By Kevin Sweeney
Northwestern finally learned its opponent for the Big Ten Championship Game this past weekend when Ohio State upset Michigan to claim the Big Ten East. The Buckeyes now rank sixth in the AP Poll and are favored by 14 points against the Wildcats in most early betting lines.
From a raw talent perspective, the game should be no contest. Per 247Sports’ composite recruiting rankings, Ohio State has 36 players on their roster who were higher-rated recruits than the highest-rated eligible player on Northwestern‘s roster (injured Oregon transfer Jalen Brown). 51 Buckeyes were placed above Clayton Thorson, the highest-rated signee by Pat Fitzgerald.
While recruiting ranking isn’t everything, those staggering numbers certainly illustrate the challenge that Northwestern faces in taking on a blue-blood program that almost competes on a different playing field for talent. Pat Fitzgerald’s staff will be looking for any way they can find an advantage against such a talented team. Where does each team look better on paper? Here’s how it shakes out:
Quarterback: Ohio State
Clayton Thorson clearly holds the experience edge, but it’s hard to go against a legitimate Heisman contender in Dwayne Haskins. The redshirt sophomore has put up gaudy numbers in Urban Meyer’s quarterback-friendly offense, passing for over 4,000 yards and 41 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions. He’s coming off an outstanding performance against an elite Michigan defense, throwing for 318 yards and five touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ drubbing of the Wolverines on Saturday.
Thorson has been excellent in his senior season, but Haskins is a dynamic pocket passer who looks to pose serious problems for a banged-up Wildcat secondary with plenty of question marks.
Running Back: Ohio State
Northwestern almost gets the edge here given how well they have run the ball since Isaiah Bowser took over as full-time ball-carrier. After all, the standout first year has run for 100 or more yards in four of the last six games, including a career-best 166 yards on just 18 carries against Illinois. That said, it’s tough to go against an Ohio State backfield featuring JK Dobbins and Mike Weber, who have combined for over 2,000 yards from scrimmage this season.
After a rough four-game stretch running the football capped by a brutal game against Purdue in which Ohio State was able to run for just 69 yards on 20 carries, the Buckeyes have rebounded nicely and become a much more balanced offensive attack.
Wide Receiver: Ohio State
This is an easy one. Ohio State is loaded with four and five-star playmakers on the outside capable of breaking a game wide open. Haskins’ favorite targets are Parris Campbell (71 catches, 825 yards, nine touchdowns), KJ Hill (66 catches, 823 yards, six touchdowns) and Terry McLaurin (31 catches, 591 yards, nine touchdowns), while true freshman Chris Olave had two touchdowns against Michigan last week.
Northwestern has gotten solid production out of this group, especially senior Flynn Nagel. That said, the Wildcats have struggled to create separation at times this season and just do not compete with the Buckeyes’ receivers on paper.
Tight End/Superback: Northwestern
The Wildcats get on the board here, partially because the Superback position is featured more prominently in Northwestern’s offense than in Ohio State’s. Cameron Green is one of Thorson’s favorite targets, though he has been quiet in recent weeks. That said, Green has shown he is more than capable of making big catches and extending drives.
Green’s Ohio State counterpart Luke Farrell stands at 6’6” and 250 pounds, and Northwestern linebacker Nate Hall will likely be tasked with guarding him. Farrell is certainly a matchup problem, but Hall has been exceptional in coverage and should be able to limit his impact on Saturday.
Offensive Line: Ohio State
The offensive line has been far from a strength for either team this season, but I have to lean towards the Ohio State front given how they played against Michigan. After criticism of the much-maligned unit came to a head following the Purdue loss, the Buckeyes’ front has improved steadily as the year has gone on. Both Meyer and Haskins heaped praise on their line play Saturday after conceding zero sacks against an elite Michigan defensive front.
Northwestern has been up and down on the offensive line this season and has had the most trouble with teams that have fast defensive fronts. Protecting Thorson is a must if Northwestern wants to win this one.
Defensive Line: Northwestern
Another tight battle, as Northwestern’s defensive front has played excellent football of late. Joe Gaziano is one of the best in the Big Ten, and Jordan Thompson’s ability to plug up the middle against the run has been underrated. While NU’s sack numbers aren’t impressive, this has been a very good unit all season long. For Ohio State, the duo of Dre’Mont Jones (12 TFL, 7.5 sacks) and Chase Young (10.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) has been excellent, but this group isn’t quite as deep since the departure of star Nick Bosa to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Northwestern wins out at linebacker to claim control of the entire front seven. Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall get most of the headlines on defense, but Blake Gallagher leads the Big Ten in total tackles this season. This is a difficult matchup for Northwestern’s linebacking corps, as Pat Fitzgerald will stick in his base 4-3 defense despite dealing with tons of dynamic wide receivers on the outside. Hall in particular will be in pass coverage quite a bit, an area in which he was burned several times against Notre Dame but had a pair of interceptions against Minnesota. The Buckeyes are solid at linebacker with Tuf Borland, Pete Werner, and Malik Harrison, but I’ll give the Wildcats the edge.
Defensive Back: Ohio State
The Ohio State program has been among the nation’s best at producing elite defensive backs in recent years, and while the Buckeyes have had some struggles with explosive plays this season, they still are in better shape than the banged-up Northwestern secondary. If healthy, Montre Hartage is the best corner in this game, but Hartage is still working his way back from a hamstring injury suffered November 10 vs Iowa. Meanwhile, safety Jared McGee and corner Trae Williams are still injured as well, and teams have been able to move the ball through the air against this Wildcat defense on short routes all season. For Ohio State, Damon Arnette is an excellent corner, while Kendall Sheffield and Shaun Wade each have two interceptions on the season.
Kicker: Ohio State
This is almost by default given Northwestern may not even have a true kicker at its disposal with Charlie Kuhbander and Drew Luckenbaugh both dealing with injuries. Punter Jake Collins has handled the kicking duties for the Wildcats in recent weeks, but it’s unclear as to what range Pat Fitzgerald truly trusts Collins. Look for Northwestern to go for it on 4th down frequently in Ohio State territory. Ohio State trots out redshirt freshman Blake Haubeil, who is a perfect 27-27 on extra points this season and 9-11 on field goals with a long of 47. However, he is just 3-5 from beyond 30 yards this season, and Meyer also likes to go for it on 4th down.
I’ve tried single-handedly to get #JakeCollinsForRayGuy trending on Twitter, as I don’t think enough can be said about the job that he has done since coming over as a graduate transfer from Western Kentucky. His Ohio State counterpart Drue Chrisman has put up excellent numbers this season, but Collins has had big performances in the team’s biggest games, including a masterpiece against Notre Dame. Field position will be critical in this game, and both punters have a chance to be incredibly impactful in that regard.
Return Game: Ohio State
Northwestern has been anything but explosive in the return game this season, and conversely has given up some big returns. Ohio State’s athleticism and team speed shows out on special teams, and Northwestern can ill afford to give up a special teams touchdown in a game in which they’ll already have their hands full.
The Big Ten Championship Game is set for 7 p.m. CT on Saturday in Indianapolis. WNUR Sports will have more pregame coverage in the coming days, so check back later this week and be sure to tune in to 89.3 FM on Saturday night!