2020 Big Ten Championship Game Preview

Big Ten

Ohio State and Northwestern will face off in the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday at 12 p.m. in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

For Ohio State, a Big Ten Championship win is their only shot at a selection in the college football playoff. Northwestern is looking for its first conference championship since 2000, and its first outright championship since 1995.

The Buckeyes are looking for their fourth straight win in the Championship game, making it the first time they have won the conference crown four years in a row since they won it five times from 2005-09. It would be the third time Ohio State had won the title four consecutive times, with the first time when they won six straight from 1972-1977.

The only other team to win four in a row was Michigan from 1901-1904 and again from 1971-1974 (though they shared the latter three with Ohio State).

Though Northwestern took the conference crown three times in six years from 1995-2000, they had to wait 64 years since their previous win in 1934. They haven’t won the conference outright since 1995 when their current head coach was their All-American linebacker.

2020 Big Ten Championship Game Preview

The last time these two teams met, the Buckeyes clubbed the Wildcats 52-3 in Evanston. J.K. Dobbins and Master Teague combined for nearly 250 yards of offense and three touchdowns. Ohio State later defeated Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game and went on to a heartbreaking loss in the Fiesta Bowl.

The matchup before that was in Indianapolis for the Conference Title. Dwayne Haskins passed for 499 yards and five touchdowns in Urban Meyer’s final game as the Buckeyes head coach.

Many current Northwestern players, such as Riley Lees, Kyric McGowan, Isaiah Bowser, Paddy Fisher, and Blake Gallagher, played in that conference championship.

Will Number 15 Northwestern be able to topple Number 4 Ohio State and win their first Big Ten Championship Game? Or will the Buckeyes win their fourth title game in a row?

Northwestern

If you look at Northwestern’s recruiting classes, there’s no way they should ever appear in this game. Credit for their success goes to head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Not only was he one of the programs’ all-time great players, but he is one of their most successful coaches.

All of Northwestern’s All-Conference representation was on defense, with Fisher, Brandon Joseph, and Greg Newsome making the first team.

Fitzgerald, a linebacker in his playing days, has led the Wildcats to the top scoring defense in the Big Ten. Northwestern only gave up 14.6 points a game in 2020. Fitzgeralds’ former position is the most productive on the team, with linebackers Fisher (the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year) and Gallagher totaling 65 tackles each. Chris Bergin rounds out the senior linebacker trio with 58 tackles, and that gives you a very formidable position group.

Even when you get into the secondary, things don’t get any better. Northwestern has the second-best passing defense in the conference and is second in interceptions. Joseph is tied for the conference lead with five interceptions, which helped him win the Defensive Freshman of the Year in the conference.

The only chink in the armor is in the front. The defensive line has trouble putting pressure on the quarterback, and they need help from the linebackers stopping the run.

It’s pretty obvious that Northwestern’s defense carries the team. Despite having the best quarterback in the Eastern Division, the Wildcats’ passing offense is second-last in the Big Ten. Peyton Ramsey has completed 59.0 percent of his passes for only nine touchdowns and six interceptions in seven games.

Northwestern’s leading receiver in average yards per game, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, is only 21st in the conference. His teammate McGowan is right behind him at 22nd.

Even though their offense doesn’t put up huge numbers, they are balanced. Despite having the seventh-best rushing offense in the conference, Bowser, the teams’ leading rusher, is 23rd in rushing yards. They have four players with at least 32 rushing attempts and 174 rushing yards. As individuals, their numbers don’t pop, but as a unit, they work well.

Fitzgerald is going to ask Ramsey to pass a lot. Ohio State has the second-best rushing defense in the conference, but the worst passing defense. Receivers like Lees, McGowan, and Chiaokhiao-Bowman are going to have to win their battles quickly because Ramsey doesn’t have the mobility to escape pressure. If the offensive line can protect Ramsey and let him air the ball out, then he might be able to score enough to keep the game close.

Northwestern’s defense gets quite the matchup: the second-best passing offense in the conference against the second-best passing defense.

Rumors are circulating that Chris Olave (who is second in the conference in receiving yards per game) has tested positive for COVID-19 and cannot play. If this is true, it is a huge boost for Northwestern, since Ohio State’s bench is talented but high inexperienced.

One thing Northwestern has done well is to prevent big plays. They will keep everything in front of them, and make Ohio State check down away from their top receiving targets.

Ohio State

Ohio State has one of the most explosive offenses in the country, let alone the conference.

Six Buckeyes represented the coaches’ First-Team All-Conference, with three more on the second or third team. Justin Fields won the Offensive Player and Quarterback of the Year awards, while Wyatt Davis won Offensive Lineman of the Year.

Fields is a hopeful Heisman Trophy finalist with a talented cast around him. Teague is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, and with Trey Sermon, leads the best rushing offense in the conference.

Olave and Garrett Wilson are the top two in receiving yards per game in the conference. Even if Olave can’t make the game, other players like Jameson Williams, Julian Fleming, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba will get a chance to prove themselves.

Northwestern cannot afford to get into a shoot-out with Ohio State. The Buckeyes have posted three of the top five highest scores in the Big Ten this season. Ohio State has scored 52 points twice, which is a total no one else has reached. After Northwestern’s opening game against Maryland, they have failed to score more than 28 points in a single game. They averaged 22 points per game in that span.

For comparison, Ohio State’s season-low is 38 against Penn State.

If Northwestern has to chase points, they will lose.

Ohio State’s game plan will be to do what they have been doing on offense. They have to let Fields cook, let Teague run the ball, and let Wilson and Olave go deep.

Even though Northwestern’s passing defense is first in the conference, Fields still got it done against teams like Penn State and Indiana. Those have been the top two defenses faced this year, and while they’re not Northwestern, it shows Ohio State can score against anyone.

The media and the coaches disrespected the Buckeyes’ defense in the Big Ten awards, but Fitzgerald won’t make that mistake. Haskell Garrett, Tommy Togiai, Jonathon Cooper, and Zach Harrison will make life miserable for Northwestern upfront. Ohio State’s defense has 14 sacks in five games, and they will go after Ramsey.

The Buckeyes will try to flush Ramsey out of the pocket, where he will be vulnerable and inaccurate.

Shaun Wade, the Defensive Back of the Year, will try to take away Chiaokiao-Bowman and make Ramsey look elsewhere. If Ohio State can keep Northwestern checking down or running, their offense should score enough points to win the game.