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Column: Five things to watch for in the Ohio State-Northwestern B1G Title game

Availability, strength vs. strength, and whether or not we FINALLY get a blow out this season.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Every game day of the 2020 season, I will be running through five things to watch in that day’s contest. They could be something that schematic, an opposing player, or an on-field trend. Let me know what you’ll be watching for in the comments below.

Believe it or not, the Big Ten Championship Game is being played today at 12 noon ET in Indianapolis. The game will be broadcast on FOX as the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes take on the No. 14 Northwestern Wildcats for the second time in three years in the conference title game. Also on the line will be OSU’s fourth-straight conference crown and their chance to make their fourth College Football Playoff.

While the back half of Ohio State’s season has been decimated by COVID outbreaks (in both their program and various opponents’ programs), Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern team has had only a single game canceled, due to the outbreak amongst the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

It will be interesting to see if OSU’s start-and-stop season hurts them as they take on the Wildcats who have had a much smoother season thus far.

1) Who’s gonna be out?

As with the Michigan State game, we are still waiting to see what Buckeyes will and won’t be available for the contest later today. There have been rumors circulating all week about more positive COVID tests on the team, but we haven’t gotten any confirmation as of yet, since the normal release of the availability report was pushed from Friday to Saturday again this week. Of course, even when (if) we get an availability report, we still won’t technically know if players are out for COVID, contact tracing, injury, or any other reason.

The difference between this week and previous weeks, however, is that if a player tested positive anytime after Dec. 11, under current Big Ten protocol, they will not be able to return to the field before a potential College Football Playoff semifinal game on Jan. 1.

Of course, there has also been public discussions about the B1G again amending their rules to be in line with both the other conferences and the CDC when it comes to post-positive quarantining rules. If they do end up changing the 21-day rule and drop it to 10 or 14 days, players that tested positive early this past week would be back roughly around Dec. 28, in time to have a decent week of CFP practice.

Update: We received the availability report at 10:45 a.m. ET and it includes starters Chris Olave, Baron Browning, and Drue Chrisman, along with rotational defensive ends Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Tyler Friday and back-up wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Marcus Hooker will be a game-time decision, which obviously indicates that his status is not COVID related.

2020 Big Ten Championship Game Availability Report

WR Chris Booker
CB Cam Brown
LB Baron Browning
RB Steele Chambers
P Drue Chrisman
DL Jacolbe Cowan
LB Tommy Eichenberg
DE Tyler Friday
DT Zaid Hamdan
WR Jaylen Harris
QB Gunnar Hoak
DE Javontae Jean-Baptiste
LB Cade Kacherski
QB Jagger Laroe
WR Chris Olave
TE Corey Rau
LB Ben Schmiesing
SAF Bryson Shaw
OL Ryan Smith
WR Jaxon Smith Njigba
DB Alec Taylor
SAF Kourt Williams

2) Strength vs. Strength

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched a second of college football this season, but Ohio State’s strength in 2020 is in its passing game. Between Justin Fields being near perfect outside of a few brain farts against Indiana, and the incredible wide receiver duo of Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, the air attack for the Buckeyes has been nearly unstoppable.

Pro Football Focus grades the Buckeyes as the No. 1 passing team in the conference by a whopping 12.2 points, and fourth nationally (behind BYU, Alabama, and Florida). Fields averages 281.4 yards and three touchdowns through the air per game; both league bests.

However, NU ranks second in the B1G in terms of passing yards allowed per game at just 192.0 and they allow a league low of just five yards per attempt (a full yard less than Iowa and Wisconsin who come in second).

With Brandon Joseph ranking as PFF’s best strong safety in the country and both he and cornerback Greg Newsome II being unanimous first team All-Big Ten selections this season, Fitzgerald’s defense will look to force Fields into settling for shorter passes, hopefully limiting the Buckeyes’ big play ability.

Obviously, the OSU passing game will be further impacted if any WRs are unable to play today. How Fields and company are able to deal with the best defense that they’ve faced all year will certainly be telling for their postseason chances — both in how they would deal with playoff competition, and whether or not they have a chance to get there in the first place.

3) Will Master Teague and Trey Sermon continue upward trajectory?

We’ve known from before the season that Ohio State did not have an elite-level running back, so that’s not a surprise. However in the last two games against Indiana (yes, IU was just two games ago) and Michigan State, both Master Teague and Trey Sermon have turned in impressive performances.

Teague went for 169 nice yards and two TDs against the Hoosiers and Sermon wracked up 112 and a score on just 10 carries against Sparty. With Northwestern’s suffocating pass defense, I will be interested to see if either back is able to have a substantive impact today to balance the scales a bit.

Against the run, the Wildcats are in the middle of the B1G pack allowing 170.57 yards per game; still under OSU’s Big Ten best of 251 per game, but something that Ryan Day and Tony Alford will likely look to take advantage of. And, if there is a wide receiver or two out for the game, I also think that we could see more of the running version of Justin Fields, as we did against Michigan State when he went for 104 yards (and two TDs) on the ground.

4) Getting home

Did you know that according to PFF, Ohio State’s defense has the second best pass rush in all of college football this season? Weird, huh? Oklahoma’s rush is ranked at 91.0, while OSU’s is at 90.7. The closest Big Ten team on the list is Penn State all the way down at No. 22 with an 80.8 rating.

Despite that fact, Ohio State ranks 28th in the country in sacks per game with 2.8 — Miami (Ohio) leads the nation with 4.33. One of the major differences between this Buckeye defense and the ones from recent years is the lack of a stud on the outside of the line. Whether it was Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa, or Chase Young, having a game-wrecking defensive end that forces opposing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quickly is huge for every aspect of the defense. It not only makes it difficult for offenses to allow plays to develop, but it makes things much easier on the secondary — an admitted weak spot for the 2020 Buckeyes.

So, the numbers say that OSU is elite at applying pressure to the quarterback this year, but only above average at actually getting to him. If, somehow, during all of these extra off weeks, Larry Johnson has figured out a way to get his guys an extra step from the outside, that could have huge ramifications for both their B1G and National title hopes.

5) Please, god, give us a blowout

Whether you are an idiot who thinks that a two-loss, conference champion Florida/Iowa State/Oklahoma or a Texas A&M who lost by 117 to Alabama deserves a spot in the College Football Playoff over an undefeated B1G champion Ohio State, or you are a person with a brain who understands that OSU is in with a win today, it obviously would be better for the Buckeyes’ CFP resume if they pulled a 2014 and blew out their Big Ten Championship Game opponent by epic proportions.

So far this season — either because of a lack of ability on the field or a will to do so from the coaching staff — the Buckeyes’ haven’t really flexed their blow out muscles as in years past. But, if there was ever a time to keep the pedal to the metal it is in today’s game when every playoff committee eye will be on the game, analyzing each and every style point that the Buckeyes either add or miss out on.

I’ve assumed that the blow-out machine would be rolling all year, but if there was ever an opportunity for it to finally come to fruition, it might be time to take the reins off of the offense and go full Death Star.

After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!