EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern running back Evan Hull took a handoff from quarterback Ryan Hilinski and ran through a tight space in the middle of the line of scrimmage. He had to slow himself and even ran into one of his own linemen after gaining a few yards.
However, Hull didn’t go down and instead accelerated to the right, outrunning every pursuing Ohio defender for a 90-yard touchdown run. It was the second score Ohio allowed from Hull in two minutes of game time.
The Bobcats were already being run over, and it was only the first quarter.
Once again, Ohio’s struggles on run defense that’s plagued it all season persisted another week. Northwestern ran for 373 yards — including 224 in the first half — as things were made even tougher for Ohio thanks to injuries and an unproductive offense that couldn’t stay on the field. The dominant run game from Northwestern left a big mark in Ohio’s 35-6 loss Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field.
“For us, it’s just stopping the run,“ defensive tackle Kai Caesar said. “That’s something that we need to get better at, just stopping the run.”
Ohio (0-4) let Hull and the rest of Northwestern’s (2-2) running corps trample them. Hull finished with 216 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, averaging 9.8 yards per run on the day.
Ohio coach Tim Albin assessed the problem not as missed assignments but as failing to tackle. The Wildcats gained many extra rushing yards after contact, and the Bobcats missed opportunities to end drives and get their defense off the field.
The problems were made worse by multiple Bobcats going down on defense, including defensive tackles Zach Burks and Kylen McCracken. The Bobcats know things like this happen and have embraced a “next man up mentality,“ but the depletion of players on an already struggling defense is never encouraging.
To add to the fatigue, Ohio’s offense recorded three turnovers, including two in the fourth quarter to keep the defense on short rest. These turnovers hurt Ohio even after it somewhat adjusted to Northwestern’s rushing attack , allowing only two runs of over 20 yards and 149 rushing yards in the second half.
“In the second half,“ Albin said. “We put an eighth guy down and asked our corners to man up.”
The improvements came up fruitless, though. Ohio’s offense didn’t get the ball downfield and often forced the defense into tough situations. Six of Ohio’s drives lasted less than two minutes, and both of Northwestern’s final two touchdown drives began in Ohio territory.
A fumble by quarterback Kurtis Rourke in the first quarter gave Northwestern a short field, which led to Hull’s first touchdown run from 17 yards out. The Bobcats also had two interceptions and a turnover on downs in the fourth quarter, which brought the defense back on the field sooner than it needed to be. The defense was already worn out, and it gave up two more touchdowns to the Wildcats.
“We had three turnovers,“ Albin said. “We can’t put our defense in that situation with the physicality of (Northwestern’s) O-Line ... We’ve got to complement the defense. We’ve got to help them and get them a rest.”
The defense can’t catch a break against the run. Ohio has allowed an average of 283.5 rushing yards per game this season, and Northwestern’s rushing attack did nothing to alleviate the problem. Ohio has repeated the same mistakes of giving up tackles and losing containment of the outside.
“I know what the numbers are,“ coach Tim Albin said. “We’ve got to continue to improve on (stopping the run) ... I don’t feel like we had as many minuses on defense, as far as fitting things up. We were where we needed to be, we’ve just got to get the guy down.”