On December 1, 2018, Northwestern football lost 45-24 to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium. The result was expected but not mourned. The Wildcats had won their first Big Ten West title, and about a month later were due to win their third-straight bowl game. While the winningest senior class was heading out, the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year and a shiny new transfer quarterback were awaiting a bright 2019 season.
Come October 18, 2019. On a Friday night, Northwestern and Ohio State finally met again. But the context was different. The undefeated Buckeyes were ranked fourth in the country by the Associated Press, and Ryan Day was leading a dangerous unit featuring the likes of quarterback Justin Fields, running back J.K. Dobbins, and defensive end Chase Young. Meanwhile, the Wildcats were on a three-game slump without any conference wins, and the offense was struggling to catch up with valiant defensive play.
Though the ’Cats would’ve wished otherwise, the David versus Goliath matchup wasn’t a heroic triumph in any sense. Northwestern (1-5, 0-4 Big Ten) fell to No. 4 Ohio State (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) in a 52-3 drubbing that revealed how clearly outclassed the Wildcats were. The loss was unlike anything the team had experienced so far all season—especially considering their ability to keep scores close by halftime—and in the best case scenario can be shoved to the rear-view mirror ahead of their game against Iowa next weekend.
In the midst of disappointing quarterback play this season, head coach Pat Fitzgerald decided to start familiar former backup Aidan Smith instead of five-star transfer Hunter Johnson. Though Smith had started the Wildcats’ previous game—a heartbreakingly-close loss to Nebraska—Fitz decided that he would give him another try in the face of a dangerous opponent.
While the game started off surprisingly well for Northwestern as the defense forced two early, long third downs on the Buckeyes’ opening drive, strong running plays would gain enough yardage to keep the drive alive. Three-straight passes from Fields (18-for-23, 194 yards, 4 TDs) following two earlier incompletions gave Ohio State the first touchdown of the night: a 20-yard reception by Chris Olave (5 receptions, 60 yards, 2 TDs).
Northwestern’s first play on offense was a 13-yard run by Kyric McGowan, which was a welcome but admittedly rare sight for the night (he had just one more rush for another yard, in addition to one catch). While Young sacked Smith (6-for-20, 42 yards, 1 INT) on the next play, it was surprisingly the only time a Wildcat quarterback got sacked all night (helped by a willingness to move with the ball).
When Ohio State got the ball back, a surprising three-and-out by a threatening offense suggested that perhaps the game could be a lot closer than expected. This (overly-optimistic) belief was strengthened after some solid rushing performances by Isaiah Bowser (16 rushes, 65 yards) and Smith led Northwestern to the Buckeyes’ red zone. A 33-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander put the game at 7-3.
However, as is typical of Ohio State this season, the Buckeyes gave a beating in the second quarter. After the running game wasn’t picking up enough momentum on Ohio State’s next drive, they turned to the air. Fields would complete several big passes on a march down the field that ended with a 19-yard touchdown reception by Dobbins (though it did seem that Paddy Fisher could’ve made a play had a referee not been in his way).
The Wildcats’ offense regressed during the second quarter. Northwestern had just two first downs in the quarter that weren’t due to Ohio State penalties. Smith had some decent moves on display when he kept the ball, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for a lack of pass production (and accuracy). Bowser didn’t have the same level of success running the ball as he did earlier in the game, and the receiving corps wasn’t able to make an impact (Riley Lees and Jace James had a combined five of the team’s six total receptions, for a measly 29 total yards).
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes put on more pressure. It took just two rushing plays by Dobbins (18 rushes, 121 yards, 1 TD) for Ohio State to follow up their second touchdown of the game with their third, on the back of a giant 68-yard run followed by a 5-yard score. But hope wasn’t completely sucked out, yet.
Then an unfortunate bungled snap from Tyler Gillikin turned an intended punt into a red zone start for the Buckeyes, which Fields would capitalize on with an 8-yard touchdown to Olave. And great field positioning after Northwestern was backed up at their own 1-yard-line gave Ohio State time for a 55-yard field goal as the first half ended. With a 31-3 lead at halftime, there was no longer any reason for Northwestern fans with better things to do to stick around.
The second half wasn’t much to write home about. Here are some points of interest in an otherwise predictable and painful finish: three more Ohio State touchdowns (including a 73-yard breakaway run by Master Teague III), a sack and forced fumble by Joe Gaziano (lost and recovered by Fields), and Andrew Marty appearing at quarterback for the Wildcats (ending his sole drive with an interception).
“We have guys that are pressing, trying to do too much than just their job,” said Fitzgerald after the game. “They care so much, they’re a great group of guys. That’s why my heart breaks for them.”
“We’ve got to get better fundamentally,” he added. “We cannot have self-inflicted wounds. That’s kind of where we’re at right now, and we have to get it fixed if we want to win. And I believe we will.”
“I think naturally when you take an embarrassing loss like that you’re going to get down on yourself,” Fisher said. “Life is going to throw right hooks at you and uppercuts along the way. You just need to stay poised, stay calm and live to fight to fight another day.”
In order to make their fifth-straight bowl game appearance, Northwestern will need to win at least five of the six games that currently remain this season. Heading into Friday, two of those opponents are ranked conference teams (Iowa and Minnesota) that the Wildcats have gone unbeaten against in the last two years. Salvaging the season with a strong turnaround will rest on figuring out how to find success on offense, and putting an end to the quarterback question (Hunter Johnson or Aidan Smith?) once and for all.
Game stats and details provided by SIDEARM Sports
Quotes provided by Northwestern Athletics