I’m about as confused as you all are.
Make no bones about it, Ohio State struggled on Saturday. Giving credit where credit is due, Northwestern didn’t just show up to Indianapolis to play the Buckeyes close — they came to win. The Wildcats put together an excellent defensive game plan against a pass-heavy offense, and if Ryan Day would have stuck to his original script in the second half, Pat Fitzgerald’s squad very well could have came away with a W.
For as good as Justin Fields looked against Michigan State two weeks ago, he looked every bit as bad against Northwestern. Without Chris Olave, the Wildcats committed to keeping the ball out of Garrett Wilson’s hands, and it really left Fields searching for answers. The second-year starter completed only 12 of his 27 pass attempts for 114 yards and two interceptions. It was his first game ever as Ohio State’s quarterback where he did not throw a touchdown pass. Only two different wide receivers — Wilson and Julian Fleming — caught passes, with the rest of his completions going to the running backs.
Now, a lot of this can be attributed to game plan, as Ryan Day seems committed to trying to hit the home run in the passing game with so many calls for long-developing deep throws, but this is an issue for another day. It is definitely a concern that the one aspect of Ohio State that we previously thought was infallible — Fields and the passing game — has looked shaky against the top two defenses it has faced thus far. However, on a day where the Buckeyes could use a boost elsewhere, they received herculean efforts from some unlikely sources.
The obvious story of the game was the mind-boggling performance of Trey Sermon. The Oklahoma transfer, who for most of this season did not even look like the best running back on his own team, ran for a casual 331 yards and two touchdowns — breaking both the record for rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship Game and Eddie George’s program record for rushing yards in a game. Sermon could not be stopped, seemingly breaking the first tackle each and every time he touched the ball and picking up massive chunks on the ground with impressive speed and vision.
Obviously you can't have a dominant ground game without a great effort from your offensive line, and the Buckeyes got exactly that on Saturday. All five guys up front for Ohio State were absolutely mashing against Northwestern, getting a huge push on nearly every play and opening up holes big enough to drive a truck through. For some of the unexpected struggles they've had this year, especially up the middle, the offensive line was every bit as good if not better than advertised heading into the season.
However, even still, a lot of the yardage picked up against the Wildcats was purely a result a Sermon making plays. His biggest problem earlier in the campaign had been his vision, sometimes hesitating in the backfield and not finding the right hole soon enough to pick up yards. That was not the case this time around, as Sermon was hitting the hole hard and making some nifty moves in space to make guys miss. The senior had six carries that went for over 20 yards against Northwestern, with massive runs of 65, 33 and 28 yards on one of the best defenses in the country.
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State got its best effort from a guy who isn’t even usually a starter. With Baron Browning out as a result of COVID-19 protocols, sixth-year senior Justin Hilliard stepped up to the plate. A former five-star recruit, Hilliard has had a tough time seeing the field for the Buckeyes due to a combination of numerous significant injuries as well as a logjam of players at the linebacker position. On Saturday, his long journey finally got the payoff he deserved, as Hilliard was without a doubt the Buckeyes’ best defensive player.
The Cincinnati native led the team with nine tackles in Indy, registering two tackles for loss, an interception, and a fumble recovery. Hilliard was flying all over the field against the Wildcats, making big plays in both the run and pass game. His interception came in a huge spot, as he picked off Peyton Ramsey in the end zone to begin the third quarter as Northwestern was looking to make it a two-score game. He was Ohio State’s top linebacker this past weekend, and even with Browning likely returning for the Sugar Bowl, I would be hard pressed to take Hilliard off the field moving forward.
The Buckeyes got a few more standout performances on defense from guys that have worked their butts off to get to this spot. After a big whiff on a tackle earlier in the game, Josh Proctor bounced back to make an impressive interception on the sideline late in the third quarter. Haskell Garrett, who has been perhaps Ohio State’s best defensive player this season, was credited with five total tackles, including two TFLs, a sack and a QB hit. Even freshman Lathan Ransom, who got his first real minutes on Saturday, flashed at the end, coming away with the pass breakup on Northwestern’s final offensive play.
We would also be remiss if we did not at least mention the efforts of punter Zach Hoover. With Drue Chrisman out following a positive COVID-19 test, the senior walk-on was thrust into action in the biggest game of the season. Having never taken a snap at Ohio State before, Hoover performed brilliantly when called upon. After a 41-yard boot on the Buckeyes’ second possession of the game, Hoover downed each of his other two punts inside the Northwestern 6-yard line. Maintaining field position in a close game is super important, and the Toledo native did a fantastic job.
Ohio State will likely get most of its guys back in time for the team’s College Football Playoff rematch against Clemson, as the Big Ten has lowered the 21-day mandatory quarantine to 17 days. While Chrisman will resume his punting duties if he is able, the Buckeyes could certainly use similar efforts from guys like Sermon and Hilliard if they want to avenge last year’s loss to the Tigers. The Buckeyes are best at full strength, but it is nice to know they found a few additional playmakers as they begin their national title chase.