After weeks of waiting, thousands of COVID-19 tests and a loss to Michigan State to boot, it’s finally B1G Weekend. The No. 14 Northwestern Wildcats (6-1 B1G) will be taking on the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (5-0 B1G) Saturday at 11 a.m. CST to determine conference supremacy and perhaps a spot in the college football postseason.
For Ohio State, this game is a true test of skill and ability. The Buckeyes have been gaining a lot of attention as currently the last seed to make the College Football Playoff, as some wonder whether they deserve the spot. While their offense dominates games and runs up the score, critics question the value of the spot with the Buckeyes having only played five games, versus teams like No. 5 Texas A&M, with eight games, and No. 6 Iowa State, with 10. As a result, the Buckeyes will be desperate to prove they belong in the race with a huge win.
On the other side, Northwestern will be looking to make history with their first Big Ten title since 2000. Although the team is unlikely to make the College Football Playoff, a conference championship isn’t too small a goal for the team whose three-step plan includes Winning the Division, Winning the Big Ten and Winning their Bowl Game.
So who has got the edge? Will the stingy Northwestern defense be able to contain the Buckeyes? Or will Ohio State’s flash and burn be too much for the ’Cats? NBN Sports has all the details you need to know about Saturday’s game and who may come out on top.
In this corner, one of THE Ohio State Universities. The Buckeyes, fresh off a berth in last year’s College Football Playoff, are the de facto head honcho of the Big Ten, having won the three previous title bouts including the 2018 matchup with Northwestern.
There are so many strengths to Ohio State’s team that it’s easiest just to start at the top: junior quarterback Justin Fields. Fields, who garnered attention when the Big Ten originally canceled the season with a petition declaring “We Want to Play,” has had an absolutely dominant campaign over five games with 15 touchdowns, 1,407 passing yards and just three interceptions. Fields was named first-team All Big Ten for his efforts, and will now look to add a second Big Ten Championship to his resume.
Beyond Fields, however, Ohio State is absolutely shredded at offense, with six players named first-team All-Big Ten and three others getting nods. The Buckeyes have a lethal duo with first-team wideouts Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, each with five touchdowns and over 30 receptions, as well as a sturdy running back in Master Teague, who ran for 426 yards and six touchdowns.
Fields is also protected by one of the better offensive lines in the country, with all being named to All-Big Ten teams. What all this jargon means is one of the best weapons in the country is protected by an impenetrable fortress, so not great on that front.
Where Ohio State’s weakness lies, however, is in their defense. Although their front seven is formidable (’Cats fans should watch out for senior linebacker Chris Werner and defensive lineman Zach Harrison), Ohio State has not been great in their secondary this season, allowing almost 500 passing yards during their close win over Indiana and experiencing an overall lack of depth at the position. If Northwestern wants a chance to win this game, quarterback Peyton Ramsey must find faith and test the receivers often.
Finally, an overall look at Ohio State. The Buckeyes have had solid wins over all five opponents this year, including a convincing 52-17 win over Nebraska and a 52-12 domination over Michigan State, who had beaten Northwestern 29-20 a week before. Ohio State, however, has not truly had what analysts call a “statement win,” a victory that proves just how good a football team they are. The Buckeyes will be very hungry on Saturday for a chance at postseason glory and a chance for the National Championship.
Unfortunately for them, however, the ’Cats never go down quietly.
Editor's note: as of Friday morning, Ohio State has had several positive COVID-19 tests within their program, including one of their star wide receivers. A depth chart will be released Friday morning, but it's likely the Buckeyes will be missing key talent on Saturday.
The ’Cats are led on offense by graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey, who arrived in Evanston after a solid campaign with the Indiana Hoosiers. Ramsey, who’s thrown for a solid 1218 yards and nine touchdowns, was good enough to be named third-team All Big Ten, but he also threw six interceptions. As Ohio State has struggled of late with secondary issues, it will be up to Ramsey to carve the defense and help Northwestern match the flair of Fields and Co.
Helping Ramsey is a multitude of weapons, including his favorite receiver, senior Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who’s scored four touchdowns this year and racked up 344 receiving yards. The ’Cats also have a spectacular run game to boot, including Drake Anderson, who led the ’Cats with 256 rushing yards, and first-year Cam Porter, who went off against Illinois for two touchdowns and 142 yards. ’Cats fans should watch out for that dynamic duo on Saturday.
Of course, the real bread-and-butter of this operation is the defense, who have stifled dynamic offenses time and time again. The defense, who went three games before allowing a point scored in the second half and held Wisconsin to just seven points, is led by a dynamic core of senior linebackers: first-team All-Big Ten Paddy Fisher, second-team Blake Gallagher and the ever-potent Chris Bergin.
The ’Cats also have a fantastic presence in the secondary with junior corner Greg Newsome, who was also first-team after holding some of the Big Ten’s best receivers to lows, and first-year Brandon Joseph, who won the Big Ten’s “Thompson-Randle-El” Award for Best Freshman after nabbing five interceptions.
Looking at the ’Cats, there’s a lot of resilience and firepower in their brand. After dominating Maryland, they came back against now-ranked No. 16 Iowa and outclassed then-ranked No. 10 Wisconsin, holding the two teams pointless in the second half. The ’Cats, however, are taunted by their 29-20 loss against unranked Michigan State, which effectively ended their playoff hopes. Minus that, however, Northwestern has gone toe-to-toe with some of the better teams in the country, and they look to add to a wonderful season with extra hardware going home.
So who’s got the upper hand?
Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object
The main storyline here is obviously going to be Ohio State’s potent offense against Northwestern’s stingy defense. While Ohio State has dropped high point totals on opponents Northwestern struggled to jump on (Nebraska, Michigan State) the ’Cats’ strength will stem from forcing turnovers. In the win over Wisconsin, the ’Cats forced a whopping five turnovers, stymying the offense and allowing the ’Cats to grit and grind their way to a win. Fans should expect more of the same in this game, especially from defensive leaders Paddy Fisher and ballhawk Brandon Joseph.
Another plot point, however, will be the ’Cats’ ability to generate offense. While Ohio State’s front seven is frightening (with Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald saying that anyone who has ideas to solve it should text him immediately) the game plan will rest in Peyton Ramsey and his ability to generate offense against the lackluster Buckeye secondary. Chiaokhiao-Bowman will be a likely target to pace the team, but fans should also watch out for senior wideouts Riley Lees and Kyric McGowan, who have also seen significant plays this season.
Finally, the ever-present question: who wants it MORE? Both teams have storylines that would be perfectly capped with a win, with Ohio State hoping to put an exclamation point on an interesting postseason resume, and Northwestern hoping to win a significant matchup to gain national respect. What’s more, the ’Cats’ legendary defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz, has said that this will be his last season, and will want his 400th win before retiring. The defense will be looking to make him proud and retire happy even before a bowl berth.
ESPN says Ohio State has a 91% chance of winning. Yet, as the old saying goes, “there’s a reason they play the games.” When Northwestern takes on the mighty Buckeyes on Saturday, all eyes will be on the defense as they go for one last stand for themselves, their coordinator and their school. If the offense can go tit-for-tat with Ohio State, there’s a chance the ’Cats could stifle the Buckeyes and come out on top.
They underestimated the ’Cats against Iowa. Against Nebraska. Even against Wisconsin. All ended up being wins.
Why don’t they underestimate us one last time?