Ohio St.-Northwestern Preview

Updated: November 4, 2008, 2:05 PM ET
Associated Press

A turnover in the fourth quarter of its last game helped send Ohio State to its second loss of the season. Northwestern was on the other end of a game-changing turnover last weekend.

The 12th-ranked Buckeyes look to bounce back from their first conference loss as they visit the Wildcats in a Big Ten matchup Saturday.

Ohio State (7-2, 4-1) was idle last week after a disheartening 13-6 defeat to then-No. 3 Penn State on Oct. 25. The Buckeyes had the ball and a three-point lead when freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor fumbled on third-and-1 early in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions recovered and scored the winning touchdown on the ensuing drive.

"You probably learn less in victory than you learn in defeat," said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, whose team's bid for an unprecedented third consecutive outright conference title appears to be in serious jeopardy. "We'll learn a lot about ourselves."

Ohio State's next test comes against a Northwestern team that's riding high after a thrilling 24-17 road victory over then-No. 20 Minnesota last Saturday. Brendan Smith grabbed a deflected ball and returned the interception 48 yards for a score with 12 seconds remaining to lift the Wildcats (7-2, 3-2).

The win was Northwestern's first over a ranked team in nine tries since topping then-No. 22 Michigan State on Oct. 22, 2005.

"We're a disciplined football team. That goes back to the young men we recruit," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Understand that to win a football game you've got to fight and scratch and claw for 60 minutes, and good things are going to happen for you."

Fitzgerald, though, thinks he'll need a much stronger performance from his team to beat Ohio State.

"We played just well enough to win a Big Ten football game on the road," he said last Saturday. "Against the Buckeyes, that's not going to cut it to even give us a chance to compete. It's going to be a huge challenge for us."

That may be the case, but Tressel isn't completely confident in his offense, which doesn't rank in the top half of the Big Ten in any major category and is 10th in total offense. Among the 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, the Buckeyes are 43rd in rushing (168.7 yards per game), 106th in passing (149.7), 97th in total offense (318.3) and tied for 68th in scoring (24.6 points per game).

"The inconsistency that we've had across the board -- and not just up front, across the board -- has lent itself to not being ecstatic about our offensive performance," Tressel said.

"We need to get better on offense. There's no question about it."

Northwestern's offense didn't have much trouble last week despite the absence of two of key starters. Quarterback C.J. Bacher missed the game with a hamstring injury, and running back Tyrell Sutton is out for the season with a wrist injury.

Backup quarterback Mike Kafka stepped up, rushing for 217 yards -- a record for a Big Ten QB -- and completing 12 of 16 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns in his first start at the position since 2006. His success helped the Wildcats receive the 26th-most votes in the AP poll for the second time in three weeks.

"I'm so proud of Mike, the way he stepped up and being prepared for the opportunity last week," Fitzgerald said. "I thought he managed the game well. But I really liked the way he ran the ball."

Kafka could again be under center against Ohio State. Fitzgerald on Monday listed both Bacher and Kafka as the potential starter. The coach, though, said Bacher is improving and will start if healthy.

Since Northwestern's 33-27 overtime victory over then-No. 7 Ohio State in 2004, the Buckeyes have outscored the Wildcats 160-24 in three straight wins, including 112-17 in Fitzgerald's first two games in the series.

"We sure have not played very well against Ohio State the two years that I've been here as the head football coach," Fitzgerald said. "They are the best football team we've played all year."

Ohio State has a 56-14-1 lead in the series, and is 25-6-1 in Evanston.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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