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Against Ohio State, Northwestern lost at its own game

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The No. 4 team in the country wasn’t even the Wildcats’ biggest foe Saturday in Indianapolis.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — The idea was that if No. 14 Northwestern (6-2) could hold No. 4 Ohio State (6-0) to the low 30s in points, it might have a fighter’s chance to pull off the monumental upset and claim its first Big Ten title in 24 years. All eyes were on the Wildcat defense.

Yet Mike Hankwitz’s unit did so much more than that. It held the Buckeyes touchdown-less in the first half, the first time that happened to them in over two years. The previously unstoppable Justin Fields-led offense, averaging 47 points per contest entering Saturday, only took the lid off of the end zone with 2:41 left in the third quarter.

The first surprise of the Wildcats’ 22-10 loss to the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship was NU legitimately turned the conference title game into its style of game: a drunk, defense-oriented, Big Ten West-style duel. There was no track meet to keep up with Ohio State like two years ago in OSU’s 45-24 win.

Forget that Trey Sermon ran for a school-record 331 yards and Ohio State put up 513 yards of offense. Northwestern had Ohio State where it wanted it. Leading 10-6 at the half. Down three points and with the ball at the start of the fourth quarter and driving toward midfield. Even down six points and on offense, with a first-and-10 at the OSU 46-yard line with about 10 minutes left.

Northwestern fans would have signed up for that eight days a week. Yet, the second surprise of the afternoon was that the Wildcats faltered at doing what they so often do best: doing the small things well, nailing their fundamentals and forcing the opponent to make mistakes because they weren’t going to make many of their own.

Earlier in the week, head coach Pat Fitzgerald told the media something along the lines of “you come at the king, you best not miss” in reference to taking advantage of slim windows of opportunity to dethrone the Big Ten-dominating Buckeyes.

When the Wildcats had their shots, they squandered them, and when you’re playing a Playoff-caliber team, you can’t leave points on the field.

“They made some adjustments, but so did we. How about that first drive coming down offensively, right?” said Fitz. “There were some really good things that we put together on both sides of the ball, that to me, it was fundamental stuff. We didn’t see anything tonight that we didn’t prepare for, that would basically be the gist of how the game turned out. I don’t think it was a schematic issue. I think it was fundamental, technique, gap fit, tackling, straying to finish blocks, being a block away, turnovers, opportunities to score when we’re across the 50, third down conversions that we didn’t get off the field with early defensively.”

On that second half-opening drive, when it seemed critical for the ‘Cats to tack on points after Brandon Joseph’s miraculous interception of Fields kept the Buckeyes at six points at the half, they marched 66 yards in 10 plays, converting two key third downs, before quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw an poorly located interception in the end zone. Had Northwestern punched it in, you’re talking about a 17-6 lead, and Fields is likely forced to take to the air some more. Even a field goal would have made it a touchdown lead and given NU confidence.

Though it didn’t kill them immediately, as Fields threw an interception on the ensuing drive, the empty trip began a series of missed chances for the Wildcats. The ‘Cats did nothing with that takeaway and turned the ball over three times in the second half.

Ramsey threw another interception and fumbled on a run in which he’d already picked up the first down with 14:26 left in the fourth. Ohio State turned those three NU giveaways into six points.

“It came down to mistakes that we made and shooting ourselves in the foot,” the quarterback said. “I can only think of one three-and-out, we were able to move the ball and get up and down the field on them and tempo them, but it was mistakes on our end that ended up killing us and putting our defense in really bad situations.”

Ramsey is right. Northwestern logged a respectable 329 yards of offense (could’ve racked up more) and had just the one three-and-out. Ohio State had more three-and-outs than the Wildcats. Unlike past successful NU teams, which made the most of its sustained drives, Saturday was a day in with Fitz’s squad couldn’t finish the deal.

There were a few play calls that, though we’d seen them this year, seemed uncharacteristic for a team that prides itself on playing a tough brand of football in a game of this magnitude. The attempted trick plays to Riley Lees in the first and third quarters were both sniffed out, blown up and killed two separate promising drives. The second one resulted in a loss of nine yards and forced Charlie Kuhbander into a longer field goal attempt, which he missed.

It’s going to be a tough couple of days for Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern knowing they had chances to climb that next mountain. They threw almost everything they had at Ohio State, but those who have helped elevate the program to this height, like senior linebacker Paddy Fisher, said they abandoned the things that got them here in the first place.

“At the end of the day, I think it just came down to our technique and fundamentals.”