It’s been a long, frustrating road to get to this point, but the Ohio State football team is exactly where most expected it to be at the end of the 2020 regular season.
A season full of stops and restarts will culminate on Saturday with what has seemingly become a yearly tradition for the Buckeyes —playing in Indianapolis for a Big Ten championship.
A win on Saturday would give Ohio State its fourth consecutive conference crown, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by the program since a 2005-08 stretch that included two split championships with Penn State. Standing in the Buckeyes’ way of extending their conference dominance into the new decade will be the Northwestern Wildcats (6-1) in a rematch of the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game, which the Buckeyes won, 45-24.
Few saw Northwestern as a serious contender to win the West Division at the start of the season, but a fourth-quarter stop late in the Wildcats’ 21-20 win over Iowa in week two proved to be a defining moment in their season en route to their second championship game appearance. Northwestern would go on to lose a game — a 29-20 upset at Michigan State in week six — but wrapped up the division the following week when Wisconsin was beaten by Indiana.
Like every team former Northwestern linebacker and current head coach Pat Fitzgerald has led in Evanston, the Wildcats aim to win with a strong defense and good enough offensive production. Never has that approach been more true than this season as Northwestern ranks among the 15 best defenses in the country in total defense, allowing an average of just 314 yards per game, but 100th in total offense with an average of 351 yards.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey is completing just 58% of his passing attempts on the season, and he’s thrown six interceptions to go with nine touchdown passes. A week ago, Ramsey attempted just 12 passes against Illinois as Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian elected to run the ball 58 times — with over 400 yards worth of success — to lead the Wildcats over their in-state rival.
Prior to the explosion of the ground game last week, Northwestern had managed a combined 167 yards rushing over its past three games, including a 24-yard effort against Wisconsin. Against an Ohio State rushing defense that is allowing less than 100 yards per game on the ground this season, the Wildcats’ ability to sustain last week’s success in the running game will be integral to their chances of staying in the game.
Ohio State can expect to see three different running backs on Saturday as the Wildcats typically don’t feature a single back. Sidney, Ohio native Isaiah Bowser leads the team with 77 carries, but it’s Drake Anderson who leads them in rushing with 256 yards and two touchdowns on 62 carries. Or perhaps Bajakian will opt to ride the hot hand in freshman Cam Porter, who took over for Anderson following an early fumble last week and rolled to a 142-yard, two-touchdown day in the first significant action of his career.
Of course, Ohio State has had its share of issues in the secondary, and if Northwestern is forced to throw the ball often, it will do so with some talent at wide receiver. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who leads the team in receptions and touchdowns, brings good size to the position at 6-foot-2-inches tall, and Kyric McGowan brings versatility to the offense with 30 catches and 19 rushing attempts on the season.
Defensively, Ohio State will have to contend with a quality group of Northwestern linebackers, led by redshirt senior Paddy Fisher, who is the unquestioned leader of the entire team. With 65 total tackles on the season, good for fourth in the conference, Fisher was named this week as a first-team All-Big Ten selection and the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year.
Fellow linebacker Blake Gallagher doesn’t take a back seat to Fisher in terms of production. Gallagher is tied with Fisher for the team lead in tackles and has also recorded two sacks, an interception, and a fumble recovery, which earned him a spot on All-Big Ten second team.
Perhaps the best matchups of the game will be found when Ohio State’s elite group of receivers lines up opposite Northwestern’s cornerback tandem of junior Greg Newsome II and redshirt freshman Brandon Joseph, both of whom were selected as first-team All-Big Ten performers this week.
Newsome is no stranger to Ohio State, having started against them in both meetings dating back to 2018. Joseph, who is tied for the conference lead with five interceptions, will be getting his first look at the Buckeyes. The duo will need to be spectacular in their biggest challenge of the season, regardless of which Ohio State receivers are lining up against them, if Northwestern is to hang with the Buckeyes.
One advantage Northwestern will most certainly take into Saturday’s game is the fact they were able to play last week, and seven out of the eight weeks overall. Coming off yet another canceled game, it remains to be seen how crisp Ohio State will be out of the gate, although its beatdown at Michigan State two weeks ago would suggest the Buckeyes will be hungry and focused when the ball kicks.
Given their anemic offense and lack of identity on that side of the ball, much strain figures to be put on the Northwestern defense to keep the Wildcats within reach early. Perhaps they do just that, but how long can the dam hold before the mounting pressure becomes too much? Expect the flood gates to open early in Indianapolis as Ohio State rolls to yet another Big Ten title and cements its place in the College Football Playoff.
My prediction: Ohio State 45, Northwestern 17