Five things to watch when Ohio State takes on Northwestern Saturday

Let’s call Saturday what it is, shall we? If the Ohio State football game against Northwestern is anything but an opportunity to improve in areas the team needs with an uneventful win, we have real issues.

The Buckeyes are favored to beat the Wildcats by something close to a pinball score, and that means Ohio State will likely get a chance to rest players late in the game and establish some things that have been a topic of discussion the last couple of games.

Yeah, they still have to get things done on the field, but this is probably going to be a contest where we watch the game within the game. But what exactly?

Here are five things to watch when Ohio State travels to Northwestern to take on Chicago’s Big Ten team.

Can Ohio Sate get the running game going again?

Oct. 22, 2022; Columbus; Ohio State Buckeyes running back Miyan Williams (3) runs as Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Quinn Schulte (30) defends on the play during the first quarter at Ohio Stadium. Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Why it Matters

The game against Notre Dame when we saw Ohio State impose its will on the ground at the end of the game seems so far away. That night, the offensive line was firing off the ball, moving the pile and opening running lanes for TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams.

However, the last couple of weeks — against Iowa and then Penn State — the running game has not been consistent. Yes, Ohio State has one whale of a passing game with C.J. Stroud slinging it around to Marvin Harrison Jr, Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming and Cade Stover, but when the weather begins to turn, you’d better be able to move the chains on the ground.

The Game against Michigan is coming up in a few weeks, and we all know how that turned out with Ohio State unable to match what the Wolverines did on the ground with the elements taking center stage.

Can C.J. Stroud stay within striking distance of the Heisman?

Oct. 8, 2022; East Lansing, Michigan; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) celebrates after throwing his fourth touchdown in the first half of the NCAA Division I football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium. USA TODAY Sports

Why it Matters

Though C.J. Stroud was the consensus leader in the race for the Heisman just a couple of weeks ago, most experts now believe he is trailing Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker. While Ohio State prepares to play Northwestern, Hooker is getting ready to play in a huge contest against No. 3 Georgia on the road.

If Hooker struggles against a very, very good Bulldogs’ defense, Stroud is right there ready to pounce. However, it can’t be a week when he just has a ho-hum performance. He has to be sharp and do enough to reel Hooker in a bit. Yeah, the goal is to win the game with a plan that works the best, but it’s worth watching what kind of performance Stroud can put out there.

Can the Ohio State defense continue to build?

Oct. 29, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Kaytron Allen (13) is stopped by the Ohio State Buckeyes defense during the second quarter at Beaver Stadium. Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Why it Matters

The defense has been the story of this Ohio State football season. It is much improved and ranks in the top 10 in both total yards and scoring. However, there was a slide last week from what we’ve seen in 2022.

The Buckeyes gave up 482 yards of offense last week against Penn State and gave up far too many yards on first down trying to keep the running game in check. There were quite a few positives — namely turnovers and J.T. Tuimoloau — but it’s not quite the effort you want to see going forward.

It also helped that Penn State was motivated with the home crowd behind it, but the effort has to be a wee bit better and it all starts Saturday against an offensively challenged Northwestern team. How about that first shutout of the season?

Can Julian Fleming get more involved in the passing game?

Oct. 29, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Julian Fleming (4) runs with the ball during the second quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium. Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Why it Matters

It’s been great to see Marvin Harrison Jr and Emeka Egbuka really step up in the absence of Jaxon Smith-Njigba. And while Julian Fleming has also had his moments, he hasn’t been targeted and had as many big plays as those two.

But he has the ability.

It has been well-chronicled the injuries and starts and stops the nation’s top receiver in the 2020 class has had to endure, but he appears to be more healthy than he’s ever been. Fleming is a big, physical talent that can also get out and run a little, and it’d be great to see him get involved in a three-ring scarlet and gray circus in the passing game.

Can TreVeyon Henderson get more explosive plays?

Oct. 8, 2022; East Lansing, Michigan; Ohio State Buckeyes running back TreVeyon Henderson (32) carries the ball upfield against Michigan State Spartans cornerback Justin White (30) and cornerback Charles Brantley (0) in the second quarter of the NCAA Division I game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium. USA TODAY Sports

Why it Matters

It has been a bit of a strange year for running back TreVeyon Henderson. Not only has he had to share the limelight with Miyan Williams, but he’s also been in and out of the lineup with bumps and bruises.

However, when he’s been in there, we haven’t seen the same big-play ability we’ve been accustomed to. Henderson had a late-game 41-yard scamper against Penn State, but getting free and into the second level of the defense has been harder than anticipated.

We can’t stress enough how much this running game is going to be needed, and a lot of that has to do with getting Henderson in space where he can break out and get electric plays down the field. He should have more running room vs. Northwestern and a boost of confidence could be needed for the home stretch.

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Story originally appeared on Buckeye Wire