NU defense ready for ultimate challenge in Big Ten title game

  • Illinois defensive back Devon Witherspoon, left, tries to recover a fumble against Northwestern during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020.

    Illinois defensive back Devon Witherspoon, left, tries to recover a fumble against Northwestern during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 12/18/2020 7:50 PM

Ohio State is counting on Northwestern to be a launchpad toward the College Football Playoff.

The Wildcats are hoping to be more of a brick wall during Saturday's Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, but they'll have the work cut out. OSU was listed as an 18-point favorite as of Friday afternoon.

 

This week, Buckeyes cornerback Shaun Wade didn't try to talk around the topic. Ohio State is counting on a big win to make everyone forget they've played only five games so far, thanks to the shortened season and three COVID cancellations.

"We definitely have something to prove," Wade told reporters this week. "Like I've been telling a lot of my teammates, we've got to blow them out. We've got to come to play. We've only played five games. Everybody else in the nation has played eight or more. We have to show the world what we can do."

Northwestern had this matchup two years ago in the Big Ten title game and lost 45-24. In a regular-season rematch last fall, the Cats lost 52-3.

"We've got nothing to lose," NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week. "Let's go cut it loose and enjoy the moment. We're going to have fun, that's not negotiable. If you're not having fun, I don't know why you're doing this."

Ohio State has Big Ten offensive player of the year Justin Fields at quarterback. He's posted a completion percentage of 78.1 percent this season and will likely be a top five NFL draft pick next spring.

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Northwestern's blueprint for winning this game, or even keeping it close, is basic Football 101: Control the time of possession, limit big plays, win the turnover battle.

The Wildcats won the West with defense. They lead the Big Ten in points allowed at 14.6 per game. Ohio State is tops on offense with 46.6 points and 532 yards per game.

Northwestern's strength is the back seven on defense, which was traditionally a weakness in the past. They might have NFL talent in cornerback Greg Newsome, a former Glenbard North star; and safety Brandon Joseph, who led the league with 5 interceptions.

The three linebackers -- Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin -- are likely the best group Fitzgerald has coached.

Northwestern hasn't run the ball particularly well (3.9 yards per carry), but the offense is still built for ball control. Graduate transfer QB Peyton Ramsey is good at converting third downs with his legs and hitting his receivers on short routes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

If there's anything approaching a weakness on Ohio State's offense, it could be that it hasn't been tested in this short season. And maybe, possibly, there's not quite the lethal talent at the skill positions like the Buckeyes have enjoyed in recent years.

Wideouts Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson rank 1-2 in the Big Ten in receiving yards, so that's tough to beat. Running back Major Teague averaged 85.2 yards per game.

The 2018 OSU squad had Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill at receiver, J.K. Dobbins running the ball and Dwayne Haskins at QB. It's tough to beat that combination, but the Buckeyes are usually loaded with five-star recruits.

"We're going to have to work really hard at what we do fundamentally, our communication, to make sure we're all on the same page," Fitzgerald sad. "They're going to put pressure on you formationally and try to get their guys in advantageous situations to make explosive plays. So we're going to have our hands full, there's no question."

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