COLUMBUS — It’s the yin and yang of college football: Northwestern’s spread vs. the Ohio State base 4-3 defense.
Sometimes Northwestern puts four or five receivers in the pattern. At times the Wildcats have a full backfield and at other times there’s nobody there but the quarterback. No tight ends, then two of them, a run up the middle followed by a 45-yard bomb.
This is Northwestern’s offensive philosophy: To appear to have no philosophy. To have no tendencies, no traits that a defense can prepare for and plan on. To make every snap an adventure. To make chaos an ally.
Even though No. 8 Ohio State is favored by three touchdowns to beat Northwestern and its fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants spread offense on Saturday, the Wildcats have the Buckeyes’ full and undivided attention.
“They make you prepare for a lot,” Ohio State safeties coach Paul Haynes said of the Wildcats offense. “You’ve got to be very, very sound against the run. And they have a very good controlled passing game. We have to make sure we’re covering all the bases.”
The spread, as the name implies, is an offense based on spreading a defense as much as possible from sideline to sideline. It came into vogue in the last 10 or 15 years, just about the time Northwestern lifted itself from decades of defeat.
Ohio State’s defense is not nearly so freewheeling as the spread. But at the same time, the base 4-3 relies heavily on reading the offense, intuition and reaction. A great defense, similar to an effective spread, also takes some chances, relies on a group dynamic and tries to make the other side guess what it’s going to do next.
They are opposing forces, yet in some ways linked.
For years Northwestern — the smallest school in the Big Ten and the only private one — tried to play smashmouth football with the rest of the conference. But the Wildcats were invariably smaller on the lines and not as fast elsewhere on either side of the ball. Year after year Northwestern was one of the weakest teams in the nation.
Then things began to change when Gary Barnett took over in 1992. After winning eight games his first three years in Evanston, all of a sudden the Wildcats went 10-2 overall and 8-0 in the Big Ten to win the 1995 conference title — the school’s first since 1936.
They did it, in part, with an offense that was difficult to pin down, that didn’t follow conventions. Speed trumped size, the playbook was wide open. Gifted high school football players started to choose Northwestern because it took chances on the field in addition to having a difficult curriculum.
When Randy Walker took over for Barnett in 1999, he embraced the spread. After Walker died suddenly in the summer of 2006 and was replaced by former Northwestern linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, the new coach stuck with the spread.
“One of the most creative teams in the league,” is what Ohio State coach Jim Tressel calls the Wildcats.
BUCKEYE BUZZ: Coach Jim Tressel revealed several important injury and personnel notes after practice. First, standout freshman WR Dane Sanzenbacher will not be available to play because of an undisclosed injury he suffered in Saturday’s victory at Washington. In his stead, Ray Small, who missed the first two games with a sprained ankle, will be the third WR on offense.
Kicker Aaron Pettrey, who has yet to play this year because of a muscle strain in his leg, is “feeling good and he’s going to be able to help us,” Tressel said.
Jermale Hines, a freshman LB out of Cleveland’s Glenville High School, is enrolled in classes at Ohio State. He has not practiced with the team while an academic problem was ironed out.
“We haven’t gotten the go-ahead yet, but he’s here and matriculating,” Tressel said.
Tressel also said that starting fullback Dionte Johnson and backup tailback Brandon Saine are both questionable with injuries. He declined to disclose the nature or severity of their injuries.
“It’s serious to me if one of our guys is questionable,” he said with a laugh.
WELCOMING COMMITTEE: Several key recruits are expected to be on hand for the Buckeyes’ game with Northwestern on Saturday. It’s hard to beat a raucous crowd on a sunny autumn Saturday as a recruiting tool.
“It’s kind of been a trend in official visits,” said tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator John Peterson. “A lot of kids have open dates, or they have a Thursday game that fits into their schedule. They are able to take an official visit, which we’re allowed to pay for, and we can show them the atmosphere and some of the things that a game day brings.”
Asked if it’s important to get early commitments from recruits, Peterson said, “As long as they’re the right ones.”
NOT AMBULATORY: Most visiting teams hold a walkthrough at Ohio Stadium on Friday after they arrive. Northwestern does not plan to visit the stadium until game day.
HONORARY: Ohio State’s honorary captain for the Northwestern game is former Admiral King standout Raymont Harris, the self-named “Quiet Storm” who starred as a running back from 1990 to 1993 before playing six years in the pros.