For an entire first half of the 2020 Big Ten Championship, No. 14 Northwestern (6-2) was the college football capital of the world. The offense looked unique, the defense was making plays and even the kicker was making career long field goals. Everything was clicking, and it was a perfect showing for the ’Cats.
Too bad football games are two halves.
Northwestern lost to the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (6-0) 22-10 in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday, despite leading their scarlet opponent 10-6 at halftime. Flipping the script on themselves, the ’Cats were held completely pointless in the second-half, which many chalked up to key mistakes down the stretch. While the ’Cats were able to hold a stellar Ohio State offense to just 22 points, in addition to keeping star Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields to just 114 yards and only 12 completions, the team folded in critical points of the game, something head coach Pat Fitzgerald touched on postgame.
“We thought we put together a really good plan, and we executed it really well, for about three quarters,” Fitzgerald said. “Offensively, I think we're going to look at this tape and see missed opportunities, credit to their defense. We're building a championship level program, and it's not just good enough to be here. Our expectation is to be Big Ten champions, and not to get it done today is really disappointing.”
The Buckeyes were led by a historic performance by senior running back Trey Sermon, who accomplished the best rushing performance in a single game in Ohio State football history: 331 yards and two touchdowns. Of the 331 yards, 271 came in the second half, marking the ’Cats’ woes.
In their effort, Northwestern was led by first-year running back Cam Porter, who continued his dominance from last week by running for 61 yards and scoring a first-quarter touchdown that got ’Cats fans across the country on their feet. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman had another stellar showing, catching eight balls for 103 yards.
Northwestern was also led by graduate quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who threw for 224 yards and rushed for another 44 but also tossed two interceptions and lost a key fumble. Ramsey took full responsibility for the errors in the second half after the game.
“I think it came down to mistakes that we made and shooting ourselves in the foot,” Ramsey said. “A lot of those mistakes were things that we did to ourselves and not necessarily things that they were given us.”
At first, everything was going right for Northwestern. After deferring the opening kick and a lengthy eight-minute drive from Ohio State, the defense locked down for Northwestern in the red zone and held the Buckeyes to just three points on a field goal. On the ensuing possession, the ’Cats marched right down the field on beautiful runs from Ramsey and Porter, and, out of the Wildcat formation, steamrolled into the endzone for the ’Cats’ first-ever Big Ten Championship lead.
In the second quarter, both defenses traded stops early before Northwestern added three points on a 47-yard field goal by senior kicker Charlie Kuhbander, the longest in his career. Ohio State added three points of their own and began to march down the field at the end of the half, but the continuing spectacular play of first-year Brandon Joseph stopped the Bucks before the half.
“I just saw the ball and [was] able to go get it,” Joseph said. “[It's] something that we practice, something that we expect in our secondary. So this is the standard that is set for this secondary at Northwestern.”
Unfortunately, the second half was a much different story for the ’Cats. Despite coming out swinging with a long opening drive, Northwestern came away with no points after an interception by senior linebacker Justin Hillis in the end zone. Both teams traded defensive stops and missed field goals. Ohio State finally found their footing in the aforementioned Sermon, who began to tear up the ’Cats’ front seven with long gains and first downs. With two minutes left in the third, Sermon tore through and scored the Buckeyes’ first touchdown of the game.
It was a critical moment for the ’Cats, as the offense seemed to be literally tripping over itself: Ramsey fumbled a key possession at his 30-yard line, setting up a key Ohio State field goal. While Ramsey was able to set up passes to Chiaokhiao-Bowman on the ensuing drive, Northwestern was forced to punt after Ramsey tripped over his own lineman. Sermon then took care of the rest.
“Obviously I wish I could have done some things over, especially watching the tape tomorrow. There'll definitely be some things that I wish I could have back,” Ramsey said. “But you know, [I] just gotta be smarter and take care of the ball better than better than I did there in the second half.”
The game had critical moments for each team, but Northwestern’s failure to establish a proper run defense against Trey Sermon will be pointed to by analysts around the country, as the senior back now holds not only the Big Ten Championship Game rushing title, but also the best performance in Ohio State football history, going back to 1890 and beating out names like Heisman winner Eddie George and recent NFL standout Ezekiel Elliott.
“I thought we did a good job getting off the field on third down … but you know, as a front seven just in those pressures, there was a few out there that we had some one man breakdowns,” senior linebacker Patty Fisher said postgame. “I take full responsibility for that. I should have made some plays out there. I think at the end of the day, it just came down to our technique and our fundamentals.”
Despite Northwestern losing the conference, they’ll still have a last chance to show off their stuff: the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, where they’ll take on the Auburn Tigers (6-4 SEC). It’ll be the first appearance for the ’Cats in Orlando since 1997, when they took on Peyton Manning and Tennessee. After a long, winding season, perhaps the bowl will give the ’Cats something to smile about and leave them walking away with three trophies on the year.
Let’s just hope they remember it’s two halves.