So, Northern Illinois. Why even bother with a preview? Can't you just write "easy win" and move on?
We aren't talking the Citadel or Sam Houston State here. Northern Illinois is one of the favorites to win the MAC. They aren't great, but there are some genuinely good players on the team.
Too easy. Name four.
The aforementione Mr. Wolfe is one. Last season, he had games of 202, 226, 280, and 325 yards against MAC teams, but also went for 148 yards versus Michigan. He's small, 5'7" and 173 lbs., but he's good, and he's a darkhorse Heisman candidate. Very darkhorse, like "some sort of theoretical frequency in a sci-fi novel that exists beyond black" darkhorse, but if he played at a bigger school, he's be getting some real publicity. There's some fear he can't handle the workload that might be asked of him throughout the season, but that won't be much of a problem in Week One, will it? I think he'll be fine. I'm on the Garrett Wolfe bandwagon. He'll be fun to watch the rest of the season, but not so much that opening weekend.
Wolfe is the best-known player on the team, but Doug Free, the left tackle, is the best pro prospect. He's big (6'7", 302 lbs.), quick, and athletic. He probably also has good footwork and a great motor, or something. I gotta be honest, I don't know all that much about good O-line play, so we'll just say he's good and move on.
Sean, you're out of your element!
Phil Horvath is good player number three. He's their QB, and he was solid last season. At one point in the season, he was fourth in the nation in pass efficiency. Unfortunately, he broke his arm the next week. But dude holds No. Ill.'s single game passing record (486 yards, which would be good enough for the record at OSU, incidentally), and completed 71% of his passes. The only knock on him is that he threw eight picks in his nine games last year. Those interceptions apparently came mostly on downfield passes, so he will occasionally put one up for grabs, which will be a great opportunity to make or break our young secondary's confidence.
The last guy I'll mention is Adriel Hansbro, cornerback. In a nice piece of symmetry, his twin brother, Alvah, is the other corner, but Adriel's a bit better. He's not fantastic (the defensive backfield as a whole is no better than serviceable), but he will make plays if given the opportunity.
I can't help but notice three of those four players are part of the offense. Is the Huskie offense an unstoppable juggernaut?
Not exactly. They put up some impressive numbers, and there is talent there, but as always, you must remember the context of the statistics. The Huskies play in the MAC, which has a few pretty good teams, but also has plenty of really bad teams. Expect Horvath and Wolfe to play below average against the Buckeyes, not because they're bad, but because their average includes teams like the Directional Michigans and Ball State (who beat the Huskies last year).
When the Huskies have the ball, expect to see a lot of Garrett Wolfe, even when they're behind, just because he's that good. He'll likely be bouncing it outside quite a bit. Northern Illinois's tackles are pretty good, but the interior of their line is. . . not so good. And since the defensive tackles are the strength of our d-line, that would be a bit of a mismatch. So a lot of tosses and sweeps will likely be run, and more than a few runs designed to go inside will end up going outside. It'll be a great opportunity for the linebackers to make a play, but also a chance for Wolfe to make them look stupid. He'll probably do that a couple times, but I think the defense will keep him contained, since that should be their first priority.
If things go as expected and Northern Illinois is behind, Horvath will probably try to make things happen downfield, giving the defensive backs a chance to earn some adjectives, whether it's "ball-hawking" or "sieve-like." The receivers are big and fast, and our corners probably won't see much help as the safeties step up to help stop Wolfe. It'll be a challenge for the corners; here's hoping they're up to it.
Overall, Wolfe will look decent, but not great, through three quarters of the game. In the fourth, Horvath will play catchup, and will probably get a score or two in the fourth, but will also make a mistake or two. The Buckeye defense will be up to the challenge of stopping the Huskies, and earn some confidence headed into Texas.
What about when we have the ball?
Like I said in the team preview, I think we'll see a lot of running. In this case, though, it won't be just because Tressel likes to control the ball, but because I think we'll have a real advantage on the ground. The theory behind the Huskies' defense is "speed instead of size." For example, their biggest D-lineman is NT Zack Holycross, who weighs 284 lbs. By contrast, OSU's smallest potential starter on the O-line is Tim Schafer, at 290. If I'm Tressel, I use our size advantage, as well as our depth on the offensive line and at running back, and run right at Northern Illinois. I think there will be plenty of carries for Antonio Pittman and both Maurice and Chris Wells.
The passing game should also be successful. Northern Illinois had trouble with the deep ball last year, and that's something of a specialty for Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez. I think Troy Smith will find one or both of them behind the defense for a long score or two. He will have to watch for their linebackers underneath, however. They aren't especially big, but they are fast. Guys that look open might not be with those guys there.
One last note: don't expect much in the way of trick plays. Tressel won't dig deep into the playbook and put anything on film for Texas to look at if he can avoid it. You might see a screen or reverse for Ted, but I wouldn't be on it. The offense should be vanilla, but effective.
Alright, let's do the whole "sum it up by completing the sentence" thing. Northern Illinois wins if. . .
. . . Ohio State overlooks them. If the Buckeyes are completely unprepared or uninterested, Garrett Wolfe will run all over them. If their preparation consists of "stop the star, Garrett Wolfe," they'll be surprised when Horvath throws the ball over their heads. On offense, Ohio State has a definite edge, but that will be nullified if the O-line thinks they won't have to work to push around the Huskies, or if Troy Smith believes he can throw wherever, whenever he wants.
And Ohio State wins if. . .
. . . they show up. The defense is talented enough to contain the Huskies' offense, and our offense has a big advantage on their defense.
Ok, give us your prediction for the game.
It'll take the Buckeyes about a quarter to settle down and get rolling, but once they do, they'll control the game. The running game will look very good and the passing game will be solid, though Troy might only pass for 150 yards. The defense is decent, holding Garret Wolfe to about 90 yards on about 25 carries, with a touchdown. The Huskies get, say, a touchdown and a field goal fairly late to make the game look closer than it is, but OSU controls the game and wins comfortably. 38-27 sounds about right.
OSU's currently favored at 19. You're saying don't take that bet?
I wouldn't be surprised if they beat the spread, but this is still a Tressel-coached team. He'd be happy to win by ten or so. I expect you to take OSU to beat the spread regardless of the points, though. It's important to get good mojo working, and I will not let any imaginary associates of mine build up bad karma for the Buckeyes.