No. 14 Northwestern gave No. 4 Ohio State all the Buckeyes could handle in the Big Ten Championship Game, falling 22-10. A gutsy defensive effort, especially in the red zone, threw OSU quarterback Justin Fields off his game while Mike Bajakian’s offense showed its ability to move the ball.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey started off poised and accurate, leading NU to a touchdown on its opening drive, showcasing his mobility. The ‘Cats might have been able to string together two straight scores to open the game as Ramsey hit Charlie Mangieri for a 16-yard completion to the Ohio State 45-yard line. But the Buckeyes sniffed out trick play to Riley Lees on the next play which resulted in an intentional grounding penalty that killed the drive.
Ramsey finished 24-for-37, throwing for 224 yards and two interceptions. Those 37 attempts were about six more than his season average of 31 attempts per game, but it basically evens out when you consider he threw eight passes on NU’s final drive of the game when it was down 12 points with four minutes left. Bajakian was able to call a balanced attack (37 passes to 34 runs) as Northwestern didn’t get down more than one possession and have to abandon the run until the aforementioned final drive.
I broke the analysis up by half since each one had a markedly different feel and results. First, here’s Ramsey’s passing chart from Indianapolis and his full season statistics with one game left.
Peyton Ramsey vs. Ohio State
Peyton Ramsey Full Season Stats
Ramsey looked cool and calm and was on point when he needed to be. He was a casual 12-for-14 for 90 yards, as Northwestern didn’t look to take many deep shots except for the trick play on which they were probably looking for a home run ball.
It was an interesting decision to not push more down field against an exploitable Buckeye secondary, but that’s not to say it was the wrong call. NU had only four drives (not counting the kneel after Brandon Joseph’s interception) in the opening half and got points on drives of 75 and 65 yards, respectively.
Ramsey also used his legs well, as here on the Wildcats’ first drive he feels pressure and smoothly rolls to his right for an easy pitch and catch with Cam Porter, who’s able to pick up eight yards.
What stood out was Ramsey’s accuracy, especially on some big third down throws. Northwestern was 4-of-7 on third down conversions in the first half, and he threw darts on two third-and-long plays.
These next two throws are some of his best of the afternoon. OSU defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs brings some pressure, but Ramsey isn’t phased. He hangs in the pocket and finds openings in the secondary as Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and then Kyric McGowan run deep-ish curls. On the second throw, the timing and trust is on display as Ramsey lets it go right before he gets walloped, and McGowan isn’t even yet out of his break.
Excellent timing is on display yet again on this pass to Bryce Kirtz for a first down. Ramsey throws it with Kirtz’s back to him, and the receiver slides to make an athletic catch. He knew to whom he was going all the way, and while that works in this situation, it would not in the second half.
The only notable mistake from the signal caller in the first half was this third down throw on their final drive before the break. The stunt from Ohio State confuses the Northwestern offensive line, giving two rushers a free shot at Ramsey. He wisely rolls to his left to buy time, but he doesn’t have time to set his feet so he throws across his body and misses Riley Lees high, which we’ve seen him do before. It would’ve been a first down, but Lees can barely get his hands on it, and Ramsey is fortunate the tip wasn’t intercepted.
Ohio State outgained Northwestern with 513 yards to NU’s 329. That’s not a horrible number for NU, but it could’ve and probably should have been higher. Ramsey’s unit crossed into OSU territory three times in the second half but had no points to show for it. If I could describe the second half in one emoji, it would be (yes, Medill, journalism, I know).
Look at this pass. This dime outclasses those two third down throws I highlighted from the first half, and RCB hauls it in for a 31-yard gain. At this point, it’s all happening. Northwestern is marching down the field with a chance to extend its lead to potentially two possessions and really make the Buckeyes think. Credit RCB, who had an impressive afternoon with eight catches for 103 yards, for creating some separation on the outside, and Ramsey lays a perfect ball to hit him in stride.
And then there was the beginning of the end. Here’s that chance the previous pass helped to create. Ramsey looks for tight end John Raine, who’s matched up on linebacker Justin Hilliard, but the coverage is very good and Ramsey doesn’t put enough on it and throws it to the inside, allowing Hilliard to make the pick. Ramsey said postgame that he liked the matchup but just didn’t throw a good ball, and there’s probably not much else too it! This squandered opportunity portended what was to come.
FOX color analyst Joel Klatt made a great point on this third down incompletion. There are no linebackers, as Ohio State brings pressure and leaves its defensive backs in man-to-man coverage. With no spies, Ramsey could have checked at the line and opted for a quarterback draw and what would have likely been a first down. Instead he gets rid of the ball quickly and misses RCB for what would’ve been a modest gain. Maybe they were already planning on going for it on fourth down and just wanted to get some yardage back.
Now we’re back to Ramsey throwing across his body, and this time it costs him. He faces pressure (a common theme on these plays) and is chased to his left. Not wanting to throw it away, which on second-and-5 would have been fine, he waits until he hits the B1G logo and tries to force one to McGowan on the sideline. Throwing a ball like that for a right-handed QB is hard enough, and if it was going to succeed the ball needed to be thrown basically out of bounds so the only person who had a shot at making a play on it was McGowan. Instead, the ball is too far to the inside and Josh Proctor is able to come in and intercept it.
The Wildcat defense held again, and NU headed to the fourth down just a field goal and with the ball. They moved out of the shadow of their own end zone and faced a second-and-6 from their own 29. From this point on it would be Ramsey’s legs, not his arm, that let him down. The designed run is a good call, and Ramsey picks up a first down before Hilliard knocks guard Ethan Wiederkehr into Ramsey, who fumbles the ball, turning it over a third time in the half.
Still down only one possession, the ‘Cats move the ball again, and Ramsey makes two solid (if simple) throws to RCB on well-designed plays to pick up first downs.
But things (literally) fell apart on their next third down. At this point in the game and on the field, Northwestern likely would’ve gone for it on fourth down if it picked up any yardage. Ramsey steps up well to avoid pressure, and you can see the daylight to his left, but he stumbles over Wiederkehr and takes a sack, ending the drive. By the time the Wildcats got the ball back, the Buckeyes had gone up two scores with less than five minutes left and the game was effectively over.
Ramsey will an Auburn defense that likes to bring blitz packages since it doesn’t get a ton of pressure from his front four, so with patience and poise he will have opportunities to make big plays. The chances were there against the Buckeyes, he just didn’t execute.