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How Northwestern’s secondary shut down Justin Fields and the Buckeye receivers

The Wildcat defensive backs proved once again why they are one of the top units in the nation.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Northwestern at Ohio State Doug McSchooler-USA TODAY Sports

Nearing the end of an incredibly uplifting season, Northwestern came up just short against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game. After a fantastic first half in which Pat Fitzgerald’s team led 10-6, the NU offense fell apart and Ryan Day and the OSU offense made adjustments — sort of. Though the ground game was certainly humming behind a record-breaking 331-yard performance from Trey Sermon, the Justin Fields-led passing game underwhelmed.

While the future top-10 draft pick looked more in stride as the game progressed, the sheer brilliance that Fields exhibited with Ohio State throughout the 2019 and 2020 seasons did not exist inside Lucas Oil Stadium. His trademark deep dimes, miraculous scrambles to somehow find an open receiver in the endzone, ridiculous pocket presence and ability to evade multiple edge rushers to scramble for the first down were all nonexistent. The ‘Cats locked down every receiving threat Ohio State threw at them, and though Chris Olave was out, the Northwestern secondary showed that it could compete with the best of them with its performance against Fields.

Without further ado, let’s get into how the Wildcats mitigated one of the best quarterbacks in college football.

The Good

OSU box score stats

Northwestern’s secondary held Fields to a repulsive stat-line in the first half not just by his lofty standards, but by any quarterback’s standards: 9-for-19 on pass attempts, 95 yards and an interception. The second half was more of the same, as Fields only finished with 114 yards through the air, easily a career-low for him in his time at Ohio State. Though they don’t tell the whole story, these box score stats show the extent to which Northwestern’s back seven frustrated Fields, resulting in numbers that made Jets fans that much more frustrated to lose the first overall pick.

Brandon Joseph

Every Wildcat fan will remember where they were for Brandon Joseph’s interception at the end of the first half. With just 29 seconds left in the second quarter and the Buckeyes marching deep into NU territory, Joseph made an incredible, one-handed interception in the endzone to stop the drive and maintain the Wildcats' lead through two quarters of play.

Joseph drops back and waits for Garrett Wilson to make his move, and upon realizing it’s a post route to the back of the end zone, he jumps the pass and fights for position in front of the wide receiver. He keeps his ground and makes an incredible play for the interception. Joseph once again proved that he is a special player and is more than capable of matching up with Ohio State’s talent in the open field.

The emergence of Cam Mitchell

Cam Mitchell played his best game of the season when the Wildcats needed it most. The redshirt freshman had a coming-out party against the Buckeyes, sacking Fields on a crucial third-and-goal on the first drive of the game and picking him off in the second half.

The momentum-shifting sack was beautifully schemed up by Mike Hankwitz and executed to perfection by Mitchell.

Hankwitz places Mitchell to the right of LB Blake Gallagher and to the left of the rest of the Wildcat defensive backs. Gallagher is instructed to bring decoy pressure and take on the OSU left guard, and Earnest Brown makes a pass-rushing move around the edge to create a perfect lane. Mitchell, disguised amongst the other DBs in what looks to be a press coverage package, makes an immediate break toward Fields, who he wraps up and brings down for the sack.

Of course, Mitchell’s work wasn’t done, as he pulled off a ridiculous interception to continue Northwestern’s defensive dominance over the Buckeyes early in the second half.

The offensive play is a designed rollout for Fields to the right side of the field. This forces the defense to move with him while he maintains the threat of running, creating easier passing looks as they’re distracted by the potential scramble. Normally, Olave would run the out route that Jameson Williams mistakenly decides to turn upfield. Mitchell realizes the out route the moment Fields cocks back his arm to throw the ball and jumps on it with ease, using some fancy toe-tap footwork to give the Wildcats the ball near midfield.

The Explainable

Dink and dunk

Not a lot of chunk plays went the Buckeyes’ way, as Fields’ few successes often came on intermediate and short distance throws.

Look at this out route by Fleming. There are three men in his vicinity, but he runs the perfect route to bust the zone coverage and gain the first down. No defensive back involved in this play could have done anything differently to prevent this gain other than ad-libbing from the play call and dangerously jumping the route. Good defense, better offense.

Justin Fields being Justin Fields

Fields is the presumed second overall pick for a reason. Even on his worst day, maybe ever, he can still look really freaking good. The secondary plays its role correctly, but Fields makes something happen as the play breaks down.

He drops back and fakes the handoff before eyeing his man on a perspective bubble screen. He doesn’t like the read, so he quickly decides to tuck it and run, making his way past the first down marker and into the second level, forcing a missed tackle along the way. Though JR Pace should have made that play, the way Fields moves like a running back, attacking the defense and forcing them to keep up with his terrifying speed, makes him a difficult tackle for any defender in the college game.

Whenever Fields got past the line of scrimmage, NU’s defenders were hopeless to tackle him, constantly getting dusted by his moves and allowing him to gain chunk yardage on plays they originally covered very well. Quarterback runs have been a problem all year for the otherwise stout defense, and that did not change when going up against the most dynamic rusher they’ve faced at the position all year.

Overall

Fields is very good and has been for two years. Northwestern should be proud of the fact that they made him look flustered for nearly the entirety of last Saturday’s showdown. This secondary has proven that it deserves to be taken seriously as a top-tier unit in college football with a legitimate performance against the now-No. 3 ranked team in the country. Players who did not show up a lot early in the year played really well against Fields, particularly Mitchell and even Cam Ruiz. The ever consistent trio of Pace, Joseph and Greg Newsome II did their thing to hold one of the most potent offenses in college football history to only 22 points and 0 passing touchdowns, despite losing NFL Draft-bound Newsome early on to an injury.

The group should have a much easier task in the Citrus Bowl against Bo Nix and the Auburn Tigers, as its stellar output on the conference’s biggest stage again showed that the Sky Team can truly play with anyone.