We have arrived.
After 12 games, a loss to Akron, a medical retirement, the return of Clayton Thorson and the emergence of a potential successor to The Ballcarrier, Northwestern will prepare for Saturday’s Big Ten championship as a two-touchdown underdog to Ohio State. How the ‘Cats got here is officially irrelevant; as Fitz would say, the team is focused on going 1-0 this weekend as the Rose Bowl awaits the winner of the ‘Cats’ biggest game this decade.
How can Northwestern pull off the upset? NBN Sports has you covered with a game preview that tries to find that 1 in a million chance the ‘Cats dethrone the defending conference champions.
Ohio State has had a porous defense all year that somehow whips itself into shape during big games: They rank 35th in the county in defensive S&P, but they came out on top against Michigan State and Michigan in decisive victories. Nick Bosa’s abdominal injury leaves the Buckeyes short their best defensive player, but their defensive line can still wreak havoc with All-Big Ten players in DT Dre’mont Jones (12 TFL, 7.5 SACK) and DE Chase Young (10.5 TFL, 5.5 SACK).
Jones is as disruptive an interior defender as there is in the Big Ten, and he has the first step quickness to easily blow past interior linemen. Young is a true sophomore that first turned heads with a monster six-tackle, two-sack performance against Penn St. that put him on the map, and displays the edge-rushing prowess that can take over games. The Buckeyes have the defensive depth to overrun the Wildcat line, where Tommy Doles and Rashawn Slater will have their hands full against the most athletic D-line the ‘Cats have played since Michigan.
The linebacking corps of Malik Harrison (64 TOT), Tuf Borland (9 TFL, 3 SACK) and Pete Werner (53 TOT), improved on their dismal performances against Purdue, Nebraska and Maryland against Michigan, but the Buckeye defense is certainly beatable on the outside. They gave up three 40+ yard scores against Purdue, and three 20 + scores against Maryland, of which two were on the ground. Northwestern’s offense lacks the explosive talent of a Rondale Moore, for example, but the Ohio State defense has enough flaws in its’ secondary to give Clayton Thorson multiple big-play opportunities. Isaiah Bowser will need to have his national breakout game to keep the Buckeyes from sending the ship at Thorson, but expect ‘Cats to put up some points on Saturday.
Northwestern’s path to victory centers on whether or not they can limit Buckeyes QB Dwayne Haskins. The signal caller threw for five touchdowns against Michigan to reenter the Heisman conversation. This also cemented his status as one of the best Ohio State quarterbacks of all time, having brought his season totals to over 4,000 yards with 42 touchdowns and a 69 percent completion percentage. He has become the most prolific QB in Ohio State history, and he’s done it with a quick release, shifty legs and tremendous accuracy. Haskins finds success spraying the ball to a plethora of shift receivers in Parris Campbell Jr. (903 YDS, 11 TD), K.J. Hill (823 YDS, 6 TD), and Johnnie Dixon (6 TD). The Buckeyes skill position players crushed Michigan’s number one ranked defense with crossing routes galore, and Montre Hartage, J.R. Pace, Trae Williams and Jared McGee can’t afford to slip up in open space.
Haskins is one of the most high-volume throwers the ‘Cats will play due to the inconsistency of running backs Mike Weber (890 YDS, 6 TD) and J.K. Dobbins (1159 YDS, 11 TD). While both have big play potential, stopping the pass is a greater imperative for the ‘Cats, who are more viable to get burned with a banged-up secondary. Northwestern’s bend but don’t break D can hold off the Buckeyes if it allows chunk yards and holds up in the red zone to force field goals; the danger will be how well Urban Meyer can get his receivers into open space, where their speed can terrorize the ‘Cats secondary (see: Moore, Rondale). If Northwestern can slow down the pace of the game and contain Haskins’ passing ability on those shorter and intermediate routes, the ‘Cats have the chance to turn the game into a low-scoring nailbiter in Indy.
Jono Zarrilli: OSU 35 Northwestern 24
Shreyas Iyer: OSU 40 Northwestern 31
Jacob Munoz: OSU 34 Northwestern 18
Navpreet Sekhon: OSU 52 Northwestern 34
Claire Kuwana: OSU 38 Northwestern 21
Charlie Sidles: Northwestern 38 OSU 37