Trey Sermon rushed for a school-record 331 yards and two touchdowns, and Ohio State needed every last one of them as the Buckeyes held off Northwestern, 22-10, to claim their fourth consecutive Big Ten championship in Indianapolis on Saturday.
Paced by Sermon, Ohio State racked up a total of 513 yards despite a rough performance from quarterback Justin Fields, and the defense pitched a second-half shutout to help stem the tide in a game chalked full of adversity for the Buckeyes.
Before the ball was even kicked to begin the game, Ohio State was forced to overcome the loss of several key starters, including receivers Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, as well as four defensive starters. Without key contributors and playing in their first game since Dec. 5, Ohio State’s first-half performance could be best categorized as sluggish, although the game seemed to get off to a well-enough start.
After receiving the opening kickoff, Fields and the Ohio State offense went to work, and Fields appeared to be in a rhythm early. Consecutive completions from Fields to freshman receiver Julian Fleming had the Buckeyes quickly across midfield at the Northwestern 41-yard line.
With the drive rolling, Ohio State then turned to the running game and found equal success. Fields picked up 15 yards on a pair of runs, and Sermon had the Buckeyes knocking at the doorstep with three straight carries down to the 7-yard line. A critical holding penalty on guard Harry Miller and a third-down sack stalled the drive, however, and the Buckeyes were forced to settle for a 41-yard field goal by Blake Haubeil for an early 3-0 lead.
Despite giving up points, the drive played perfectly into the hands of Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats as Ohio State was forced to eat up over seven minutes of the clock while settling for three points.
Northwestern wasted no time mustering a response on their opening offensive drive. Beginning at their own 25-yard line, freshman running back Cam Porter carried for 13 yards on first down, and the Wildcats were out and running. Five plays later, Ramsey scampered for 34 yards to the Buckeye 9-yard line, setting up the Wildcats with a prime scoring opportunity.
Porter finished off the drive a play later with a touchdown run to give Northwestern their first lead of the game at 7-3 with just over four minutes remaining in the first quarter.
After the early scoring, the two teams traded stops before Northwestern was again on the move early in the second quarter. Rushes by Ramsey and Kyric McGowan had the Wildcats at Ohio State’s 33-yard line, but the Buckeye defense forced a 47-yard field goal from Charlie Kuhbander that increased the Wildcats’ lead to 10-3.
Haubeil would add his second field goal of the day on the ensuing drive, drawing Ohio State back to within four points at 10-6 late in the first half.
Following a Northwestern punt, Ohio State appeared poised to finally regain the lead just before halftime. Fields led the Buckeyes on an eight-play drive, moving the ball to the Wildcats’ 9-yard line.
Disaster would strike, however, as Ohio State committed its first turnover of the game. Fields’ pass, intended for Garrett Wilson, was intercepted by Brandon Joseph, who made a spectacular one-handed catch in the end zone to turn away the scoring chance and send the Wildcats into the locker room with a 10-6 lead.
The first half played couldn’t have been scripted much better for Fitzgerald and Northwestern’s gameplan as the Wildcats defense limited big plays and was stingy in the red zone, and the offense went 4-7 on third down to keep drives alive.
Northwestern received the ball to begin the second half, and they were quickly into Ohio State territory after just two plays. Porter’s 16-yard carry had the Wildcats threatening to increase their lead and the Buckeye defense on their heels, but senior linebacker Justin Hilliard picked of Ramsey’s pass in the end zone to keep the Buckeyes within a score.
With some badly-needed momentum in tow, Ohio State turned to the running game to jump-start the offense. Sermon began the drive with rushes of 13 and 12 yards as the Buckeyes crossed midfield, but critical mistakes continued to plague them as Fields threw his second interception of the day on the next play to turn the ball back over to Northwestern.
Northwestern was unable to capitalize on the turnover, however, as Kuhbander’s 46-yard attempt sailed right to keep Ohio State within striking distance of taking the lead.
Taking over at their own 29-yard line, the Ohio State rushing attack again went to work, led by Sermon. Four consecutive runs by the graduate transfer, totaling 47 yards, got the Buckeyes inside the red zone, and Miyan Williams’ 10-yard run had them at the 9-yard line and poised to pull ahead.
Fittingly, Sermon finished off the drive a play later with a 9-yard touchdown run to give Ohio State their first lead since the early stages of the first quarter. Haubeil’s extra point made it 13-10 with 2:41 remaining in the third quarter.
Turnovers on Northwestern’s next two possessions threatened to doom the Wildcats’ upset bid then and there, but Ohio State only managed a field goal following the two takeaways, keeping the Wildcats within a score at 16-10 as the game neared the 12-minute mark of the fourth quarter.
As was the case throughout the second half, the Buckeye defense once again rose to the occasion. After allowing Northwestern to drive into Ohio State territory, Haskell Garrett’s third-down sack of Ramsey forced a punt from the Wildcats and set up the Buckeye offense for a season-defining drive.
Who else would Ohio State turn to but Sermon, who put the exclamation point on his historic performance while putting the game out of reach? Sermon carried the ball eight times for 70 yards on the drive, capping it off with his second touchdown of the day.
Ohio State’s two-point conversion was unsuccessful, keeping their lead at 22-10 with just under four minutes remaining.
One last gasp for Northwestern came up empty as Ramsey’s fourth-down pass to tight end John Raine was broken up by Ohio State safety Lathan Ransom, sending the Buckeye sideline into full celebration and likely on to the College Football Playoff.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.