EVANSTON, Ill. — The scene outside Ryan Field before today’s game between Ohio State and Northwestern will feature all manner of oddities.
ESPN’s College GameDay. Scalpers. Empty libraries.
At a school where the AP poll that really matters is the Academic Progress one, No. 16 Northwestern is frothing with anticipation for a showdown billed as its biggest in 18 years. Maybe more.
One purple-slanted blog wondered if it’s the “biggest game in Wildcats’ history.”
“They should have hype,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “They’re undefeated, and they have a very good team. A very good team. It’s a big game for them.”
“But I’ve got news. It’s a big game for us, too.”
A week after opening conference play with a home win against Wisconsin, the fourth-ranked Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) are embracing a second straight top-25 prime-time test.
“It’s why we come to Ohio State,” defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “Big games, night games, they are awesome. We play really well on the road. I don’t know how many places can say they have back-to-back night games, which are huge games.”
The big-picture implications are clear. If Ohio State can win what could be the game of the year in a watered-down Big Ten, its road to another perfect regular season becomes wide open. The Buckeyes would not face another ranked team until their season finale at No. 19 Michigan.
But for now, no one is looking ahead. Northwestern (4-0) no longer provides that luxury.
While OSU has has won 28 of its last 29 meetings against NU — including routs in its three previous games against eighth-year coach Pat Fitzgerald from 2006 to 2008 — these aren’t any of your older relative’s Wildcats.
Northwestern, which returns the top skill players from its first bowl-winning team since 1949 — including quarterback tandem Kain Colter (runner) and Trevor Siemian (passer) and All-Big Ten back Venric Mark (1,366 rushing yards last season) — has scored at least 30 points in a school-record six straight games.
Coming off a bye week, the Wildcats are back in good health, too. Mark will return after missing three games with a lower body injury.
Expect the hosts to challenge a Buckeyes secondary rattled by the loss of senior safety and captain Christian Bryant to a season-ending broken ankle last weekend. OSU will turn first to senior Corey Brown, with redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell and freshman Vonn Bell standing by.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, will look to more than keep pace. A week after quarterback Braxton Miller matched a career high with four touchdown passes, Ohio State will challenge a Wildcats passing defense ranked 119th nationally (307.5 yards per game).
Not to mention Meyer’s pledge to reintroduce senior running back Jordan Hall, who had only one carry last weekend as OSU rode the broader shoulders of Carlos Hyde against Wisconsin’s packed-in looks.
So what will it be? A night worth the long wait for a program craving a rare taste of national relevance? Or can Ohio State ruin the party and take its largest step yet toward contention for a national championship?
“There’s two teams out there that will be playing for a lot,” Meyer said.