At this point in the season, it’s obvious that the Ohio State Buckeyes have an offensive weapon in quarterback Dwayne Haskins’ arm. The signal-caller from Potomac, Md., has eclipsed 4,000 yards passing and should be making a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
With the Big Ten Championship Game coming up on Saturday, this will be another contest where the opposing defense attempts to stifle the Buckeyes’ passer. So far, the other 12 teams that have battled the Bucks this season have yet to stop him. Now, it’s the Northwestern Wildcats turn — and they bring a First-Team All-Big Ten selection to Lucas Oil Stadium.
Linebacker Paddy Fisher has had a good time since his arrival in Evanston, Ill. The 6-foot-4, 241-pound sophomore has been one of the top tacklers in the Big Ten since 2017. In two seasons of work, Fisher has 205 tackles in just 25 games. That’s good enough for second-best behind Rutgers’ Trevor Morris, who has 221 tackles.
Those tackling stats are impressive, but not as impressive as his forced fumble stats. If you’re an Ohio State supporter, well, this stat may not sit well with you. Fisher has forced an FBS-leading eight fumbles in the last two seasons. That’s already tied for most in Northwestern history.
Ohio State has fumbled the ball 16 times this year, losing eight of them. Receivers have lost the ball after catching it, the running back duo have put the pigskin on the turf, and even Haskins has lost the ball when scrambling. While the turnovers (and near turnovers) were costly, they didn’t break the game for OSU. Talent alone was enough for the Buckeyes to shuffle past the likes of Nebraska, Maryland, and Michigan State.
Northwestern is a different team; they have playmakers in all three different parts of the defense. Junior defensive end Joe Gaziano is a top-five sack leader in Wildcat history with 19.5. Cornerback Montre Hartage, while missing the last couple games, is a top-three pass deflector in the Big Ten. All three of these guys (Fisher, Gaziano and Hartage) were selected to All-Big Ten teams by the coaches and media. If these three play all-out on Saturday night, things are liable to get interesting.
Fisher is smack dab in the middle of it all, and because of that, he’ll be the one to watch out for. He has the ability to shut down running lanes in the middle of the field, and force quarterbacks to air it out when nothing shows up underneath. Ohio State’s bread and butter against Michigan, who entered The Game last week with the No. 1 defense, was mesh routes. Haskins found practically any receiver he wanted, and when the Wolverines finally adjusted, the offensive plan worked in reverse meshes and wheel routes. All that attributed to 62 points—but don’t expect the Wildcats to fall for the same thing.
Fisher can take away that middle option. But for the Buckeyes, making sure Haskins has a pocket to operate out of is important. If Fisher drops back and the D-line busts through, OSU may become to reliant on the screen. Granted, it’s worked consistently over the season, but too much of a good thing tends to be bad.
Take a look at what Fisher did against Purdue’s offense in Week 1.
Conference title games—or for that matter, any game that takes place in a different stadium—is a weird thing; anything can happen, and sometimes, weird things do happen. Northwestern hasn’t been to Indianapolis before as Big Ten West Division winner. And nobody on this current NU squad has been to a Rose Bowl. There’s still a lot to be excited if you’re a Wildcat, and when you throw in the chance to derail OSU’s College Football Playoff bid, you have the makings of an upset.
Either way, this matchup is an unexpected surprise: a consistent Big Ten power versus a team that seemed down-and-out before the calendar flipped to October. Ohio State has either won or shared 36 Big Ten conference titles, while Northwestern has eight. But that’s all history and has near-zero bearing on this game.
Haskins and the Buckeye offense has been high-flying all season. Even in the loss to Purdue, Haskins had 470 passing yards and a couple touchdowns. Ohio State needs to show the playoff committee that they are a real contender for one of the four CFP slots, and a good game against NU will do it. A trio of Wildcats made All-Big Ten teams, so it’s not like they are playing against a paper thin defense. Even though the Big Ten West was perceived weak, it’s not easy running through that whole side of the division with wins.
Paddy Fisher has been the go-to guy on defense for Northwestern, and if they want to make Saturday’s game in Lucas Oil Stadium competitive, he’ll have to show up. Chunk plays—on the ground and in the air—have been game changers for Ohio State. For example: A jet sweep from Parris Campbell practically ended the Michigan game in the first minute of the fourth quarter.
It should be another good one for all the (Big Ten) marbles.