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As the College Football regular season comes to a close for the Big Ten, all eyes around the conference and country shift to Indianapolis.
Usually, the Big Ten Title Game is played with an 8PM EST start time but this year is a little different. The slated start time is a noon kickoff, which definitely drew mixed feelings from fans and players.
Nevertheless, the stakes are high for both programs. For Ohio State, it’s to go out and prove that they are a playoff team. It’s to show why they have been the gold standard, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
For Northwestern, it’s a nothing to lose attitude, but also an opportunity. It’s a shot for Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald to take his beloved alma mater to the top. A real chance to show high school recruits to reconsider their choices, and put some faith in the Wildcats.
Honestly, they’ve now won their division twice in the last three years, so they’re on the rise. All that being said, let’s get into how each team can prevail on Saturday with the keys to the game:
Keys For Northwestern’s Defense: Depend on the boatload of leadership
Northwestern’s Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz has been at the school since 2008, and coaching since 1973. He’s seen just about everything, and honestly has coached through so many different phases and facets of CFB. From option offenses to air raid attacks, Hankwitz has defended them all.
That’s the coaching aspect, but on the field, six of the starting front seven for the Wildcats are seniors. Sophomore defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore may be the best player, besides All-Conference linebacker Paddy Fisher.
The scheme Hankwitz runs is a 4-3, but they usually have a stand-up defensive end on the the short side of the field. The Wildcats will place an outside linebacker to the wide side of the field, essentially playing with six in the box. Even when the opposing offense lines up with three wide receivers, they stay with this look.
The outside backers are taught extremely well, crashing hard to eliminate any outside runs and wide receiver screen passes. This will force teams to run into the teeth of the Wildcat defense.
If Ohio State can get a push up front and force Northwestern to stack the box, it’s all but over for the Wildcats. The Buckeyes have too many athletes outside and will repeatedly prevail in one-on-one opportunities. To counter some of these inefficiencies, Hankwitz should follow the blueprints of past opponents. If the Wildcats can keep Justin Fields contained and force confusion, they have a shot.
Keys For Northwestern’s Offense: Cause Confusion
The Wildcats need to run a lot of misdirection. The offensive line won’t be able to get a great push against OSU’s defensive line. Throwbacks and slip screens need to be utilized here, almost cutting out a page of the Greg Schiano, Rutgers Backyard Playbook. Let OSU’s own aggressiveness be their demise.
This will force Defensive Coordinator, Kerry Coombs, to drop more people in coverage, providing immediate pass rush relief.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey will have to use his legs. OSU will get to him, but if he can effectively evade the rush, it’ll give him a chance at chunk yardage. If he can’t evade, then Northwestern needs to look at three-to-five step drop passes. Indiana was effective against OSU through the air because the ball was out in a hurry. Whether that’s quick slants or fades off the line, Ramsey needs to give his wideouts a chance.
Keys For Ohio State’s Defense: Trust and Focus
The Buckeyes on any given day can out-talent 99% of the teams in the FBS, but when they lack focus, anyone can beat them (Purdue and Iowa). The front four runs nearly 12 players deep, meaning they have three full shifts of defensive lineman. It’s almost like a hockey team who can make a line change, and still be effective.
The same goes for the linebacker group, playing potentially nine guys in a game. The depth of the front seven for Ohio State is unrivaled. That being said, they just need the secondary players to trust that the guys in front of them will get the job done.
By a job well done, I mean that the secondary won’t have to come up and fill in the run game, because the D-line and backers will handle it. Likewise, the front seven needs to trust the defensive backs to handle their business. If the secondary keeps everything in front, this could be a long night for the Wildcats.
Keys for Ohio State’s Offense: Stay on schedule and ahead of the sticks
Ohio State has been ultra efficient this year on offense, but at times they’ve sputtered. They did gain 607 yards against a top 10 defense in Indiana, and put up 35 points on offense. However, they looked unprepared against the blitz, especially up the middle. In turn, this created good tape for the Bucks on areas to improve.
When kept clean, Justin Fields generally shreds the opposition. The important thing to figure out Saturday will be how he intends to shred a stingy Wildcat defense.
Fields should follow suit of his game vs. Michigan State and get the offense going with his legs. Whenever Ohio State hits a bump in the road offensively, one Justin Fields scamper seems to be the cure. After his huge run vs. MSU, the offense seemed to be unstoppable. By doing this, it opens up the running backs for more opportunities.
Too many times, Fields has handed the ball off on a pull read, resulting in an extra defender added to the play. The only plausible reason was to limit the hits Fields took. There’s nothing left to lose on Saturday and the Bucks need to have a huge showing to make a statement on why they deserve to be in the CFP. That starts with the legs of Fields, and allowing him to pull the football.
Something else to look for is a developing trend over the past few games. Head Coach Ryan Day has been making a concerted effort to feed the freshmen phenom wideouts of Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
These two guys are loaded with talent, and with all the cancellations OSU has been through, these guys haven’t been able to make their mark yet. With no out of conference opponents, the Bucks had to hit the ground running, not allowing the young guys to get acclimated to the system.
Smith-Njigba had presumably the play of the season for Ohio State with an immaculate toe drag touchdown catch. That was back in week one and outside of that, it’s been slow for these freshman. Wideouts coach Brian Hartline preaches “you have to block to get the rock.” These guys have done so, and the rock will be heading their way shortly, especially with a star wideout not playing due to COVID. That player is yet to be named.
Matchup To Watch: Northwestern LT Peter Skoronski vs. Ohio State DE Jonathon Cooper
This matchup in the trenches is as close to champ vs. challenger as it gets, almost like the game itself.
Cooper is a five-star talent pulled in to operate on the opposite side of Nick Bosa, from the class of 2016. Cooper has battled injuries and adversity his whole career, but is putting is best foot forward this year, his final season.
He’s a fifth year senior, captain, and first ever to represent the “Block O” jersey for the Buckeyes. Currently, he’s graded as a top five edge defender. On Saturday, Cooper will be looking to use his experience, expertise, and sheer athletic ability to make Skoronski uncomfortable all game long.
Skoronski is the second highest recruit ever pulled in under Fitzgerald, and he’s showing why. Skoronski was never supposed to play left tackle, let alone start. The crucial blindside spot was supposed to be occupied by the ultra-talented Rashawn Slater. However, Slater opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Slater making this move to sit out very well could have paved the way for another first round LT selection in the coming years. In just seven games, Skoronski has created such an immense buzz about his potential in the future. His efforts have certainly played an enormous role in helping the Wildcats achieve a 6-1 record.
If Fitzgerald and his crew want to stop the Buckeyes run for four straight Big Ten Titles, Skoronski has to hold his own. I know the matchup highlights these two individuals, but the Buckeyes in reality could send eight different guys off the weak side. It’s imperative that Skoronski is prepared for anything.
Final Prediction: Ohio State 48, Northwestern 20
The Buckeyess come out and make their case as a top four team in the country. Behind a fully healthy offensive line, OSU gashes Northwestern for 300 on the ground, and another 250 through the air. OSU collects four sacks, holding NW under 300 yards.