So close, yet still so far away. Northwestern put up quite the fight against the heavily-favored Buckeyes but ultimately fell short for the second time in three years. Here’s the stock report from the 22-10 defeat.
Mike Hankwitz and his defense
Long appreciated by die-hard ‘Cats fans, Coach Hank’s ascendance to the national spotlight has been one of the best things to happen in 2020. In what was the second-to-last game of his illustrious coaching career, the “mad scientist” behind Northwestern’s defense called a fantastic game that helped slow the Buckeye’s fearsome attack. His defense held the Buckeyes to just 22 points despite their averaging 46.6 points per game. It also stopped OSU thrice in the red zone, forcing field goals each time and allowing Blake Haubeil to connect just twice from inside the 20.
Whether it be his gutsy call to send eight defenders Ohio State’s way with their offense threatening from the nine-yard line or his making Justin Fields look like the second-best quarterback on the field for the first half, the beloved assistant coach gave Northwestern fans a treat in Indy today.
Mitchell was a pleasant surprise this afternoon, taking a bulk of the snaps at corner both in the first half and when Greg Newsome left with an injury. The usual reserve defensive back made two of the game’s biggest plays. On the previously mentioned Hankwitz blitz call, he brought Fields to the turf, and when Ohio State’s Jameson Williams (filling in for the absent Chris Olave) mistakenly turned upfield on a rollout pass, Mitchell closed beautifully on the throw and toe-tapped his way to his first career interception. The redshirt first year finished with four tackles, 0.5 sacks, a pass breakup and the aforementioned interception.
The senior receiver capped off his breakout Big Ten season with his first career 100-yard receiving game, tallying 103 yards and eight catches in total. No matter who the Buckeyes put on him in the secondary, RCB found a way to get find soft spots in coverage and make plays when the ‘Cats needed him most. His dusting of Sevyn Banks on a go route early in the third stands out, as he was the only Northwestern receiver seemingly capable of threatening Ohio State downfield. In what was the highest passing yardage output of the season for Peyton Ramsey, his favorite receiver came through for him when he needed it most.
Honorable Mentions: Cam Porter, tempo, the first half, competitive games
Death, taxes and Northwestern fans crying out in agony at missed tackles in the open field. For as great as this NU defense has been all year, the Achilles heel of not being able to bring down those scrambling QB’s has frustrated both fans and coaches. That persisted today, as Fields tallied 35 yards on the ground and escaped several potential sacks with his shifty footwork. Fields has been rumored to have a near 4.4-second 40-yard dash and is a powerful runner at 6-foot-3, 227 pounds, so some effective bursts from the star signal-caller were to be expected.
While the ‘Cats had been solid at defending opposing halfbacks all year, that notion was quickly torn to shreds by Ohio State’s Trey Sermon. After realizing that they wouldn’t be able to beat the Sky Team through the air, Ryan Day and co. pivoted to a heavy read-option run attack. It didn’t help that defensive tackle Trevor Kent was inactive and fellow DT Jake Saunders suffered an injury in the second half. The Oklahoma transfer finished the game with 331 yards and two touchdowns on 29 attempts, and his long scampers repeatedly gashed what otherwise was a stout Northwestern defense. Ohio State has been home to some of the most decorated running backs in college football history, yet Sermon’s yardage output today was the highest in program history, shattering the long-held 314-yard performance by Hall of Fame Eddie George. Not a great look.
Second half composure
Ohio State is not unbeatable, but the Buckeyes don’t go away easily. Take last year’s Big Ten title match, as Wisconsin took a 21-7 lead into the break, only to get boat raced 27-0 in the second half. What’s important when facing a giant like OSU is to stay calm and not panic when it makes adjustments. That cannot be said for Northwestern.
The defense had somehow found an answer to Fields but couldn’t put anything together to stop Sermon once he got rolling. Meanwhile, on offense, everything went downhill after Ramsey threw an interception on a third-down, goal-line fade at the beginning of the second half. After the grad transfer QB played one of his best halves of the season, completing 12 of his 14 attempts, he was out of sorts the rest of the matchup. Rollout passes and out routes that he normally hits with ease were suddenly off target, and he made another fatal decision in trying to squeeze a throw to his receiver while fading out of bounds, resulting in another interception. He fumbled bumping into offensive lineman Ethan Wiederkehr and stumbled on another key third down, both of which ended seemingly promising drives. All in all, the Buckeyes did what they usually do, closing in on the ‘Cats and holding them scoreless in the second half.
Capitalizing off turnovers
A message that was echoed all off-season was the need for this defense to force more takeaways in the 2020-21 season. Considering Fields had only thrown six interceptions in his prior 19 starts coming into this game, picking him off twice counts as a phenomenal success for the ‘Cats. Alas, similar to the five-takeaway Wisconsin game earlier this season, Northwestern’s offense could not convert on the opportunities provided them. Mitchell set the offense up at mid-field following his interception early in the third quarter, but it responded with a prompt three-and-out, handing the ball right back to the Bucks.
Ohio State’s offense also did its part in not making the most of takeaways, converting three Peyton Ramsey turnovers into a mere six points. But given that OSU won by the narrow margin of 12 points, those were six digits on the scoreboard the ‘Cats probably wish they could have put up themselves.
Honorable Mentions: Trick plays to Riley Lees, injuries, New Year’s Six hopes