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The Big Ten Championship will be a measuring stick for Northwestern’s secondary

They can’t afford Justin Fields to gash them like Dwayne Haskins did.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Northwestern at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Facing third-and-11 from the Northwestern 16-yard line on the opening drive of the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game, Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins dropped back to find himself under pressure from defensive end Earnest Brown. Brown got an arm around the “7” on Haskins’ jersey, but the signal caller ran out of his grasp to his right before reversing back to buy more time. Haskins, running toward the right sideline, effortlessly flicked a ball right over the turned back of linebacker Nate Hall and into the waiting arms of standout receiver Terry McLaurin for a touchdown.

That would be an unfortunate harbinger for the Wildcat defense. Haskins shredded Northwestern’s back seven for a Big Ten Championship Game-record 499 yards to go along with five touchdown passes on 34-of-41 passing. Ohio State converted 10-of-18 third-down attempts en route to torching NU for 45 points.

The ‘Cats rolled out most of their typical starting secondary, with Montre Hartage and Trae Williams at cornerback, and JR Pace and Travis Whillock at safety. While Pace is the only current secondary starter who started that game, many members of Northwestern’s sky team saw time. Hartage was banged up heading into the matchup and left shortly after he intercepted a Haskins overthrow, and Williams didn’t play much either. The corners for a good part of the night were Alonzo Mayo and Greg Newsome, and Ryan Day, OSU offensive coordinator at the time, attacked NU’s linebackers in coverage as well.

Two years later, NU is back facing Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship and is once again up against a high-octane offense led by Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback Justin Fields. While the Buckeye defense and Wildcat offense look similar to their 2018 selves, it’s Mike Hankwitz’s defense that hopes it can exceed its performance from two years ago and look like the unit it has been through seven games this year.

NU has allowed only 14.6 points per game, second-best in the country and top in the Power Five. The most its defense has allowed in a game is 23 points to Michigan State. It ranks 13th in the country in total defense, allowing a hair under 314 yards per game. Pro Football Focus ranks the Wildcats’ coverage of receivers tied for fifth in the nation.

“There’s nothing more valuable than experience,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. “I think that group has been really consistent all year long, and now we’re going to face our stiffest challenge.”

Newsome, a freshman at the time, had dealt with injuries and burned his redshirt to play that December night. McLaurin, now terrorizing defenses for the Washington Football Team, gave Newsome a warm welcome, breezing by him on a third-and-20 to catch a dime from Haskins for a 42-yard touchdown with 1:21 left in the first half. Having been on the big stage once before helped teach him that once they’re on the field, it’s still just football.

“If you just key in on the things you’ve been taught since you were little, just playing base technique and just doing what we’ve been doing the whole season, we’ll be successful,” Newsome said. “Not trying to do too much, not trying to do nothing extra but just being the player you’ve been the whole season.”

Haskins completed 13 passes of 15 yards or longer, often getting what he wanted. With a bend-don’t-break defensive scheme, that worked fine until he scrambled on broken plays and made things happen in the red zone. He also hit three completions of 29 yards or more, all of which were backbreakers in their own ways.

Broken plays are sure to happen with Justin Fields at quarterback, a wizard of making something out of nothing. The Buckeyes are an impressive 37-of-69 (54%) on third downs this year and have scored touchdowns on 70% of their trips to the red zone, both due in no small part to Fields’ athleticism and ability to extend plays.

In just five games this season, Fields has completed 78% of his passes for 1407 yards (281 per game) and 15 touchdowns. He’s rushed for five more scores and 48 yards per game. Fitz said the team thought it was going to have a big challenge stopping Purdue’s passing attack in Week Four, but an immobile Aidan O’Connell with no Rondale Moore doesn’t compare to a Buckeye attack averaging 47 points per game.

“He can put the ball in tight spaces, he can launch a ball 70-to-80 yards and he also has the ability to run,” said safety Brandon Joseph. “Being an all-around quarterback like that poses a lot of threats, so we’re gonna have to be on our game. I think his ability to run the ball is something we’re really gonna have to key in on this week and stop that.”

Fields is flanked by ultra-talented talented receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, who have combined for 1100 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns. If one of those top two wideouts doesn’t play Saturday due to a positive COVID test, look for Fields to target tight end Jeremy Ruckert. Seven of Ruckert’s 23 catches over the last two years have gone for scores. And don’t think that behind Wilson and Olave are a bunch of scrubs — nope, just a boatload of four- and five-stars who are waiting for their turns.

If Northwestern is to have any shot at pulling the massive upset, it’s going to rely on the secondary and its ability to considerably outdo its performance from 2018. Hank’s men, starting with the defensive backs, must limit the explosive plays and continue getting off the field on third down. They’ve allowed opponents to convert just 31 percent of third-down tries this season.

This game will show just how far they’ve come in two years. The players acknowledged that this OSU offense is not going to be like anything they’ve seen this season. But they aren’t bowing down to it. They’re trusting everything they’ve done to this point.

“For me, it’s stay with my man, stay with my man,” said Newsome. “I know the front seven will handle him with the draw and everything like that, so for me it’s the same, just guard my man and make sure he doesn’t catch the ball when the ball is thrown.”