In July of 2006, Pat Fitzgerald became the new head coach of Northwestern’s football program after former coach, Randy Walker, passed away. When Fitzgerald took on the job, Northwestern was coming off a 7-5 season with a loss to UCLA in the Sun Bowl. During his opening press conference, Fitzgerald stated, “Northwestern will continue to have a football program built upon great work ethic, attitude, and investment.” Twelve years later, Northwestern has made strides under Fitzgerald that few could ever imagine. Tonight, Northwestern will face off with #6 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship with a ticket to the Rose Bowl on the line for NU.
Northwestern began the season 1-3, and finished the regular season at 8-4, with seven consecutive Big Ten victories. The Wildcats have won 15 of their last 16 Big Ten games dating back to last season. On the other side, Ohio State comes into this game with an 11-1 record, and Ohio State’s lone loss of the season took place at Purdue with a score of 49-20. Northwestern beat Purdue in the season opener 31-27. As for OSU, the team comes off a whomping 62-39 win over Michigan. While Ohio State finished the season 11-1, many consider this season to be the most difficult time of the Urban Meyer era due to his suspension at the start the season. The team failed to achieve quality wins prior to the Michigan game. After last week, however, Ohio State is back in the public’s favor.
Ohio State enters this game with plenty of momentum and a lot to play for as a win would not only win the Buckeyes the Big Ten, but it could also vault Ohio State into the College Football Playoff, depending on the results of the Alabama-Georgia and Texas-Oklahoma games. Given these circumstances, Ohio State will not take Northwestern lightly. For Northwestern, this is the biggest game since the 1995 Rose Bowl, and Pat Fitzgerald will have his team ready to play.
For this game, Northwestern players will have their hands full with Ohio State’s offense. The Bucks have an elite QB in Dwayne Haskins, explosive receivers in Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill, and an interesting running back in Mike Weber. Haskins is a fantastic quarterback with a rocket arm, and over the past few games, has shown an ability to make plays with his feet. Haskins has thrown for over 4,000 yards this season, with 41 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He should be a candidate for a top three pick in the 2019 NFL draft. Campbell is Ohio State’s speedy and flashy playmaker at receiver while Hill has great hands. Campbell has over 900 receiving yards on the season and 11 touchdowns, while Hill has over 800 yards and 6 touchdowns. With Mike Weber, the Buckeyes have a junior running back who burst onto the scene his freshman year and looked like the next great Ohio State running back. However, his career has not been as promising as once believed. Nonetheless, Weber is still an explosive runner with over 800 yards on the season. He is also someone NU will have to game plan to stop. Weber is not a big threat as a receiver as he only has 17 receptions on the season for 83 yards. When NU played at the Horseshoe in 2016, Weber ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns. Overall, Ohio State’s offense is a juggernaut and has the second best team offense in college football this year with an average of 543.9 yards per game.
On the defensive end, Ohio State has its issues. The Buckeyes have the 67th ranked total defense in the nation this season, and the team gives up 398.8 yards per game. OSU has the 47th ranked passing defense efficiency in the country and the 62nd best rushing defense in the country, allowing 161.3 yards per game. After the past few years of elite secondaries featuring the likes of Denzel Ward, Eli Apple, Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore, Vonn Bell, and Gareon Conley, Ohio State finally has a suspect secondary. Additionally, star defensive lineman Nick Bosa left the program early in the season after sustaining an injury in order to prepare for the NFL draft. The Buckeyes have a couple of nice pass rushers in Malik Harrison and Chase Young, but compared to usual Buckeye teams, this is a weak defense.
For Northwestern’s offense, the key to this game will be long, sustained possessions. If NU tries to get into a shootout with Ohio State, the team will fail. In his 52nd and last Big Ten game ever, Clayton Thorson needs to lead long drives that will tire out the Buckeye defense. Northwestern will come out and establish the run early with freshman Isaiah Bowser against a weak Ohio State run defense. This plan will allow Thorson to make plays through the air. For Northwestern’s passing offense to make noise in this game, expect Flynn Nagel to have a huge game, Cameron Green to be involved, and NU to take calculated deep shots to Bennett Skowronek.
Defensively, the Northwestern game plan seems difficult to figure out. NU has a good defensive line that will be able to handle Mike Weber, but the defensive line will need to generate pressure on Dwayne Haskins. The defensive line must generate pressure because it will be difficult for NU to send aggressive blitz packages with secondary members and linebackers because this will allow Haskins to take deep shots. Northwestern has many solid pass rushers along the defensive line, including star defensive end Joe Gaziano so the unit should have success generating pressure. NU has a great linebacking core, and star linebacker Paddy Fisher will be all over the field on Saturday and should QB spy Haskins during various points of the game. In the secondary, expect Montre Hartage to shadow Parris Campbell. If the safeties play an excellent game and the secondary does not allow receivers behind them, NU’s defense will put the team in a position to win.
Overall, while many people are counting Northwestern out entirely from this game, I expect the team to stay competitive in this game. While I am not counting on a victory from NU, the Wildcats will fight OSU to the end. Ultimately, I will not be surprised if this team wins on tonight.
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