Northwestern is once again a double-digit underdog, according to the folks in the desert. If we know anything, though, it’s that the ‘Cats relish those chances. Here are three key matchups to watch in the Big Ten Championship:
Ohio State’s wide receivers vs Northwestern’s secondary
It’s well-established that Ohio State has elite talent and athleticism on its offense, notably at receiver. Michigan was made unpleasantly aware in the Buckeyes’ 63-point outburst against the nation’s No. 1 statistical defense. Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins repeatedly torched the Michigan secondary, first on crossing routes and then down the field, with his success coming from both accurate throws and defensive breakdowns.
The Northwestern secondary as a whole is not as talented or athletic as Michigan’s, but it has playmakers nonetheless, and critical to the matchup is health. The ‘Cats have been banged up at cornerback and safety for nearly the whole season, and just one starter played against Illinois (and it showed). The two teams have almost identical pass defense statistics, both giving up 238 yards per game, but the difference in these defenses lies on the scoreboard. Northwestern has given up 21.7 points per game, four fewer than Ohio State, because of its -- and stop me if you’ve heard this one before -- bend-don’t-break defense. Mike Hankwitz’s unit will play softer coverage to keep plays in front of defenders and reduce chances for explosive plays, exactly what Ohio State’s defense has struggled with. Northwestern has won games because it has held teams to field goals instead of touchdowns. That formula cannot change, and keeping such speedy receivers out of the end zone is paramount. It will be okay if the Buckeyes move the ball between the 20s, but it will not be okay if we see many group celebrations in the endzone.
Dwayne Haskins’ legs vs Northwestern’s linebackers
The redshirt sophomore from Potomac has had a season that can be considered the greatest season all-time by a Big Ten quarterback. Haskins has thrown for 4,081 passing yards and 42 touchdowns thus far, both Big Ten single-season records, and he needs just 65 yards to break Denard Robinson’s Big Ten single-season offense record. People rave about his arm talent, and rightly so -- just look at the above stats. What has made this Ohio State offense so dangerous in recent weeks, though, is Haskins’ willingness to use his legs. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, he is athletic and his running adds a new dimension to offensive coordinator Ryan Day’s unit. He’s picked up big third downs using his legs, and with Northwestern likely devoting a lot of attention to shutting down the Ohio State passing game, Haskins’ ground game could come into play. Linebackers Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Nate Hall, players who have been so key to defensive success this season, have combined for 250 tackles this season, and that’s with Nate Hall missing several games. A mobile Haskins makes the running game more effective with zone reads and keeps the defense guessing. The linebackers will be tasked with containing Haskins, spying him and making sure he doesn’t become the dual-threat quarterback that Northwestern traditionally has had trouble defending.
Clayton Thorson & Northwestern’s offensive line vs Ohio State’s defensive line
Ohio State’s defense has been more than susceptible to big plays this season, but it boasts a talented and disruptive defensive line. Northwestern’s offensive line has gelled during the second half of the season, but it has struggled for stretches, especially against strong defensive lines. Clayton Thorson, in his four years in purple, has the reputation of holding the ball for too long and sometimes trying to make a play when he should throw the ball away. It’s not all on Thorson; his receivers sometimes struggle to gain separation, and his offensive line does not always give him ample time to go through his reads, but for a quarterback who has NFL hopes, he will need to be locked in for a game of this magnitude. The Buckeyes rank third in the Big Ten with 34 sacks, good for 2.83 per game. Against Michigan, the defensive line wreaked havoc against a mobile Shea Patterson, forcing him into several misses while sacking him three times. It’s up to the Northwestern offensive line, and Mick McPlayCall to game plan an offense that neutralizes the Buckeye front. If not, and Ohio State turns in a similar performance to last week’s versus Michigan, the Wildcats will be in for a long night.