Northwestern fought valiantly but ultimately fell to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship for the second time in three seasons. The ‘Cats are now 6-2 on the season and will find out their bowl game later today. While a New Year’s Six bowl appears unlikely, the ‘Cats are still poised to make a solid bowl game. Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s win.
Mike Hankwitz will be missed
Sure, the Buckeyes totaled more than 500 yards of total offense, and NU allowed Trey Sermon to rush for more than 300 yards. But when playing a team as talented as Ohio State, Mike Hankwitz had to choose between stopping Ohio State’s future top-10 draft pick Justin Fields or the Buckeye running backs. The ‘Cats may have lost the game, but Mike Hankwitz successfully limited Ohio State’s most dangerous weapon.
The 2018 Big Ten Championship served as a reminder of just how dangerous Ohio State is with a lethal passing game. Dwayne Haskins threw for over 500 yards, and while there was a glimmer of hope for the ‘Cats in the third quarter that year, OSU’s signal caller was too efficient to ever give NU a shot to win in a shootout.
In Saturday’s matchup, Fields went 12-for-27 for 114 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions, only the third multi-interception game of his career. Hankwitz should be praised for putting together a game plan that debilitated Ohio State’s passing game, leading to its lowest offensive scoring output of the season by a margin of 16 points.
Lack of offensive execution once again cost the ‘Cats
We saw earlier in the season against inferior teams such as Nebraska and Michigan State how it looks when NU fails to execute in favorable situations. Against the Spartans, Huskers and Hawkeyes, the ‘Cats opened the door for their opponents by simply struggling to execute or not stomping on opponents’ throats, which ultimately came back to haunt the Wildcats against Michigan State.
NU’s lack of execution ultimately lost them the game on Saturday. In the first quarter, with all of the momentum on NU’s side, a poorly run trick play saw Riley Lees penalized for an intentional grounding that ultimately stalled a possession in OSU territory. Later, on third-and-eight from the Buckeyes' nine-yard line, Peyton Ramsey threw an interception on a 50-50 ball to John Raine. Northwestern then intercepted Fields on the following possession, but the NU offense went three-and-out. A few possessions later, the ‘Cats missed a field goal after Ohio State missed one on its own end.
Simply put, the Wildcats cannot afford to shoot themselves in the foot so many times against a team like OSU and expect to win.
Fitz has brought this program to new heights
Pat Fitzgerald said after the game that Ohio State did not do anything the Wildcats did not expect to see leading up to the game. That was evident in the matchup as well. NU ultimately got beat because the offense failed to execute and the rushing defense was worn down.
The fact that Fitz was able to put Northwestern’s players in a position to win the game represents part of the reason Wildcat players and fans woke up to read an ESPN article about NFL teams lining up to interview their head coach.
He has built quite the program at NU and started from ground level, and he prepared the ‘Cats to be able to compete from the opening kickoff to the final whistle against a team vying for a spot in the National Championship. NU fans have always appreciated Fitz, but especially after Saturday’s showing, the incredible impact he’s had on the Wildcats is even clearer.
Northwestern needs higher-end talent to beat Ohio State in the future
Urban Meyer echoed this sentiment postgame. Northwestern is a very good program, and showed that on Saturday, but it will not be considered on par with Ohio State until it can rack up more talent, on the offensive end especially.
While few programs are able to recruit like Ohio State, there should be some optimism. With two Big Ten Championship appearances in three seasons and a new lakefront facility, the ‘Cats should start to attract higher-level high school talent in the near future. The hiring of Mike Bajakian cannot hurt either.
Northwestern has shown it can develop three-star players into conference leaders. Bennett Skowronek, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Flynn Nagel are great recent examples of this. But at the end of the day, NU needs more speed to compete with OSU. Until that happens, the Wildcats will lack the explosiveness needed to compete with the heavyweights.
The Wildcats are setting a new standard for themselves
Pat Fitzgerald said postgame yesterday that the game was not a moral victory, and NU came to Indy to win. Some fans may scoff, but that truly is how those inside the program feel. And based on the way NU played yesterday, Fitz’s words should be easy to believe.
It would not have been realistic for outsiders to expect NU to beat OSU yesterday as a near-three touchdown underdog. At some point, though, the media and fans should adjust their expectations.
Northwestern has now made two Big Ten Championships in three seasons. With newfound success comes new goals. At some point in the near future, we should be able to scrutinize Northwestern for failing to convert on key opportunities in the second half rather than praising them for finishing the first half up four points against OSU.
That starts with NU’s bowl game in a few weeks and defending the Big Ten West title next year. If Northwestern can win three Big Ten West titles in four years, realistic expectations to win a Big Ten Championship can set in. At that point, Northwestern will have truly joined college football’s upper echelon.