Northwestern got its mojo back. Will that matter in the B1G title game?
No matter how bad Northwestern wound up beating Illinois on a dreary Saturday in Evanston, it wasn’t going to change the obvious: Ohio State is going to be a massive favorite in the Big Ten Championship Game next Saturday.
So even though that is still true after No. 14 Northwestern overwhelmed an undermanned Illinois squad 28-10, the Wildcats maybe tightened that gap ever so slightly.
Though it took a quarter, Northwestern just may have gotten its mojo back in rushing for 411 yards. Granted, Illinois was down 6 starters, but that’s irrelevant in terms of Northwestern’s confidence. The Wildcats (6-1) haven’t felt at all like the No. 14 team in the country after having a point differential of just +17 over the last 5 games, and that’s part of the reason No. 4 Ohio State (5-0) opened as a 21.5-point favorite for next week’s title game. So for Northwestern to battle through some early struggles on Saturday and win easily, that’s a nice confidence boost.
The ACC made sure that both Clemson and Notre Dame went into their conference title game on a bye. Thankfully for Northwestern, the Big Ten did no such thing, as Ohio State did not get another game this week after Michigan’s COVID spike forced the cancelation of The Game. While it may look like the Buckeyes have an advantage after spending the afternoon watching on TV as Northwestern suffered through miserable wind, rain and snow, I think the Wildcats benefitted by actually playing and getting to go into the showdown on a high note. After the way they’d been playing, they needed it.
When Northwestern lost to Michigan State 2 weeks ago, it wasn’t a random bad game. It was weeks and weeks of issues (mostly on offense) that finally manifested themselves on the same day and were too much to overcome.
Consider that entering Saturday, Northwestern ranked 125th out of 127 FBS teams in yards per play (4.3). The Wildcats had rushed for just 167 yards over the last 3 games, averaging just 1.7 yards per carry. So for the Wildcats to average 7.2 yards per carry and only ask Peyton Ramsey to attempt 12 passes, that’s a massive win. Surely the Wildcats will need a big game from Ramsey next week against a beatable Ohio State secondary, but Northwestern won’t upset Ohio State by being one-dimensional. The Buckeyes have the best defensive front in the Big Ten, so yards will be tough to come by. At least Northwestern can feel good about this run game, though.
Interestingly enough, starting running back Drake Anderson fumbling on Northwestern’s first play from scrimmage was a blessing in disguise. That paved the way for little-used true freshman Cam Porter to emerge in a big way. After having played just 32 snaps and totaled 8 carries all season, Porter exploded for 142 yards and 2 TDs on 24 attempts to resuscitate a Northwestern ground game that hadn’t broken 100 yards in 3 weeks. And then Evan Hull, who was one of the few bright spots last season when he randomly had a 4-TD game against UMass, finally got a chance, and he responded with 149 yards and a TD on 13 carries. Hull had played just 32 snaps this season.
Northwestern has relied on Anderson and Isaiah Bowser all season, and with little success. Saturday gave the Wildcats a chance to try out some new backs, and it worked. Bowser didn’t get his first carry until late in the first half, and he finished with just 5. Northwestern coach pat Fitzgerald clearly wanted to see whether some fresh faces could spark this sputtering offense, and it worked. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian used Porter in the Wildcat, and the former 3-star recruit who was the No. 41 running back in the 2020 class handled it quite well.
Northwestern figured some things out on Saturday, and that’s more than Ohio State can say. Ohio State is at a disadvantage because of these cancelations, as it hasn’t had the chance to work out the kinks, like Northwestern did Saturday. With how little teams have been able to function like actual college football teams during the pandemic, it doesn’t behoove the Buckeyes to get more rest. They need games. Ohio State has only played 5 games this season and if it is playing Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals, it will have only played 6. That’s a disadvantage, not an advantage.
The Buckeyes have had big issues in the secondary this season. Remember when Michael Penix Jr. nearly threw for 500 yards on the Buckeyes? Ohio State has only played 1 game since then, thanks to 2 cancelations. The Buckeyes would’ve loved a chance for their struggling secondary that ranks last in the B1G in pass defense to get a few more reps, just as the Wildcats got to do with their run game.
Will that matter in the Big Ten Championship Game? Probably not. Northwestern is a fine college football team and it has had a nice season, but Ohio State was a popular preseason national title pick for a reason.
Watching Northwestern play Illinois, you wouldn’t immediately know which one led the West and which one was in near the bottom. The Wildcats, all too often, look ordinary. That means the Fighting Reece Davises will have to play a near-perfect game against the Buckeyes. Mistakes, like when left guard Nik Urban got caught leaking downfield early to wipe out a Kyric McGown touchdown catch Saturday, can’t happen. An offensive line that has struggled without Rashawn Slater and leaned on promising true freshman Peter Skoronski will need to execute its assignments. Losing the turnover battle, as Northwestern did Saturday, isn’t an option. Does Northwestern have a chance? Not a big one, but that’s why you play the game.
All things considered, Northwestern got better on Saturday. That’s more than Ohio State can say. Whether that matters in what could be the most lopsided title game since 2014 (when Ohio State beat Wisconsin 59-0) remains to be seen.