7 things to watch in the Big Ten Championship Game
By Ryan Choe
No. 14 Northwestern is set to face No. 4 Ohio State for the Big Ten title Saturday after the conference voted to eliminate the minimum-game requirement for participation in the conference championship game. The ‘Cats come into the matchup as heavy underdogs (OSU’s spread is currently -20.5 according to ESPN) after defeating rival Illinois last Saturday, while Ohio State is coming off an extra week of rest following the cancelation of its contest against Michigan. Pat Fitzgerald has yet to win a game against the Buckeyes during his tenure as Head Coach and the Buckeyes have won 45 of the past 50 meetings, including a 52-3 beatdown in Evanston last year and 45-24 victory in the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game. Here are seven key things to watch for this weekend.
1. The Northwestern defense vs the Ohio State offense
This game will feature one of the best offenses in the country against one of the best defenses in the country. As such, whichever side is more successful will most likely lead its respective team to a victory.
Under Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz this season, Northwestern’s defense ranks in the Top-25 nationally in multiple categories: scoring defense (2nd), total defense (13th), rushing defense (21st), passing defense (21st) and opponent 3rd down conversions (11th). Meanwhile, Ohio State’s offense ranks in the Top-25 nationally in the corresponding offensive categories: scoring offense (4th), total offense (6th), rushing offense (7th), passing offense (24th) and 3rd down conversions (5th). Much of the Buckeye offense’s success can be attributed to junior quarterback Justin Fields who was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Big Ten Quarterback of the Year, First Team All-Big Ten member and the only unanimous selection for an All-Big Ten First Team. Simply put, Fields is one of the best players — let alone quarterbacks — in the country, and many experts predict he will be a top-10 NFL draft pick.
|NU Scoring Defense||14.6 points per game allowed||OSU Scoring Offense||46.6 points per game|
|NU Total Defense||313.9 yards per game allowed||OSU Total Offense||532.4 yards per game|
|NU Rushing Defense||121.86 rush yards per game allowed||OSU Rushing Offense||251 rush yards per game|
|NU Passing Defense||192 pass yards per game allowed||OSU Passing Offense||281.4 pass yards per game|
|NU Opponent 3rd Down Conversion||30.91%||OSU 3rd Down Conversion||53.62%|
While the offense, defense and special teams will all be important in this game, the matchup between these two powerhouse units (OSU’s offense and NU’s defense) will play a massive part in who lifts the Stagg Championship Trophy.
One more fascinating statistic to look at for these two units is red zone success. This could be crucial in determining the victor because it is one of the few statistics where the ‘Cats have an advantage on paper:
NU Red zone defense — 72.22% success rate for opposing offenses (9th-best in the country)
OSU Red zone offense — 81.48% success rate (T-76th best in the country)
|NU Red Zone Defense||OSU Red Zone Offense|
|Success Rate||72.2% (for opposing offenses)||81.5%|
Ultimately, the Northwestern defense must slow down Fields and the Buckeye offense in order to give the ‘Cats a chance to win this game.
2. The Northwestern secondary vs the Ohio State wide receiving corps
Sticking to the OSU offense vs NU defense analysis, the matchup between the Wildcat secondary and the Buckeye wide receiver corps will be important to watch.
Although Northwestern’s previous game saw the team beat rival Illinois for the sixth-consecutive year, it came in a game dominated by the run. Illinois attempted 22 total passes in a wet and rainy game, and opted to run the ball 35 times for most of its offensive attack. While the front seven for Northwestern had a rough first quarter, it quickly adjusted and played lights out. Unfortunately, because Illinois scarcely passed the ball, the Northwestern secondary did not have the chance to show how much it improved since the Michigan State loss.
The Northwestern secondary is filled with playmakers, from redshirt first-year Brandon Joseph to junior Greg Newsome II. Both players were named First Team All-Big Ten members and Joseph was also named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. However, with all the attention and recognition to Joseph and Newsome, it is easy to overlook the rest of the secondary. Senior JR Pace forms a formidable duo with Joseph at safety, however the secondary has had its freak moments during the regular season.
Against Purdue, Pace allowed a 40-yard touchdown pass, and junior Cameron Ruiz gave up three combined long touchdown passes against Wisconsin and Michigan State. Ruiz was later benched during the Michigan State game, and redshirt sophomore AJ Hampton and redshirt first-year Rod Heard have taken snaps in Ruiz’s place.
Meanwhile, Ohio State has a deadly wide receiver corps led by junior Chris Olave and sophomore Garrett Wilson. In just five games, Olave and Wilson have more receptions, yards, touchdowns and a higher yards per catch average than any of Northwestern’s leading pass-catchers (even though Northwestern has played two more games). Both Olave and Wilson also earned All-Big Ten recognitions (voted first team by conference coaches, second team by conference media), and both are likely to play in the NFL.
OSU Leading Receivers vs NU Leading Receivers:
|Ohio State||Rec||Yards||TD||Yards per Rec|
|Northwestern||Rec||Yards||TD||Yards per Rec|
It will be important to see if Fields and the Ohio State offense avoid targeting receivers covered by Newsome and Joseph and instead choose to target receivers covered by Pace, Ruiz, Hampton or Heard. Northwestern’s secondary has a challenging task to stop one of the best receiving corps in the country, and it will start with limiting the number of big plays and long touchdown passes.
3. The Northwestern rushing attack
After rushing for a combined 167 yards in the three games before Illinois, the ‘Cats ran wild last weekend for 411 yards and three touchdowns. It was a promising development after Northwestern failed to run for at least 100 total yards in each of its three previous games.
The tumultuous weather conditions called for a run-heavy offensive attack, and while the Northwestern offense started the game with a fumble by sophomore Drake Anderson, the team quickly shifted course. True first-year Cam Porter and redshirt first-year Evan Hull were the heroes of the day, with Porter rushing 24 times for 142 yards (5.9 avg) and two touchdowns (all career highs) and Hull rushing 13 times for 149 yards (11.5 avg) and one touchdown. Amazingly, each player had 10 or fewer carries on the season heading into the Illinois game. In the press conference after the game, Fitzgerald described the running back room filled with talent, and said he was proud of both Porter and Hull for their breakout performances.
Northwestern Rushing Leaders:
|Name||Carries||Yards||TD||Yards per Carry|
As exciting of a game as it was, the ‘Cats faced an Illinois team who was already giving up more than 140 rushing yards per game (at the time ranking the Illinois rush defense around 40th nationally). Now, the Northwestern rushing attack must face an Ohio State defense that has only given up 95 rushing yards per game (6th-best nationally).
Regardless of who is running the ball, the Northwestern offensive line will be busy blocking and creating running lanes for whoever is running the ball. Hopefully someone out of Porter, Hull, Anderson or junior Isaiah Bowser can help establish the running game against the Buckeyes. It wouldn’t be surprising to see senior Kyric McGowan get touches on jet sweep runs, but if the Northwestern offense can’t gain over 100-120 rushing yards, it will be very hard for the ‘Cats to win.
4. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey
It’s amazing how much can change in a year. When Ohio State and Northwestern played in Evanston last year, Aidan Smith spearheaded the Northwestern air attack… for 42 total passing yards. That day, Smith completed six of his 20 pass attempts (30%) for zero touchdowns and one interception.
Fast forward to December 2020 and Northwestern is led by graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey. While Ramsey’s regular season numbers don’t jump off paper like those of Fields, his steady level of play has made a massive impact on the Northwestern offense. Ramsey was voted Third Team All-Big Ten by conference coaches and media after completing 59% of his passes for 1,218 yards, 9 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He has also proved to be a capable runner when needed, having rushed for 169 yards and two touchdowns thus far.
Because the Northwestern offense ran the ball 58 times and only passed the ball 12 times against Illinois, Ramsey wasn’t able to showcase much improvement from a horrendous performance against Michigan State. The matchup with the Spartans saw Ramsey fail to throw a touchdown pass for just the second time this season and he threw two interceptions while completing less than 50% of his passes. However, what’s promising is how Ramsey stepped up his level of play in the crucial Wisconsin game. Ramsey did not throw a single interception or turn the ball over for the first time since week one and his ability to take care of the ball against the Badgers made a massive difference in the turnover battle. If Ramsey can match his performances from the Maryland, Purdue and Wisconsin games, the ‘Cats will have a chance to win the Big Ten Championship Game.
5. The turnover battle and time of possession
Throughout the season, Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald stressed the importance of turnovers and scoring points off of turnovers. After dominating the turnover battle against Wisconsin (five to one), the ‘Cats lost the turnover battle against Michigan State (one to four) the following week, showing how quickly a team can go from an impressive win to a disappointing loss. The ‘Cats head into this contest ranked 28th in the country in turnover margin per game (+ 0.6) while the Buckeyes rank T-4th (+ 1.4). If Northwestern can win the turnover battle and convert those turnovers into more points for itself, a victory is all the more possible.
What will also help Northwestern win the game is keeping the Ohio State offense off the field as much as possible. This can be done if the ‘Cats control the time of possession since it will not only prevent Fields and the Buckeye offense from being able to score points, but it will also give the Northwestern defense time to rest. However, the cards are stacked against the ‘Cats in this category too as they currently average 31:13 with possession of the ball (34th-best in the country) while Ohio State averages 34:07 with possession of the ball (8th-best in the country). Controlling both turnover differential and time of possession will be crucial indicators of success for the ‘Cats.
6. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman vs Shaun Wade
This matchup between Northwestern’s leading receiver and the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year will be one to watch. Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who was named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention, is on an upward trend after establishing himself as the ‘Cats’ ‘X’ receiver and one of Ramsey’s favorite targets. From the Purdue game through the Michigan State game, Chiaokhiao-Bowman grabbed 20 passes for 235 yards (11.75 avg yards per catch) for four touchdowns. With essentially two weeks off (he was barely targeted in the 12 pass attempts against Illinois), it will be interesting to see how Chiaokhiao-Bowman plays against a high-quality corner in Shaun Wade. When Chiaokhiao-Bowman faced another solid cornerback in Shakur Brown of Michigan State, he failed to do much damage with his eight receptions (only gained 54 yards). If the Northwestern running game isn’t able to get going, Ramsey will look to see if he can successfully connect with Chiaokhiao-Bowman. If Wade interrupts this connection, other Northwestern receivers must step up. However, the challenge isn’t impossible for the ‘Cats’ receiving corps considering the Ohio State secondary is giving up the 17th-most passing yards per game (268.8) to opponents this season.
7. Northwestern players who played in the 2018 Big Ten Championship game
For the returning members of the 2018 Northwestern football team, it would mean a great deal to leave Lucas Oil Stadium as victors this time around. Players such as the senior linebacker trio of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin bring a wealth of experience from the 2018 Big Ten Championship game. Earlier this week, Greg Newsome II described how excited and eager he is to show how much he’s grown and improved since two years ago. Many players who played in the game two years ago are now essential parts of their units. On the offense, Nik Urban, Sam Gerak, Isaiah Bowser, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Riley Lees and Kyric McGowan are some players who will be playing in their second Big Ten Championship game. The linebacker trio, Newsome, JR Pace and Earnest Brown highlight some of the returning members on the defense. Even kicker Charlie Kuhbander represents a returning member for special teams. These players have all played on the big stage before, and their poise and leadership will be tested in this second matchup with Ohio State. Keep an eye on these players to see if they end up being responsible for any big plays.
Just two years ago, the ‘Cats left Lucas Oil Stadium in defeat. The following year saw momentum and morale plummet as the team went 3-9 in a horrendous year for the program. Now, in an unforgettable 2020 year, Northwestern finds itself competing for a Big Ten Championship once more. While coming out as victors from a rivalry game must have felt great, this week is arguably even more emotional for the ‘Cats. A lot is on the line in this game from clinching a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game, to avenging a loss in the 2018 Big Ten Championship game, to beating Ohio State for the first time during Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure (and first since 2004) and getting Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz his 400th career win in his 51st and final season. In order for the ‘Cats to win and claim the Stagg Championship Trophy, the defense must slow down Ohio State’s explosive offense, the running game cannot rush for less than 100 total yards and Northwestern must win the turnover battle and score points off those turnovers. Although the ‘Cats have proved to be formidable this season and crazier things have happened before, my prediction is that the ‘Cats leave Lucas Oil Stadium in defeat for the second time in three years.
Score prediction: Buckeyes win, 31-17
OSU player to watch: QB Justin Fields
NU player to watch: WR Kyric McGowan
Bold prediction: Northwestern’s defense generates a strip sack