By Jack Lido
Northwestern faces Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game tomorrow in Indianapolis. The No. 6 Buckeyes have lost just once this year, scoring only 20 points in a blowout against Purdue on October 20. In that game, the Boilermakers created a blueprint to beating Ohio State.
The Buckeyes sport the second best offense in the country and will certainly not be easy to stop, but here’s how Northwestern can do it too:
Step One: Shut Down Dwayne Haskins
The sophomore gunslinger threw for a Big Ten-record 41 touchdowns in 2018 and won Big Ten Player of the Week honors a record six times. He’s a Heisman-caliber quarterback whom Northwestern needs to stop if they want a win in Indianapolis.
Wow, what great analysis, Jack! They should give you a Pulitzer right now! Thanks, voice of public opinion, but I don’t understand a lick of sarcasm. In order for the Wildcats to limit Haskins’ dominance, they need to minimize his downfield throws.
Haskins has a strong arm, but he didn’t use it much early on against Purdue. In the first half, he threw only two passes that went for gains of over 15 yards, compared to 13 passes for less than 10 yards. Credit the Boilermakers for covering Haskins’ downfield targets and applying a lot of pressure, because the Buckeyes only scored three points in the first half. Assuming they come back healthy, Montre Hardage, Trae Williams and Jared McGee will rejoin JR Pace in the Wildcats’ no-fly zone.
But forcing Haskins to throw short is not a magic bullet; the Wildcats also need to take advantage of short and middle-length throws that go into the heart of the defense. For example, look at this 15-yard pass for a first down from Haskins to KJ Hill, right over the shoulder of linebacker Cornel Jones (no. 46):
During the replay, Kirk Herbstreit draws a rectangle to show “the soft spot in that zone [defense]. This is what makes Haskins so good: He feels that, senses it and gets the ball out quickly.”
On Saturday, Nate Hall – who also sat out against Illinois in order to rest up for this game – will be in the same position as Jones is on this play. With three interceptions on the year, Hall needs to plug the soft spots in any zone scheme so that Haskins doesn’t pick apart the defense.
Step Two: Be stout in the red zone
On October 20, the Buckeyes didn’t score their first touchdown until mid-way through the first quarter, and they didn’t put six on the scoreboard once from inside the red zone. The Boilermakers held Ohio State to two field goal attempts in the first half (the second of which was missed) and forced another field goal and a turnover on downs in the second. That’s four times where Ohio State could have punched it into the end zone but the Boilermaker defense held true, holding the Buckeyes to six points as opposed to a potential 28.
Looking at Northwestern’s red zone defense, the Wildcats allow opponents to score points on 82.9 percent of their red zone trips, good for 64th in the nation. While this statistic isn’t great, it’s important to read a little closer, as Northwestern gives up a touchdown on about 46 percent of their opponent’s red zone trips. In this category, Northwestern only trails Michigan State for the Big Ten lead. Opposing offenses have scored nine times on the ground and seven times through the air in 35 total red zone trips against Pat Fitzgerald’s defense.
As coach Fitz said in his Monday press conference, “threes are big. If we can limit to three and not sevens we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to compete.”
Purdue, for comparison’s sake, allowed touchdowns on 54 percent of their opponent’s red zone trips this season. While admittedly crude and theoretical, this comparison shows that Northwestern can be just as stout against Ohio State in the red zone as Purdue was back in October.
Moving away from the stats and onto the field, I’d love to see Northwestern’s defense make red zone plays like this one from last weekend’s game against Illinois:
Alonzo Mayo slips to the turf early, but the junior then makes an athletic play to break up the A.J. Bush pass. At 6-1, 200 pounds, this receiver measures up similarly to Ohio State’s leading wideouts, K.J Hill and Parris Campbell, so Northwestern’s secondary should not be surprised by the size of its opponents.
Step Three: Eliminate the running game
Ohio State runs the ball extremely efficiently, which is not surprising for the second best offense in college football. As a team they average 181.4 yards per game, and running backs JK Dobbins and Mike Webster are the only pair of Big Ten running backs to amass more than 800 yards apiece on the season.
But Dobbins and Webster showed they were mortal against Purdue, as they combined for only 69 yards on the ground against the Boilermakers. While part of that low total was due to Ohio State being behind for most of the game, the Boilermakers should still be commended for making the Buckeyes’ offense one-dimensional.
On the other side, it’s no secret that the Wildcats are adept at stopping the run at all three levels. Jordan Thompson takes up double teams regularly, Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher are excellent downhill tacklers and the secondary knows how to come down and make plays if things go awry in the front seven.
The statistics back this idea up, as the Wildcats only give up 134.7 rushing yards per game, good for fourth in the Big Ten and 16th in the Power 5 plus Notre Dame.
On a game-by-game basis, though, the Wildcats have been slightly inconsistent. They allowed only 46 yards to Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor but gave up 115 yards and 2 touchdowns to Michigan’s Karan Higdon. Mike Hankwitz will need to tighten up his defense and make sure the one that showed up against Wisconsin appears against Ohio State.
If Northwestern can accomplish all three steps in this blueprint, they can limit Ohio State’s offense and put Clayton Thorson and co. in a position to shock the world in Indianapolis.
The Big Ten Championship Game is set for 7 p.m. CT on Saturday in Indianapolis. WNUR Sports will be at Lucas Oil Stadium, so be sure to tune in to 89.3 FM to listen in as the Wildcats look to return to the Rose Bowl!