When Northwestern made the Big Ten Championship Game in 2018, few expected it would put up much of a fight. With the Buckeyes listed as two-touchdown favorites, NU fans anticipated a blowout and were content with earning a spot on the big stage and the impressive third-quarter fight the team put up.
Securing a Big Ten West title and earning a trip to the conference championship game for the first time since its creation in 2011 was reason in itself to be proud, even though the Wildcats lost 45-24 in the end.
But after Saturday’s 22-10 loss to No. 4 Ohio State (6-0) in the 2020 Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis, the program was far from content.
“Talking to dudes that were [in the 2018 title game], it seems like they were happy to be there,” Brandon Joseph said postgame. “It seems like Northwestern has a steady mindset that we now expect to make it every time, and whenever we do make it, we’re not just happy to make it. We’re trying to win.”
Following a matchup in which the Wildcats (6-2) played one of the nation’s top teams very close for three quarters, Pat Fitzgerald and his players took the virtual podium, the frustration in their voices demonstrating this change in mentality.
“Incredibly disappointed in the outcome of the game,” Fitz said. “I’m hurting for our seniors. We didn’t come down here to play hard. We came down here to win, and not to get the job done is bitterly disappointing.”
The players’ and coach’s words and their play on the field both showed that Northwestern is no longer content with participating among the best — it wants to compete and showed that it truly belongs in the upper echelon of college football programs Saturday afternoon.
NU’s past two matchups with the Buckeyes fell out of reach as soon after they started. However, in this year’s battle, NU took a stand early and forced OSU to settle for a field goal on its first drive — the first time any team hadn’t sacrificed an immediate touchdown to Ohio State all season.
The Wildcats then took over with a nine-yard Cam Porter touchdown on the ensuing drive to give them the lead, which it further extended with a field goal in the second quarter. Fitz said they were to avoid the “first four rounds” in which the Buckeyes had knocked so many teams out.
“Coming out, we started fast,” senior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “The offense did their thing, and we were moving down the field, and our defense was getting stops, holding them to a field goal, and we used that momentum.”
While the defense could only hold on for so long, especially as the offense coughed up the ball three times in the second half, it proved itself as one of the country’s most efficient units, holding the Buckeyes to 22 points, less than half of their normal 47 per game.
Northwestern’s valiant effort this weekend and all season earned the ‘Cats a trip to the Vrbo Citrus Bowl, their best bowl game since they were last in Orlando in 1997. While they did not earn a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl as they might have hoped a few weeks ago, their stout performance against a national powerhouse was likely a contributing factor in their bowl placement.
Northwestern certainly has work to do to earn a Big Ten title and beat a blue blood like Ohio State. Its defense, despite being gashed by running back Trey Sermon in the second half, proved it is a top-10 unit and even better in the red zone. The offense, on the other hand, is still in search of a playmaker and the firepower to compete with some of the talent in places like Columbus. Its lack of consistency, penchant for turning the ball over and inability to sustain momentum, ultimately allowed the Buckeyes to wear the ‘Cats down and come away with a win. If NU can find that consistency on the offensive end, the program will be less of a surprise and more a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten going forward.
As Fitz said, the outcome of this year’s Big Ten title game is a tough pill to swallow for the team. Nevertheless, NU earned respect and showed on the big stage that it has improved, can compete and belongs in Indy. With this mentality change within the program, it will not settle until it hoists the Stagg Championship Trophy on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We play with a blue-collar mentality, and we’re gonna fight for every inch on the field, and I think that’s what our guys try to do,” Fitz said. “We’ve just gotta continue to work hard and get better and build as a program. To be here now two out of three years is really special, but the next step will be even more so.”