Northwestern has the chance to make history this Saturday on its trip to Indianapolis. The Wildcats could bring home their first Big Ten title in 20 years and defeat Ohio State for the first time in Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure and every current players’ career.
The task at hand won’t be easy, as the No. 4 Buckeyes are not only the best team in the conference but one of the best in the nation, currently competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. But, crazier things have happened in 2020. To understand how the ‘Cats could pull off an incredible upset and learn more about OSU, we chatted with Gene Ross, managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land.
INU: With the exception of Indiana, whom it played close, Ohio State has yet to face a big challenge on its schedule this season. How do you think this OSU team compares to past teams and what are its chances, in your opinion, of winning a national title?
LGHL: This Ohio State team is not as good as last year’s, but I do still think they have a good chance at competing for a national title since I don’t think really any of the top teams are firing on all cylinders in this weird 2020 season. The Buckeyes may have only defeated Indiana by 7, but they led in that game 35-7 at one point and kinda took their foot off the gas. Ohio State clearly excels on offense, but the defense is the main concern come the Playoff. The secondary has not been all that great, and they’ve missed key tune-up games against teams like Illinois/Maryland. I do think OSU can win a national title, but the lack of game reps could very well cost them in the CFP.
INU: Justin Fields and the Buckeye receivers have been dominant this season, but Northwestern’s secondary (and defense altogether) has been one of the strongest in the nation. How do you expect that matchup to play out?
LGHL: With no disrespect to Northwestern and how great their defense has looked all season, I don’t think they’ve played an offense anywhere near the caliber of Ohio State’s. The best quarterback they have faced to this point is Graham Mertz, and while he started off the season strong, the freshman has kind of fallen off a cliff. Justin Fields is far and away the best QB in the Big Ten, and Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave are the strongest WR duo in the conference. The Wildcats have some legit talent in guys like Paddy Fisher and Brandon Joseph, and they could make life more challenging. I do think Northwestern will probably be the best defense Ohio State has faced outside of maybe Indiana, but I don’t think there is a defense in the country that can hold this offense under 35-40 points barring disaster.
INU: What are your impressions of Northwestern, especially following some big wins and a tough loss to Michigan State, and what aspect of the Wildcats’ play is most intimidating to the Buckeyes? Or do you expect the Buckeyes to steamroll the Wildcats as many others do?
LGHL: I think Northwestern is a very good team — one that is much improved from the squad Ohio State defeated 52-3 last season. The Michigan State loss is incredibly odd to me, especially given what the Buckeyes just did to the Spartans with a depleted roster, but I don’t read all that much into weird losses like that in a season that has been full of them across the board. I do think this game will come down to Northwestern’s defense against Ohio State’s offense. If the Wildcats can hang around and keep Fields and company mostly out of the end zone for a few quarters, they could legitimately pull the upset. However, if the Buckeyes jump out to a multi-score lead early, I don’t know if Northwestern has the firepower to play catch-up.
INU: How do you think this matchup will compare to the 2018 Big Ten Championship game?
LGHL: The 2018 Ohio State team was one of the worst in program history on the defensive side of the ball. If it were not for Dwayne Haskins’ incredible arm, that team would have lost multiple games that season. The Buckeyes defeated Northwestern 45-24 in Indy that year, and I don’t think a final score somewhere in that ballpark would be all that unreasonable this year. Haskins was great, but the combination of Fields and Olave/Wilson is a far superior offense than the one the Bucks had in 2018. The defense is definitely not at the caliber of the 2019 team, but it is at the very least better than 2018. Peyton Ramsey has been solid and Northwestern has run the ball well, but Ohio State has been especially strong against the run this year, and I think the Wildcats could have some issues if they find themselves behind the sticks and forced to make some big throws.
INU: What does Northwestern have to do to take down the Buckeyes, and what is a must-win matchup in this game?
LGHL: If Northwestern is going to win this game, they will have to force Ohio State to turn the ball over. If you saw the Indiana game, the Hoosiers sent a blitz on nearly every down, and the increased pressure forced Fields to make some very questionable decisions that led to all three of his interceptions this season. Even still, that wasn’t enough for Indiana to win the game, and Fields still threw for 300 yards. It is very hard to stop this Ohio State offense, especially when they also have the run game working. Northwestern has to keep the Buckeyes off the scoreboard if they have any chance to come out on top. They cannot afford to get into a shootout with an offense averaging 46.6 points per game. At the other end, they have to find ways to capitalize on Ohio State’s issues giving up the long passing play this season.
INU: What is your score prediction?
LGHL: Something has to give here. Northwestern has the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense, allowing just 14.6 points per game and not giving up more than 29 points in any game this season. Ohio State has the nation’s No. 4 scoring offense, and has put up less than 40 points just once this year. I do think the Wildcats give the Buckeyes some trouble early on in this game, and if they can keep the game close for a quarter or two it could get real interesting down the stretch. Peyton Ramsey was just 7-for-12 for 82 yards against Illinois, and I don’t think Northwestern will be able to run for 400 yards this week like they did against the Illini. I think the Wildcats defense will hold up early, but will start to break down as the offense struggles to put together long drives. Ohio State state’s offense performs similarly to 2018, but the defense plays just a tad better. 42-17 Ohio State.