The long and winding road that has been the 2020 regular season is finally coming to an end, as Ohio State is set to take on Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game. It certainly has not been easy for the conference to get to this point, and while the Buckeyes have had few issues on the field, the struggles of playing through a pandemic have really taken its tole on the team and its schedule.
Saturday will see the return of Ryan Day from his one-game absence after a positive COVID-19 test, and we expect most if not all of the players who had to miss the Michigan State game will be ready to go in Indy. On the other side, the Wildcats have done a phenomenal job at handling their protocols — not to say that OSU hasn’t, this thing is unpredictable — and haven’t had a single positive COVID test to this point. Fingers crossed that both teams are healthy once kickoff is underway at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Offensive Player to Watch: Peyton Ramsey
I’ve gone all season without the other team’s starting quarterback being the offensive player to watch, but I really think this game will come down to just how effective Peyton Ramsey can be throwing the rock. At times this year the Indiana transfer has looked great, like when he threw for over 200 yards and three touchdowns against Purdue. Then there has been the not so great afternoons, like his last time out against Illinois wherein he completed just seven passes for only 82 yards.
On the year, the senior quarterback has completed just under 60% of his passes for more than 1,200 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. The Northwestern offense has not exactly been its strong suit, ranking 100th in the country in total offense and 106th in passing. Ohio State’s bugaboo this season has been its secondary, specifically its inability to limit big plays in the passing game. If the Wildcats have any chance of hanging around with the Buckeyes, they will need Ramsey to make some great throws and really test those defensive backs in pass coverage.
Luckily for Ramsey, he doesn’t have to do it all himself, as Northwestern has run the ball well this season. The Wildcats have a trio of running backs who have all eclipsed 200 yards on the year, with Drake Anderson leading the pack with 256 yards and two TDs and Isaiah Bowser trailing just behind him with 229 yards and a TD. Their biggest threat in the receiver room is Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (or RCB for short), who has caught 31 passes this season for 347 yards and four TDs.
Northwestern does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with Ohio State’s, but they are pretty solid when they can find a balance. The Wildcats won't be able to run for 400 yards like they did last week against Illinois, so they must find ways to move the ball in the passing game to stay afloat.
Defensive Player to Watch: Paddy Fisher
Back when the SB Nation sites got together to do our Big Ten preseason awards, there was a mixed bag of results for who we thought would win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and while the actual award went to Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon, it was Paddy Fisher who tied for first in our predictions. Still, the Northwestern linebacker did come away with this season’s Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year Award — so we were close!
Fisher has been a stalwart of the Wildcats defense for quite some time now, as the senior has racked up 380 total tackles in his four-year career in Evanston. Just as he did a season ago, Fisher is tied for the team-lead in tackles 65, while also registering 3.5 tackles for loss, an interception and a forced fumble. A Walter Camp and Athlon Sports preseason All-American, Fisher is truly the quarterback of the Northwestern defense, and a big reason why the unit as a whole has been one of the best in the country.
The Wildcats are the No. 2 scoring defense in college football, allowing just 14.6 points per game. A big reason why is their strength from the front seven through the defensive secondary. Sophomore defensive lineman Andrew Leota leads the pass rushing unit with four sacks on the year, while freshman DB Brandon Joseph’s five interceptions is good for first in the Big Ten. Fishers fellow linebacker buddy Blake Gallagher is another tackling machine, also totaling 65 tackle son the season with a team-high 9.5 tackles for loss.
Northwestern will likely be the strongest defense Ohio State has played this season. Unlike Indiana, they do not rely on relentless amounts of pressure — the main reason for Fields’ struggles against the Hoosiers — and instead just play solid, sound football with a bunch of guys who know their roles. Will it be enough to slow down one of the nation’s most explosive offenses?