Battle for the Big Ten Championship
The Big Ten is probably wishing that Michigan and #6 Ohio State were in separate divisions and could play a rematch of last week’s barn burner this week. #21 Northwestern is not a terrible team, but they don’t really seem to be on the same level as the Buckeyes.
Nevertheless, it will probably take a perfect game from the Wildcats – or some massive mistakes from the Buckeyes – for Northwestern to win this one and head off to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State, on the other hand, is hoping that a strong performance will elevate them into the CFP playoff over the loser of the SEC Championship or a potentially victorious Oklahoma team.
The Buckeyes enter the game in the sixth spot in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. They have completed a 11-1 regular season (8-1 in conference), losing only to Purdue (by 29 points), but they are coming off a solid performance in last week’s Big Game against Michigan, and a pretty dominant season outside of that Purdue game. They started the season with head coach Urban Meyer suspended, but rallied around their coach when he returned.
The Buckeyes are truly special on the offensive side of the ball. They’ve scored an average of 43.3 points per game, with a high of 77 in their season opening game against Oregon State. Those 43.3 points per game rank 7th nationally, and their average margin of victory has been 17.5 points per game.
The second-best passing offense belongs to Ohio State, and the team averages a staggering 362.5 passing yards per game. Sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins is the one slinging the ball all over the field this season. He’s fifth in passing efficiency in the nation, throwing for 4,081 yards and a Big Ten record 42 touchdowns (with seven interceptions).
He has four receivers over 500 yards on the season, and those four players account for over 69% of his passing yards and 76% of his passing touchdowns. Parris Campbell is the leading receiver, with 72 catches for 903 yards and 11 touchdowns. Senior receiver Terry McLaurin is second in touchdowns with nine and boasts the highest average per catch (19.1) on the team, with 31 catches for 591 yards.
Not to be outdone, the school with a long line of historic running backs also runs the ball, though they rank “only” 56th (of 129 teams) with an average of 181.4 rushing yards per game. Instead of relying on one workhorse back as they have in the past, the Buckeyes are following the national trend and using two primary running backs.
J.K. Dobbins has the most carries (206), yards (961) and rushing touchdowns (8) on the team. His “backup,” Mike Weber, is a little more efficient running the ball, averaging 5.8 yards per carry on his way to 807 yards and five touchdowns.
If Ohio State can be said to have a weakness, it would be on the defensive side of the ball. Overall, their defense ranks 67th in the country, giving up an average of 398.8 yards per game. Their scoring defense (25.8) has been slightly better, ranking 57th nationwide.
On the turnover front, the Ohio State defense boasts a turnover margin of +5, intercepting nine passes and recovering 11 fumbles in the process. Defensive backs Kendall Sheffield and Shaun Wade lead the team with two interceptions a piece. Defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones leads the team in sacks with 7.5, but has also returned an interception and a fumble for defensive touchdowns.
The Northwestern Wildcats enter the game #21 in the CFP playoff rankings, though they probably aren’t the 21st-best team in the country. They have an 8-4 record overall, with a surprising 8-1 record in the Big Ten, winning the West Division by three games over Wisconsin, Purdue, and Iowa. Their four losses on the season were to teams with a combined record of 33-14, two of which – #3 Notre Dame (12-0) and #7 Michigan (10-2) – could very well end up playing in a NY6 bowl game when all is said and done. Those four losses were by a grand total of 32 points, and the Wildcats had a narrow margin of error all season, with their total point differential ending the regular season at +24.
One of the reasons Northwestern played with such a small margin of error all season was because of a fairly week offense. Their maximum point output on the season was 34 points, which they accomplished twice. They averaged 23.7 points per contest, which was 107th in the country. They did, however, improve their offensive output in conference play, where they averaged 27.8 in nine conference games.
Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson was the 97th-most efficient quarterback in the country, throwing for 2,675 yards, but only 14 touchdowns and with 12 interceptions. Despite the inefficiency, the team finished middle of the pack, ranked 61st in the nation.
Three receivers were responsible for over 58% of the receiving yardage on the team. Senior wide receiver Flynn Nagel, who may miss the game with a leg injury, leads the team in receiving. He has 64 receptions for 746 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Ben Skowronek was a little of his pace from last season, but still ended up with 40 catches for 514 yards and three touchdowns. Finally, tight end Cameron Green tied Skowronek for the lead in touchdown receptions, but averaged less than 9 yards per catch (46 for 411 yards(.
If Northwestern was inefficient throwing ball, they were even worse when running the ball. They ranked 119th in the country in rushing offense, averaging only 114.8 yards per game. This was good only for 3.0 yards per carry, though the team did score more on the ground (22 rushing touchdowns) than through the air.
The leading rusher for the Wildcats was freshman Isaiah Bowser, who ran for 736 yards and six touchdown in only eight games. Remarkably, quarterback Clayton Thorson scored the most rushing touchdowns (8), despite ending the regular season with -101 yards rushing.
If their offense is troubling, at least the Wildcats have a better defense – at least based on rankings – than the Buckeyes. Overall, they are ranked 48th, surrendering 372.7 yards a game. Scoring wise, they gave up a total of 260 points on the season, an average of 21.7 points per game.
If not for 15 turnovers on offense (13 interceptions and 2 fumbles lost), Northwestern could have had a solid turnover margin, as they forced 18 turnovers on defense (9 interceptions and 9 fumbles recovered). Linebacker Nate Hall and defensive back JR Pace tied for the lead with three interceptions each. Junior defensive lineman Joe Gaziano led the team with six sacks, as well as 11 tackles for loss.
The game is played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana with kickoff at 8:00pm EST/ 7:00pm CST).
The neutrals are expecting 61 points to be put up on the board and Ohio State to come out on top (-14 points).
Keys to a win for each side
- Contain Joe Gaziano on offense
- Execute the game plan
- Don’t play down to the competition
- NO TURNOVERS
- Force some turnovers
I honestly don’t see a path to victory for the Wildcats in this one, even if the Buckeyes have a tendency to play down to the competition at times this season. Like any underdog, the Wildcats will hope to keep it close should the Buckeyes stumble, but the Buckeyes are just too good to let them stay too close. This one might not be pretty.
Score: Ohio State Buckeyes 52 – Northwestern Wildcats 20