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Ohio State vs. Northwestern: 2018 Big Ten Championship Game preview and prediction

The Buckeyes seek back-to-back conference championship game crowns this weekend in Indianapolis.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Ohio State Buckeyes are back in Indianapolis for a Big Ten Championship Game. Unlike years past when it was either Michigan State or Wisconsin running into the Bucks’ path, this time around it’s the Northwestern Wildcats.

Pat Fitzgerald has turned his team around after a 1-3 start, which included loses to Duke and Akron. But a perfect run through the West Division cemented the Wildcats’ fate to Indy.

Let’s take a look at what both teams will bring to Lucas Oil Stadium.


The Rundown

Like John Krasinski’s character, Jim, from The Office, we’ll try to give a rundown on both teams.

OSU comes into this game as the No. 6 team in the College Football Playoff rankings. NU enters as the No. 21 team in the country. With an impressive win, Ohio State may be able to punch their ticket to either the Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl semifinal—but they’ll need help.

The Buckeyes are averaging 181. 4 yards on the ground per game, good enough for 52nd in the country. Northwestern comes into this championship battle with the 120th best rushing attack, averaging 114.8 yards per contest.

Things only get better for Ohio State on the offensive front, as they have the second best passing and total offense in the country. Averaging 362.5 yards per game, quarterback Dwayne Haskins has catapulted himself up and over every Buckeye QB before him. Haskins eclipsed Joe Germaine’s OSU single-season passing mark of 3,330 yards, and has become a 4,000-yard passer.

Northwestern has the 62nd best passing game in FBS, and the 111th best total offense.

However, a place where NU does show up OSU is in points allowed per game. The Wildcat defense is holding opponents to 21.7 ppg, while the Buckeyes defense is giving up 25.8. And to no surprise, Fitzgerald’s total defense is better than Urban Meyer’s defense this season; Northwestern is giving up 372.8 yards per game, while the Buckeyes—thanks to chunk plays—are surrendering 398.8 yards per outing.


Looking for No. 3 (and No. 37)

This will be Ohio State’s fourth trip to the conference title game, since its inception in 2011. For the first two years (2011-12), the Buckeyes did not make the game as winner of the then-Leaders Division, either due to an interim coach (Luke Fickell) or because they were banned from the postseason (2012). But, with the arrival of Meyer, the Buckeyes have been a staple of conference championship week.

They lost their first try in 2013 to Michigan State, which ruined back-to-back perfect seasons. But in 2014, they got their redemption by sending Wisconsin to the Twilight Zone by way of a 59-0 victory. That win jumped OSU into the CFP, and the rest is history.

Last season, the Bucks took down Wisconsin again, albeit by a closer margin, 27-21. The Badgers were 12-0 and had a playoff spot on the line, however, Meyer’s crew had different plans.

On Saturday night, it’s the Buckeyes who are fighting for a playoff berth, and it’s Northwestern trying to play spoiler. Meyer can get his third Big Ten Championship Game crown, while helping the Bucks get their overall 37th conference title. NU, on the other hand, is looking for just their ninth conference title, with this one being their first in the Big Ten Championship Game. While the Wildcats aren’t in the playoff picture, they can punch their ticket to the Rose Bowl if they can topple the Buckeyes.


The ties that bind

Ohio is talent-rich state for football recruiting. The whole country tries to pluck prospects out of the Buckeye State, and recently, have found some success. Northwestern is one of those programs whose infiltrated Ohio for recruits; in fact, 18 players on their roster are from Ohio. And even more interesting: seven players are from Central Ohio, the heart of Ohio State country.

However, the Buckeyes have a Land of Lincoln prospect of their own: Tuf Borland. Borland is the only member of this OSU squad that comes from Illinois.

Coaching wise, there is a crossover as well. Kevin Wilson, the co-offensive coordinator for the Buckeyes, used to be the OC and QB coach at Northwestern from 1999-2001, when Randy Walker was running the program. Wilson would then go on to Oklahoma in 2002, where he would eventually win the Broyles Award for best assistant coach in college football. That title came in 2008, where the Sooners had one of the most high-powered offenses that’s ever graced the CFB landscape. But before he got there, he was a Wildcat—and now he’s a Buckeye.


A young team with talent

Injuries and other maladies have plagued the Buckeye roster this season. Ejections via targeting have cropped up, and season-long injuries have happened on the offensive line. Just a few weeks into the season, Nick Bosa was injured and elected to forgo the season in hopes of getting NFL Draft ready.

All this shuffling on the roster has allowed underclassman to get their chance to show what they are made of. Already this season, 17 members have made first starts. That will change to 18 on Saturday, as Wyatt Davis will be filling in for an injured Demetrius Knox on the offensive line.

It may seem like a shock (and such a long time ago), but Haskins made his first career start this season in Week 1 against Oregon State. Other notable stars to burst onto the scene with first starts this season have been Shaun Wade and Brendon White, defensive backs.


What Northwestern brings

On both sides of the ball, the Wildcats have playmakers. At quarterback, Clayton Thorson has steadied the ship—in addition to being an experienced veteran. Thorson has started in 51 games under center, and that’s even more an eye-opening stat when you realize he’s been there for 51 games. That amount is the most for any Big Ten QB, and the fourth most overall.

In comparison to Thorson, freshman running back Isaiah Bowser is on the other spectrum of experience. However, he’s made his mark on this Wildcat roster, and has made important contributions since the midway point of the season. 734 yards and six touchdowns have been tallied by Bowser in the last six games; NU has done well in those contests, going 5-1. It should be noted that the loss (to Notre Dame) only happened by 10 points. The Irish aren’t slouches this season, sitting at 12-0 and in position for the playoff.

Defensively, a trio of All-Big Ten selections are sprinkled across the field. On the defensive end, Joe Gaziano has been a staple of the Wildcat sack attack. He’s posted 16.5 sacks against Big Ten foes in his career and has a total of 19.5 sacks overall. At linebacker, Paddy Fisher has his residence there—and has kept it clean. Fisher was named First-Team All-Big Ten by both the coaches and the media, and is leading the way on this team. In the last two seasons, he’s gotten 205 tackles, good enough for second most in the Big Ten; additionally, he’s forced eight fumbles in the same timespan, which is tied for the most in FBS.

In the secondary, senior cornerback Montre Hartage has his island. He’s been a pass deflecting machine, averaging 1.4 deflections per week. However, he may not be 100 percent, as he’s missed the last two games.


Summary

F/+ Projection: Ohio State (-13.5); Ohio State 38 - Northwestern 28

Win Probability: Ohio State 78.2%

Things have looked shaky all season from the Buckeye defense. Against the likes of Nebraska, Michigan State and Maryland, Ohio State looked mortal. All this came after the humbling at Purdue, which raised all sorts of questions about how viable of a playoff contender Meyer’s 2018 team could be. Fortunately, the offense was able to mask the problems overall.

Then Michigan happened. The Wolverines entered with the No. 1 defense in the country, but left broken. Ohio State’s offense rushed, passed and did everything they could to cancel the ‘Revenge Tour.’ Mesh routes underneath worked, Haskins had another brilliant day, and everything in between paced OSU to a 62-point, record setting day against the arch-rival.

Defensively, the Buckeyes pressured Wolverine QB Shea Patterson and made him virtually useless. Same with Karan Higdon, who was held to under 75 yards of rushing. Michigan was a playoff team. Now, they aren’t.

Ohio State needs another Michigan performance in, arguably, the biggest game of the year. If the eyes weren’t on them last week, then they are this week. SEC and Big 12 Championship Games take place earlier in the day, and with the ACC crown on the line at the same time as Ohio State’s battle, my guess is people will be tuned into the game in Indianapolis because, well, we’ve come to terms that Clemson is gonna roll Pittsburgh for the ACC title.

I doubted the Buckeyes last week, but I won’t this time around. Everything seems to be clicking for Meyer’s squad. Northwestern will be a good challenge, and may even get within striking distance before halftime. But the second half, for the most part, has been all Buckeyes this season. They make good adjustments, and that’s a big reason for why they’ve been able to do enough to get by in those close games in late October/early November.

The question is: will this performance be enough to punch Ohio State’s ticket to the College Football Playoff?