For the second time in three years, the Northwestern Wildcats will head to Indianapolis to clash with the Ohio State Buckeyes for the Big Ten Championship. Many of the players on both sides (and particularly that of the scarlet-and-gray) have changed since the teams met at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2018, but one thing certainly stayed the same: Northwestern remains a massive underdog. In spite of that hefty, 20.5-point line, here are three reasons the Wildcats will find a way to win the rematch, and then three reasons they will see their upset dreams dashed once again.
Why Northwestern will win the Big Ten Championship
A chance to exploit Ohio State’s biggest weakness
By now, just about everybody has seen the stat. So far this season, the Buckeyes have allowed 287 passing yards per game, the most in the Big Ten. After losing both Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette Jr., last year’s top two corners, to the NFL, Shaun Wade, the secondary’s leader, has busted his share of coverages and continues to be very boom-or-bust on the outside, while both Sevyn Banks and Marcus Williamson have struggled as well. Add in a linebacking corps that has plenty of experience but, with Pete Werner and particularly Tuf Borland, not a ton of top-tier coverage ability. This unit is vulnerable.
Just two years ago, Peyton Ramsey exploited a similarly at-risk Buckeye pass defense to the tune of 322 yards and three touchdowns. Granted, he was with Indiana at the time and the Hoosiers came up well short, but the grad transfer has already displayed the ability to pick apart OSU on the back end despite not having the big arm of former teammate Michael Penix Jr. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Kyric McGowan have gotten themselves open in key spots all year, and there’s no reason to think that changes against this struggling group. Passing success might just create enough offense to give Northwestern a chance.
The “Middle Eight”
The concept of the importance of the final four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half of a given game was popularized by Bill Belichick, and has since grown into a philosophy that has spread across the NFL and into the realm of college football, particularly the SEC. Essentially, the idea is that scoring late in the first half and then scoring again to open the second half both keeps the opposing offense off the field for ages in real time and creates a two-drive run that you cannot get at any other point in the game.
Ohio State, as most good teams do, has excelled in this area, outscoring opponents 52-14 in their five games over drives that ended with fewer than four minutes remaining in the first half or began with fewer than four minutes off the clock in the second. But Northwestern has been better. The 62-3 (!) margin that the Wildcats boast has been crucial to building leads in games they have already been winning and aiding comebacks when they got off to slow starts.
Even if they don’t win the toss and gain the ability to defer to the second half, Northwestern’s ability to control the clock at the end of the first half could give them essentially an extra possession by not allowing the Buckeyes enough time to mount a drive on the back end, something they have successfully achieved in six out of seven games thus far. As Pat Fitzgerald would tell you, the little things go a long way in upset bids, and controlling the middle of the game and/or keeping the ball out of Justin Fields’ hands just once in a key situation could be enough to swing things.
A lockdown secondary gets the chance to put their stamp on this season
All season long, the Wildcat defense has been sensational. And while the front seven have certainly done well, the stars of the show have been the secondary. Greg Newsome II has allowed one catch for seven yards in coverage over the past four weeks. Go ahead, read that line again. Brandon Joseph is the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and PFF’s top strong safety in the country. In his third year as a starter, JR Pace brings vital experience on the back end. And though Northwestern has not released an updated two deep this week to confirm, it appears that AJ Hampton’s meteoric rise in terms of coverage ability and sure tackling this season has resulted in him taking all his swagger to the second cornerback slot.
Clearly, Ohio State and its talent on the outside presents a massive challenge, but if any group of defensive backs is up to the task, it’s this one. If Newsome can largely handle his side one-on-one with some safety help over the top, as he has all year (still a big ask), the help in coverage elsewhere, particularly in nickel package situations, may be enough to slow the Buckeyes down measurably. Northwestern’s greatest strength is facing their biggest test, but they haven’t failed one yet.
Why Northwestern won’t win the Big Ten Championship
Have you heard about this guy? He’s a problem. For all I just said about Northwestern’s pass defense, Fields’ consistent ability to make good decisions, throw both deep and short with pinpoint accuracy, and scramble at exactly the right time means the Wildcats could do everything right in coverage and still lose.
Simply put, NU does not and never will have the most athletic linebackers, and for all their experience, quarterback runs of any kind are always something that has the potential to gash a Mike Hankwitz defense, as we saw this season against Nebraska and Michigan State. Spy him all you want: unless you can get him on the ground consistently, which it doesn’t appear anyone can, Fields is going to make plays that hurt you. Against Indiana, even with his mistakes, he put up 42 points, and that just might be the case again Saturday.
Defensive line dominance
It’s been an up-and-down season for an improved Northwestern offensive line. But they’ve struggled the most against teams rushing four down linemen with consistent effectiveness. It killed them against Michigan State, and though Nik Urban laid out concrete things that the Wildcats took away from the game and worked on — namely communication about who to double and when, along with the ever-present attempted improvement of technique — the line had a long way to go.
Well, here comes a four-man front that has wreaked havoc all year. Kerry Coombs’ defense gets the vast majority of its pressure with its down linemen, and even without Chase Young, they do so extremely well. Tommy Togiai, a future NFLer at defensive tackle, leads the way with three sacks in five games, but all four players and their backups have pass-rushing talent and can consistently get in the backfield. If we see a repeat of Michigan State, the deficiencies of the Buckeye secondary won’t matter.
Look, the fact is that in college football, talent is king. And Ohio State’s bevy of four and even five-stars stands to dominate Northwestern in that regard. Whether it comes in the trenches, where strength and natural ability often win out at this level in particular, or in key plays on the outside, where a burst of speed or elite-level catching ability might make the difference, sheer ability forms a gap all too often. That’s not to say said gap can’t be overcome: Northwestern does it all the time. But a team like these Buckeyes, for their flaws, is on another level in that regard, and it might be enough to earn them yet another Big Ten Championship.