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Focused solely on task at hand, No. 2 Ohio St. visits Northwestern

Sportsnaut
Penn State's Kalen King drops Ohio State running back Emeka Egbuka (2) in the backfield for a 2-yard loss in the second quarter at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in State College.

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Credit: Dan Rainville / USA TODAY NETWORK

Ohio State continues its collision course with No. 5 Michigan on Nov. 26, but first the No. 2 Buckeyes must wade through three unranked teams, beginning Saturday at flailing Northwestern in Chicago, Ill.

The Wildcats (1-7, 1-4 Big Ten) are looking for their first win of the season on American soil. Northwestern opened the season with a 31-28 win against Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland, but has lost seven in a row since.

“We’ll have our hands full,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said of the Buckeyes (8-0, 5-0). “When you pop on the tape and take a deeper dive, it’s a complete team. Coach (Ryan) Day and his staff have done a phenomenal job in recruiting. They’ve got depth everywhere and explosiveness in all three phases.”

Ohio State earned its spot in the first College Football Playoff ranking Tuesday after a 44-31 win at No. 15 Penn State which was expected to be the Buckeyes’ toughest challenge until hosting Michigan. Following Northwestern, the Buckeyes are home for a meeting with Indiana (3-5, 1-4) before playing at Maryland (6-2, 3-2).

Day said the focus is on his team’s improvement, not the opponent.

“We’ve always said it’s about us, so why does that change this week?” he said. “Last week going into Penn State, it was about us. It was about our preparation. You have to continue to do what you’re doing and get better every week. If you don’t, not only do you show weakness, but you set yourself up for problems down the road.

“(Fitzgerald) does an unbelievable job. I know they don’t have the record that they want to, but we’ve got to go play football, and we want to play at a high level. That’s the goal here, so it really shouldn’t matter who we’re playing against.”

Day takes the same approach to the rankings. Ohio State has reached the playoffs four times, winning the inaugural title for the 2014 season.

“Do I think we deserve to be in the top four? Absolutely,” he said. “Do I think it matters all that much right now? No. What matters is beating Northwestern.”

A player to watch for the Buckeyes is defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau, who against Penn State had six tackles, two quarterback sacks, a forced fumble, a tipped ball that led to an interception and two picks, including one that he returned for a touchdown as part of a 28-point fourth quarter for the Buckeyes.

“Certainly, one of the most historic games in college football,” Day said. “I guess it’s not an exaggeration to say that given what he did.”

First-year Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, in his 35th year as a college coach, said the performance by Tuimoloau was the best he’s ever seen by a defensive end.

“Just dominating every phase of the game,” Knowles said. “Playing like a linebacker in terms of his ball skills.”

Fitzgerald doesn’t see any areas the Wildcats can exploit. The Buckeyes are second nationally in scoring (48.9 points per game) and 10th in scoring defense (16.9).

“On tape, no, I have not seen anything. But we haven’t cut the grass at Ryan Field since our last home game,” Fitzgerald joked. “So, it will be somewhere between two to four feet high. Maybe sprinkling system will come on at 7, again at 10.”

–Field Level Media