- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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The schedule doesn't appear to offer many more hurdles for No. 4 Ohio State, but there's a big one in its way at No. 16 Northwestern (TV: ABC, 8 p.m.) on Saturday. The Big Ten showdown comes fully stocked with talent, stakes and what figures to be an energized crowd under the lights.
Title chase is on: The Buckeyes haven't exactly hidden their goals for the season since putting up their enormous banner in the spring signifying the start of "The Chase," and this trip to Northwestern has always stood out as a defining moment in the pursuit. Ohio State typically gets strong support on the road, and the environment might not be overly hostile, but the Wildcats can make life difficult with a versatile offense and an opportunistic defense. Northwestern is also unbeaten and could put itself in the conversation for something more than a Big Ten title with a win, giving both teams plenty to play for as October action kicks off.
Secondary concern: Ohio State is still dealing with the disappointment of losing senior Christian Bryant to a broken ankle, and the players and coaches might not ever truly get over it this season. But the Buckeyes obviously have to fill the safety's on-field role somehow, and the schedule isn't going to stop to allow them extra time to process their emotions or tinker with the rotation. Corey Brown is next in line and will start alongside C.J. Barnett, which will continue to give the defense two veterans at safety. But Tyvis Powell and true freshman Vonn Bell should see expanded roles in the nickel and dime packages moving forward as well, and Northwestern is capable of giving all those defenders a stern test.
Individual awards up for grabs, too: Braxton Miller won't be able to recoup the opportunities he lost to pile up stats while effectively missing three games in September, but his return last week against Wisconsin certainly put him back on the map with Heisman Trophy voters anyway. The junior quarterback was superb delivering the football, showing off his improved arm with four touchdown passes, claiming yet another win over a ranked opponent and keeping his team on track to compete for trophies at the end of the season. Another performance like last week's could easily restore his standing among the top candidates for the game's highest individual honor.
Hall passed: Jordan Hall is again listed as the starting running back on Ohio State's depth chart, but that didn't mean anything a week ago when Carlos Hyde actually filled that job when the game started and then took almost every rushing attempt that went to a tailback in the win over Wisconsin. Urban Meyer lamented Hall's lack of touches shortly after the victory was in the books, and the Ohio State coach has continued to stress the senior's value in the attack throughout practice this week. But for however the depth chart might read, Hyde is clearly the top choice in the backfield, and finding ways to keep Hall involved while still getting the football in Dontre Wilson's hands is going to be a chore.
Roller coaster for Roby: The All-American skills were on display at times, but overall Bradley Roby delivered something of a mixed bag a week ago at cornerback. He made an athletic play in the backfield, but the tackle for a loss appeared to cost him a bit physically. He made an interception and broke up three passes, but he was also burned a couple timesm and Ohio State gave up more than 200 yards receiving to Jared Abbrederis. The junior's natural athleticism isn't up for debate, but Roby will have his ability to bounce back from an uneven performance put to the test. The reconfigured secondary will need him at his best against the Wildcats.
2dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
4dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy