Two years ago, Northwestern faced Dwayne Haskins and Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship as a 16.5-point underdog. This year’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium has a similar feel. The Wildcats are still heavy underdogs (20 points), and OSU has a different, yet still highly-touted quarterback in Justin Fields. In order to beat the daunting Buckeyes on Saturday, the ‘Cats will need to convert on three key matchups.
Northwestern’s secondary vs. Justin Fields
In the 2018 Big Ten Championship, Dwayne Haskins picked apart Northwestern’s secondary. He threw for 499 passing yards and five touchdown passes. The Wildcat defense was without Trae Williams in addition to a few other players who suffered injuries in the game such as Montre Hartage. The defensive injuries allowed Ohio State to pick on NU’s backup cornerbacks, especially Cam Ruiz.
Northwestern can count on Greg Newsome II to perform as the best corner in the Big Ten, but OSU will endlessly target whoever slots in across from him once again. Cam Ruiz and NU’s other CB options, Rod Heard and A.J. Hampton, have improved since the 2018 game, but it remains to be seen just how much they have improved.
We saw Ruiz get beat deep for two touchdowns in recent games against MSU and Wisconsin. Given the Buckeyes star-studded receiver group with players such as Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, asking NU’s non-Greg Newsome cornerbacks to stay in front of OSU’s wide receivers may be a tall task.
The Wildcats’ passing attack vs. Ohio State’s secondary
Northwestern will not win a shootout against Ohio State. The key to NU’s passing performance on Saturday will be consistency. OSU will probably start the game by stacking the box and therefore not allowing NU to run the ball. Peyton Ramsey and the Wildcat passing offense will need to move the ball efficiently enough against a weaker OSU secondary in order to make the Buckeyes play less aggressive defensively. A solid passing attack will give NU an opportunity to run the football.
A balanced offensive attack will allow NU to use a solid chunk of clock. In 2018, the ‘Cats lost the time-of-possession battle by nearly 12 minutes. NU needs to keep its defense off the field as long as possible on Saturday.
Northwestern’s defensive line vs. Ohio State’s offensive line
Entering the season, Ohio State’s offensive line was regarded as one of the team’s biggest strengths. The group has a couple of players who will be early-round draft picks in the 2021 NFL draft such as RG Wyatt Davis and LT Thayer Munford. So far, though, the unit has allowed 15 sacks on the season. Among all FBS schools, Ohio State is tied for 105th in average sacks allowed per game (three).
NU’s pass-rush, which has improved as the season has progressed, will be presented with a massive opportunity on Saturday. The ‘Cats need edge rushers Eku Leota and Earnest Brown IV to apply consistent pressure on Justin Fields. If Fields is given too much time to throw, NU’s cornerbacks will eventually let an OSU receiver fly open. A non-existent NU pass-rush is a recipe for an Ohio State blowout win.