Ohio State head coach Ryan Day knew this was coming. The weather reports were adamant all week that Saturday’s game at Northwestern was going to be wet and windy. His answer in these types of situations has always been that as long as Ohio State handles the conditions better than the opponent, the Buckeyes will prevail.
For much of Saturday’s game, however, it was Ohio State struggling to move the ball through the kind of gale force winds that led to the national weather service sending out emergency information about seeking shelter to the fans in Northwestern’s stadium.
The wind gusted upwards of 50 miles per hour. Punts and kicks in warmups hit invisible brick walls once they got too high into the air. Playing against the wind was disastrous, and playing with it meant that things were still bad, but at least your punt wouldn’t go backwards.
“Yeah. I’ve never been around conditions like this,” Day said after the game. “I don’t know what the numbers show, but there must have been 30 mile an hour winds. And if you ever tried playing golf in 30 mile an hour winds, it’s hard to get off the tee, forget throw a football.”
Ohio State’s plan wasn’t as drastic as Northwestern’s, who threw the ball just twice in the quarters they were going against the wind. The Buckeyes tried to throw the ball against the wind, but in the first and fourth quarters when they were fighting upwind, quarterback CJ Stroud completed just 3-of-9 passes for 21 yards. The Buckeyes threw the ball just once in the fourth quarter.
“We saw this coming, so we had a plan,” Day said. “You could see we were under center some and tried to handle it that way. I mean, there were times where I was concerned about the snap coming back in the shotgun it was so windy. And obviously there was rain there.”
The Buckeyes threw the ball eight times in the first quarter, trying to see if throwing against the wind was even possible. It wasn’t. The lake-effect wind was affecting Stroud and his receivers constantly.
“Yeah, I mean, I’m not sure the exact miles per hour it was, but those conditions are tough, especially when you add rain into it,” Stroud said after the game. “But I feel like we did a decent job when we were trying to throw the ball. I feel like I was ripping through it a little bit. It’s hard to tell where the ball is going from the receiver’s aspect as well.”
When the Buckeyes had the wind at their backs, it’s not like everything was solved. It just provided different problems. In the second and third quarters with the wind, Stroud was 7-of-17 for 55 yards. All told, Stroud completed 10-of-26 passes for 76 yards and no touchdowns. It was the first time in his starting career that he didn’t throw a touchdown pass.
“So we tried throwing the ball,” Day said. “Very, very difficult to throw the ball, for sure, in this game, but almost impossible into the wind.”
The last time the Buckeyes were held under 100 yards passing was against Michigan State in 2016.
With the passing game being such a struggle, the Ohio State offense had to turn to the running game, which also included Stroud for a change.
Miyan Williams got the start at running back and he carried the ball 26 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns. With leading rusher TreVeyon Henderson out for this game, Williams stepped up despite not being entirely healthy himself.
Stroud also had to become part of the running attack because the Buckeyes had to account for all of the extra defenders down in the box somehow. He ended up rushing for 79 yards on six attempts, including a 44-yarder in the fourth quarter against the wind to help seal the win.
“When you’re playing against somebody that knows you’re not throwing the ball, they put two extra guys down in the box,” Day explained. “Usually they put one guy down and there’s a safety in the middle of the field. Well, they put two guys in and play zero [coverage], they say ‘What are you gonna do?’ And there’s only two things you can do at that point.
“One, you get them to the extra defender and try to run them over, which I thought Miyan did a couple times, but they made the tackles. Or you get the quarterback involved and try to equate numbers through the quarterback run, which is not something that we typically do. But this was an extreme case. And C.J. had a really good pull on the third down, or I think it was the fourth down. That was good. And then he had the big run, the explosive run there to seal the game.”
Ultimately, the Buckeyes were the team that handled the conditions best. Not because they outrushed Northwestern 207 to 206, but because they were the only team to score against the wind. Even if they had to wait until the fourth quarter to do it.
This was not a game to write home about, but it was certainly the kind of game you talk about when you do get home. It was an unpleasant experience for everyone involved, and the best thing you can say about it is that you won.
“Even when we tried to get the ball on the perimeter with some of the movement passes, it still wasn’t crisp because that ball was darting in and out,” Day said. “So I can tell you this right now, I’m glad this game’s over.”