No fans? No problem. Missing two games? No worries. Interim head coach? Just an older version of “next man up.” Thus far this season, the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (5-0) have risen to every unimaginable (by 2019 standards, at least) challenge the universe has thrown in their general direction. But now, in a year where everything else has been strange and unexpected, the Buckeyes are on the hunt for something that’s been remarkably consistent in recent years: a Big Ten title. This time, against the 6-1, Big Ten West champion Northwestern Wildcats. And with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line.
Tell me more about those titles…
Well, the Buckeyes sure have managed to accrue a bunch lately. In fact, Ohio State has won three-straight conference championships, defeating Wisconsin in 2017, Northwestern in 2018 and Wisconsin again in 2019. So essentially, we’re just continuing the “Wisconsin, Northwestern” pattern here.
Of course, Ohio State’s Big Ten East title was not won without controversy this year. While the Big Ten Conference had initially installed a six-game minimum to participate in the championship game, the conference reneged when Michigan bowed out of the annual iteration of The Game last week, leaving the Buckeyes with just five regular season games. While, mathematically, the Buckeyes could have lost to Michigan and would still have made the title game (i.e., they won the Big Ten East when they beat Michigan State), some pundits saw the move as weak on the part of the conference, which has been ridiculed throughout this season for its handling of play during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Big Ten’s perspective, anchored by Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, was that Ohio State is clearly the top team (sorry, Indiana), and it was “common sense, particularly in a year like this” to put an undefeated Ohio State team in the title game.
Of course, the only folks who were really mad were Indiana fans (reminder: Ohio State beat Indiana 42-35 in November). And maybe Northwestern, who now has to face No. 4 Ohio State.
But back to Ohio State’s title history. The Buckeyes hold a 4-1 record in the Big Ten Championship game, and have won 38 conference titles all-time - behind only Michigan, which holds 42 Big Ten titles. Isn’t it fun to creep ever closer to overtaking Michigan?
Enough about Michigan (never). More on that series history, please?
In all, the Buckeyes hold a 63-14-1 all-time record against Northwestern. The current, eight-game win streak dates back to 2008, but the Wildcats have been one of Ohio State’s less frequent opponents since the conference split into two divisions in 2011. Most recently, the Buckeyes whollopped a down Northwestern team 52-3 in Evanston in 2019 in an unexpected Friday night game.
The most prominent matchup between the two teams came in 2018, when, as previously mentioned, the Buckeyes met Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game. Ohio State came away from Indianapolis that evening with a 45-24 win. The Buckeyes were led by quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who had 499 yards passing and five touchdowns on his way to single season records in both categories. Oh, and that 499 yards passing was also a single-game program record. Oh, and also Haskins holds six of the top-seven records for passing yards in a game in Ohio State history, all coming in 2018.
Enough about Haskins (also, never). What happened last week?
Back to this season, and *two* weeks ago. The Buckeyes took care of business earlier this month against Michigan State, bouncing back to dominant form after a closer-than-expected win over a vastly-improved Indiana team (no, they still shouldn’t be in the conference championship). Ohio State routed what’s been a down Spartans team on the road 52-12 to remain unbeaten on the season.
The Buckeye offense was remarkably consistent against the Spartans, jumping out to a 14-point lead in the first quarter, adding two more touchdowns at the half and finishing the game with 24 more points (backups, amiright?). Moreover, the offense matched its highest scoring output of the season even while missing the majority of its starting offensive line. Defensively, the Buckeyes held Michigan State to 261 yards of offense.
The worst kind of rhythm
On-again, off-again relationships are the worst, amiright? Well, that’s been the story of the season, as it turns out, for Ohio State. After successfully playing their first three games without (COVID-19) incident, the Buckeyes started getting all the bye weeks no one ever wanted. After Maryland cancelled due to virus concerns within the Terrapin’s program, the Buckeyes faced Indiana. Then another unexpected and much more tense bye week with the cancellation of Illinois, when cases began to rise at Ohio State, including with head coach Ryan Day testing positive for COVID-19. Then a dominant performance against Michigan State. Only to be followed by another, even more painful bye week that came with the mid-week cancelling of the Buckeyes’ annual matchup with Michigan.
While it certainly helps from an injury perspective to have the extra week to rest and recover, there’s little doubt that the Buckeyes would have benefited from a postseason perspective from having played one or more of their cancelled games. The constant question among analysts is if Ohio State has done enough to make it to the College Football Playoff. Though it’s easy to look at the schedule and assume the Buckeyes would have won all three of those games, nothing is guaranteed in college football, and the reality is that five games is not a lot. Additionally, the Buckeyes have played half as many games as Alabama (10-0). Assuming all goes well in the championship this weekend, Ohio State would have a tall task to prepare for a playoff against teams which have had twice as much time on the field this season.
Speaking of which, timing is everything
And of course it’s weird now because #2020. While the Big Ten Championship is usually a night game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the schedule looks quite a bit different this year. Instead, the game is scheduled to kick-off at 12 p.m. ET Saturday, concurrent with the Big 12 title game and before the afternoon and evening slate of ACC and SEC title games and regular season NFL games.
Even with all the challenges COVID-19 has brought this season, there are certainly some bright spots to celebrate. Defensive line coach and associate head coach Larry Johnson made history against Michigan State as the first Black head coach in Ohio State football program history, having been promoted to interim head coach in Ryan Day’s absence. He obviously broke down more barriers when he became the first Black head coach to win a game in Ohio State football program history.
Johnson’s success should come as no surprise. In just seven seasons, he has coached eight first-round draft picks at Ohio State, including, most recently, Chase Young. Ohio State’s rush defense has been a hallmark of the program throughout that time. That particular defense remained stout against Michigan State, giving up 81 yards on the ground and not allowing a single Spartan more than 50 yards rushing.
Prior to coming to Columbus, Johnson had been at Penn State since 1996, and was the defensive line coach for the Nittany Lions since 2000. In that time, he coached an additional six first-round NFL Draft picks. In his entire career, Johnson has coached a whopping 16 Big Ten defensive players of the year or linemen of the year.
While we’re on the kudos train…
The Big Ten announced its 2020 football awards this week and, no surprise, most of Ohio State’s starting lineup on offense made the all-conference list. Headlining for the Buckeyes, again, to the surprise of no one, was quarterback Justin Fields, winning the Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year and Griese-Brees Quarterback of the Year honors. Fields is joined in named awards by guard Wyatt Davis, who brought home recognition as the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year. Along with Davis came the entire starting offensive line, with center Josh Myers and tackle Thayer Munford joining Davis on the first team all-Big Ten list. Tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere made the second team list, while guard Harry Miller rounded out the third team. Rounding out the offense, receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson made the first team list, while running back Master Teague got second team recognition.
All that to say that Northwestern will have its hands full with the most stacked, top-to-bottom, offense it has seen all season.
But Northwestern is known for winning like Nobel prizes and stuff too, right?
While most of Northwestern’s accolades might come from academia, the Wildcats certainly weren’t forgotten when it came to the conference’s awards. There are plenty of players to watch for Ohio State, as the Wildcats boast the best defense the Buckeyes have seen all season. So, let’s switch gears to the defensive side of the ball. Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph was named the Thompson-Randel El Freshman of the Year, while Paddy Fisher earned honors as the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year (named after Fisher’s own head coach. What a small Big Ten). Joining Fisher and Joseph on the first team all-Big Ten list is safety Greg Newsome II.
Battle of the best
If you had to guess, who would you predict has the best scoring defense in the Big Ten? Ohio State? Wisconsin? Iowa?
If you’re reading this column, the surprise might be somewhat diminished, because it’s Northwestern of all teams. Yes, the Wildcats are No. 1 in scoring defense, giving up just 14.6 points per game (how do you think they got so many people on that award list?). And yes, the fact Northwestern has played seven whole games means that number is even more normalized for the season. The most points the Cats gave up this season was 29, in their bizarre loss to Michigan State. Notably, Northwestern gave up just 20 against an improved Iowa offense, while holding Wisconsin to a mere touchdown. The aforementioned Paddy Fisher leads the Cats’ defense with 65 tackles, a pick and a forced fumble and recovery. Anchoring the secondary, as one might expect, is Brandon Joseph, who has hauled in five interceptions in this short season.
Leading things on the sideline, Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern’s 73 year old defensive coordinator, might be retiring after the 2020 season after more than a decade at the helm, but he’s certainly on track to go out with a bang. Remember back when Northwestern was the doormat of the Big Ten? That doesn’t happen anymore. Hankwitz is a nominee this season for the Broyles Award honoring the nation’s top assistant coach.
Of course, the Wildcats will be up against their toughest offensive opponent of the season. One guess for who has the top scoring offense in the conference? Yes, it’s Ohio State. The Buckeyes are averaging 46.6 points per game - that’s nearly 15 points more than the No. 2 team (the suddenly potent Iowa Hawkeyes). The Buckeyes are putting down more than 250 yards per game on the ground (alse best in the Big Ten) and upwards of 280 yards through the air (second in the conference behind Purdue). Those respective efforts are led by Master Teague, who’s totaled 426 yards and six touchdowns on the ground this season. He’s been aided by fellow running back Tre Sermon’s 344 yards and, of course, Justin Fields’ five rushing touchdowns, which are always helpful in the red zone. Fields, naturally, is leading efforts through the air with 1,407 yards passing and 15 touchdowns to just three picks on his way to a likely top-five (top-three?) selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Fields has been fortunate to have his fellow first-teamers, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, on the outside, with each pulling in more than 500 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Wilson and Olave are the No. 1 and 2 receivers in receiving yards per game.
But...Ohio State’s defense is good too, right?
This season, the Buckeyes’ defense has been a tale of two units. As previously mentioned, the defensive line and rushing defense have remained staples through the fall, with the Buckeyes ranking second in the Big Ten with 95 yards allowed on the ground per game. Anchored by veterans like fifth-year senior Jonathon Cooper, the defensive line has remained steadfast. Aiding the defensive line is a vastly improved linebacking corps, with the trio of seniors Pete Werner (also on the first team list), Baron Browning and Tuf Borland leading the Buckeyes in tackles this season.
Defending the pass, however, has been a different story. Ohio State remains 14th of 14 Big Ten teams in passing yards allowed per game. Yep, dead last. The famed Silver Bullets — yes, even with likely first-round pick Shaun Wade in the rotation — are giving up an average of 268.8 yards per game through the air. Things took a step forward against Michigan State earlier this month, as the Buckeyes gave up just 180 yards passing, but when considering Ohio State is hoping for a matchup, oh, I don’t know, against Alabama, Notre Dame or Clemson in the near future, the Buckeyes will certainly have to elevate their game.
The good news for the secondary is that Northwestern isn’t exactly renowned for its passing attack. The Wildcats are 13th in the Big Ten in passing yards per game with 180.9, and are led by quarterback Peyton Ramsey’s 1,218 yards. Ramsey’s nine touchdowns and six picks are not exactly prolific, but they’ve been balanced by a running back-by-committee approach that has featured at least four running backs playing in each of five games. In all, the backs, Ramsey, wide receiver Kyric McGowan and yet more running backs (they’re really taking the “by committee” approach seriously in Evanston) have totaled nearly 1,200 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns. Again, there’s not been a major standout on offense, because the team approach has been working for the Wildcats thus far this season.
Same ol’ Pat Fitzgerald (new and improved)
Would you believe that Pat Fitzgerald is the sixth-longest tenured head coach in the FBS? And he’s only 46 years old? And has been coaching in Evanston for, now, 15 seasons?
It seems like just yesterday when Northwestern was searching for its first bowl win since 1948, but Fitzgerald has broken the proverbial barrier for his alma mater, taking the Wildcats to nine (soon to be 10) bowl games and ending the streak with a victory in the 2012 Gator Bowl over Mississippi State. The Wildcats have made bowls for four-straight years, and have been winners of the last three. Why so much emphasis on the point of bowls? Because Northwestern had only made three ever before 2000.
In his playing days, Fitzgerald was one of the fiercest linebackers in the Big Ten, and was a key player on the Wildcats’ 1995 Rose Bowl team. Fitzgerald was a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (hence why a current Big Ten award is named after him), consensus All-American, Nagurski Award recipient and Bednarik Award winner - yes, he won all these awards in 1995 and again in 1996. And yet, even after all that, Fitzgerald went undrafted after his senior season. Lucky for Northwestern, he found his way back to Evanston and, by 2001, was on the staff as defensive backs coach.
Is anyone else getting deja vu? This Saturday’s matchup certainly feels similar to the Big Ten Championship of 2018: a powerful Ohio State offense versus a stout Northwestern defense with a berth in the College Football Playoff on the line (the Buckeyes did not make it to the CFP and instead defeated the Washington Huskies in the Rose Bowl). But then there’s the fact it’s 2020, and something has to be off. Like the fact Ohio State is coming in after just five games. Or the fact the championship is at noon (what are we, the Big 12?).
Ohio State is favored by 20 over Northwestern, which feels right given the balance between powerful Ohio State offense and stout Northwestern defense (there’s the deja vu again). If past play is any precedent - which it’s not, since the teams are in fact different now - then Ohio State would look to crush the underdog Wildcats. The differences this season, however, include that Northwestern has played more games with what’s been a tougher schedule top-to-bottom, and that some aspects of Ohio State’s defense still seem to be working the kinks out.
All that being said, Northwestern remains the underdog for a reason. While Pat Fitzgerald has put together a strong defensive squad this year, it’s hard to imagine the Wildcats putting up the kind of points to keep up with even a challenged Ohio State offense.
There’s a long way to go this postseason. But it all starts with a win Saturday.