 yards.
The explosive plays are quite alarming, especially for a defense designed to prevent just such gains.
What is the problem? I can't put a finger on it, but I hope to have a better idea after taking a look at the game again. I suspect it is a combination of a lot of things – some miscommunication here, some poor technique there and quite frankly maybe a lack of talent at one sport or two.
Reps and drills in a week with no game could help with the first two, and such practice could give someone else a chance to rise up the depth chart in what figures to be a competitive week even though the Buckeyes won't see someone in a different-colored jersey until Oct. 19.
If there is anything Urban Meyer is known for, it is player development. He is a master of breeding competition, and now he has some extra time to play and a film full of mistakes for motivation.
I am curious to see the results against the Hawkeyes.