By Kevin Sweeney
Northwestern never quit.
Trailing by three scores at halftime with the majority of the college football world bracing for a blowout, Northwestern did what it has done for the better part of two seasons: fight.
However, that fight wasn’t enough to overcome a record-breaking performance by Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr, who set all kinds of records en route to winning Big Ten Championship Game MVP and leading his Buckeyes to a 45-24 victory Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
When they execute the way they did we have to be flawless and obviously we weren’t,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Haskins simply picked on a banged-up Northwestern secondary all night long, throwing for a championship-game record 499 yards and 5 touchdowns, making his case for a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy Award presentation. As Northwestern made its push in the second half, the redshirt sophomore was unshaken, making play after play with throws to nearly everywhere on the field.
“He’s without question a Heisman candidate. I’ve seen the statistics of the other two great players, and there’s no doubt,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said. “Dwayne Haskins is a Heisman candidate, and he should be in New York City.”
After the Buckeyes marched down the field on their opening drive of the ballgame and Northwestern’s offense struggled to get much going, things looked ugly for the Wildcats early. However, they got a jolt of hope when redshirt junior John Moten IV silenced the pro-OSU crowd with a 77-yard touchdown run. Moten had had just 2 games games in his entire career with more than 77 yards rushing and none since 2016.
The big run was more of a reprieve than a sign of life for Northwestern though, as the Wildcats collected just 83 total yards of offense in the first half. Meanwhile, Ohio State marched up and down the field in second quarter to take a 24-7 lead into halftime.
The 3rd quarter had been a house of horrors for Northwestern all year long.
It wasn’t today.
With their backs against the wall, Northwestern marched down the field with a beautiful 5-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by an 18-yard run by Clayton Thorson. Then after a quick stop, the Wildcats went down the field again with relative ease, punching it in again to all of the sudden cut the deficit to just 3 less than 7 minutes into the 3rd quarter.
“I think it will be that third quarter when we scored a few and got right back in it and just fighting with my brothers,” Thorson said postgame on what he’ll remember from the game. “I mean we were down at the end there by 21 and we came back and kept going, there’s a special bond between guys who keep fighting and that’s what we have done all year and that’s what we have done since I have been here.”
But when Northwestern punched, Haskins and the Buckeyes punched back with force. Haskins marched his team down the field for a touchdown to push the lead back to 31-21.
After a blocked field goal by Fred Wyatt and a Northwestern field goal at the other end got the Wildcats back within 7, Haskins took over again, launching an absolute dime to Johnnie Dixon, picking on reserve corner Alonzo Mayo for a 63-yard gain before later finding Dixon in the end zone to take a 38-24 lead.
The Bucks scored again late as Northwestern scrambled to make something happen, and Pat Fitzgerald seemingly waved the white flag with about 2 minutes to play when he punted on 4th and long.
Thorson had an up-and-down night, but made a lot of plays in the second half. In total, he posted 267 passing yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions while completing 27 of his 44 passes. Northwestern went with more of a by-committee running back approach, gaining a total of 151 yards on 24 carries. 12 different Wildcats caught passes, but no receiver had more than 4 receptions (Kyric McGowan, Bennett Skowronek each had 4).
As Northwestern awaits its bowl destination, they will hope to get healthy. Several Wildcats left the game with injuries, including Montre Hartage, Cameron Ruiz, Flynn Nagel, and Chad Hanaoka.
Ohio State will await the selection committee’s decision tomorrow as they hope to be included in the 4-team College Football Playoff. Alabama and Clemson seem like locks, with OSU, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame all vying for the final 2 spots.
We’ll have all the coverage of Northwestern’s bowl game on WNUR Sports. Thanks for listening this season!