From hunter to the hunted….again. For the first eleven games of their season the Buckeyes were the team that was their opponent’s Super Bowl. All have traditional rivals they clash with each season. Minnesota and Iowa play for Floyd of Rosedale (greatest trophy in all of sports). TCU and SMU have The Battle for the Iron Skillet. Purdue and Indiana have the Old Oaken Bucket. But, it was obvious this year that beating the Buckeyes was at the top of everyone’s list. Each time a team stepped on the field with the Buckeyes they were sky high, and looking to make a name for themselves. For eleven games Ohio State was the hunted. Last week was the first time the Buckeyes got to be the hunter. Urban Meyer had an easy time motivating his team to play their arch rival. They were disrespected by just about everyone, including the Michigan players. On paper it looked like a mismatch. Nobody gave them a chance. The Buckeyes were definitely the hunters last week. But, this week brings us back to the same old story. Northwestern is an overwhelming underdog against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. On paper it looks like a mismatch. Nobody is giving the Wildcats much of a chance. The Buckeyes are once again being hunted.
When you look at Northwestern’s offense there isn’t much that really jumps out at you. They don’t score a whole lot (108th nationally). They average just over 350 yards per game of total offense(111th nationally), and their rushing offense is ranked near the very bottom of college
football (120th out of 130 teams). But, make no mistake they’re well coached, and manage to get things done. They’re led by senior quarterback Clayton Thorson. The biggest thing he brings is experience; he’s started 51 consecutive games for the Cats. That’s the most in Big Ten history. He’s also the only quarterback in the conference to have ever passed for 10,000 yards, and rushed for 20 touchdowns. Northwestern hasn’t played in a game of this magnitude in 23 years, but I don’t expect him to be overwhelmed by the moment. One NFL Draft expert described his arm as average; he’s completed 60% of his passes. He was never the most mobile quarterback, but has been less so this year after tearing his ACL in the Music City Bowl against Kentucky last season. Combine his mobility issues with a leaky offensive line, and it isn’t surprising he’s been sacked 29 times. One thing that stands out to me is he’s thrown 12 interceptions, and only 14 touchdown passes.
Wildcat head coach Pat Fitzgerald, the newly minted Big Ten Coach of the Year, says he wants to get the ball out of Thorson’s hand quickly. This is really nothing new for them because they don’t
throw deep a lot. So, it’s not surprising their leading pass catcher is slot receiver Flynn Nagel. My concern is how Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano chooses to cover him. He’s tried covering slot receivers with outside linebacker Pete Werner, the field safety (Isaiah Pryor or Brendan White), and cornerback Shaun Wade. Although he’s been beaten for big plays a few times, I still prefer Wade for the assignment. But, because of the way Northwestern will try to run the ball on early downs, I think you’ll see Werner on Nagel. If they choose to throw deep, 6’4” Bennet Skowronek could be a tough matchup for the Buckeye cornerbacks. The Buckeyes’ defensive line needs to get off the ball quickly, and get their hands up into the passing lanes. If they can’t knock down the pass, the hope is they’ll disrupt Thorson’s timing, and make him hesitate.
Northwestern’s leading rusher is Isaiah Bowser, a true freshman from Sydney, Ohio. Bowser was pressed into duty when Jeremy Larkin suddenly had to retire after three games because of injury. Like most everything else about Northwestern Bowser isn’t spectacular, just steady. Only one other running back in the country has rushed for more yards in their last six games, but he averages just over 4.5 yards per carry. So, the Wildcats will pound away with him. But, as a team they have struggled to run the ball, or do anything at all behind a veteran, but suspect offensive line. Four of their offensive linemen were starters in 2017; three of those are third-year starters. I think the Buckeyes’ front seven could be a handful for them. The Wildcats spread you out more than Michigan, and we all know the issues the Ohio State defense has had with teams like that. I don’t think the Buckeyes will have the same magnitude of problems with Northwestern because they are not as explosive as some of those other spread teams.
The Wildcat defense is well coached, hard to get out of position, and features a big, physical defensive line led by junior defensive end Joe Gaziano. They’re solid just about everywhere, and experienced; seven of the eleven starters are juniors or seniors. They play a lot of zone coverage, and keep everything in front of them. Dwayne Haskins is going to have to be patient, and make the correct reads. The Buckeye receivers will have to find the soft spots in the zones, and sit in them. You may not see a lot of the mesh concept this week with its shallow crossing routes. Great against man-to-man, but a little more difficult to run against a zone. Three of the four regulars in the Northwestern secondary have battled injuries lately. It is expected some, if not all will play this week. Senior cornerback Montre Hartage has broken up thirteen passes in just ten games; he’s
missed the last two with an injury. Another in the secondary who has missed time recently is 6’1”, 226 pound safety Jared McGee. If he is not able to go, this could be something the Buckeyes can exploit in their run game. The Cats like to bring McGee down into the box at times. There is a big difference between a guy 226 pounds filling a hole, and one who is just 199. Travis Whitlock has played well as a replacement, but he’s not the physical force McGee is. The linebackers are good, and the strength of the defense. Outside linebacker Blake Gallagher is their leading tackler, and second in the conference in that category. As a team they do not blitz a lot, but if Haskins finds a rhythm I think you’ll see a change in philosophy. Although the Wildcats don’t get a lot of sacks, the Buckeye offensive line still needs to play as they did against Michigan. Protect Haskins, give him a clean pocket to throw from, give J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber enough room to gain yards, and keep the Northwestern defense honest. If they do that, I think the Ohio State offense will have its way with the Wildcats.
What Do I Think?
Northwestern will need to make this an ugly game. Possess the ball for long stretches, hit short passes, keep the ball away from the Buckeyes, and don’t give up anything easy. You can bet Fitzgerald is playing up the whole heavy underdog thing, and you can’t blame him. One thing I think is certain the Wildcats will not beat themselves. They are the least penalized team in college football, and don’t make a lot of mistakes. Because Northwestern had clinched a spot in this game a few weeks ago, Fitzgerald and his staff was able to watch a lot of film on Ohio State last week while his team was getting ready to play Illinois. Meyer said this gives the Wildcats a big advantage. The Buckeyes have a big advantage also. Northwestern’s opponents have completed almost 63% of their passes. They haven’t faced a quarterback like Haskins. I think he picks apart the Cats, and the Buckeyes cruise to a comfortable win for their second straight Big Ten championship.
After starting the season 1-3, the Wildcats have won seven of their last eight with their only loss to undefeated Notre Dame. I think Pat Fitzgerald has done an excellent job in his time there. He’s 95-68 in his 13th season, and has led them to two straight bowl wins. Going into this season I felt if any team would be able to break the lock Wisconsin and Iowa had on the West division, it would be Northwestern.
Clayton Thorson has thrown for just under 2,700 yards. Isaiah Bowser has rushed for 736 yards and six touchdowns. Flynn Nagel has 64 catches for 746 yards and two touchdowns. Cameron Green and Bennett Skowronek have 46 and 40 catches respectively. They average just under 24 points per game.
Blake Gallagher has 112 tackles, and 6 ½ tackles-for-loss. Middle linebacker Paddy Fisher has 92 stops, and 4 tackles-for-loss to go with a sack. Joe Gaziano leads the team with six sacks, and eight quarterback hurries. They’re 48th in total defense, and give up just under 22 points per game.
They’re down to their number three kicker. Punter Jake Collins has taken over the placekicking duties.
This is the thirteenth game in fourteen weeks for both of these teams. The Buckeyes have been here before, but this is new territory for Northwestern. Ohio State played an emotional, and physical game last week against Michigan. Jordan Fuller, Brendan White, and Malik Harrison were on the field for over 80 plays. Dre’mont Jones, Pete Werner, and Chase Young all had over 70 plays. This is where the winter conditioning program put together by strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti comes into play. It is second to none, and I don’t doubt Coach Mick’s influence will help the Buckeyes greatly as the game wears on.
Demetrius Knox will be replaced at right guard by Wyatt Davis. Knox injured his foot on the next-to-last play against Michigan. Davis is a redshirt freshman who was the California player of the year his senior year of high school. Read that again. That’s not lineman of the year, that’s PLAYER of the year. He’s talented, and has really been pushing for playing time.
The Buckeyes are going after their 37th Big Ten championship, and have won eleven games for the seventh consecutive season This is their fourth appearance in the Big Ten Championship game.
J.K. Dobbins needs just 39 yards to reach 1,000 for the second consecutive season. Johnnie Dixon is only ten yards from reaching 1,000 receiving yards for his career. That would give the Buckeyes an unbelievable four receivers who have surpassed that milestone.
The turf at Lucas Oil Stadium could be a factor. Some of the more speedy Buckeyes love to play on it because they feel it is a fast surface. The crowd could also be a factor. Northwestern is a rather small school, Ohio State is not. Like they do at most neutral site games, Buckeye faithful will pack the stadium, and turn it into a home game atmosphere.
Accolades And Snubs
Dwayne Haskins has been named as the winner of the Chicago Tribune Silver Football. The award is symbolic of the Big Ten's most valuable player, and is voted on by the conference's head coaches. According to the Tribune, Haskins was not named on three of the first four ballots received last week, and a winner was not decided until the final ballot arrived on Sunday. Amazingly enough he was named on just six of the fourteen ballots, but received five first place votes. Somehow Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley received two first place votes. Haskins becomes the 18th Buckeye to win the Silver Football. How on earth do you justify sending in your ballot before all of the games have been played? I'm having a very hard time wrapping my head around eight Big Ten coaches thinking Haskins is not one of the two best players in the conference.
Haskins was also named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and Quarterback of the Year. Also, he was named as a finalist for the Manning Award for college football’s best quarterback. It is the only national quarterback award that takes bowl games into consideration. But, Haskins was not named as one of five finalists for the Maxwell Award for college football’s outstanding player.
Haskins, receiver Parris Campbell, and tackle Isaiah Prince were named to the Big Ten’s first team offense. Dre’mont Jones is the lone Buckeye on the first team defense. Named to the second team were center Michael Jordan, running back J.K. Dobbins, safety Jordan Fuller, defensive end Chase Young, and punter Drue Chrisman. You read that correctly. Chrisman was not the first team all-conference punter. Michigan’s Will Hart took home the conference’s punter of the year award. Chrisman’s response? “I’m fine with gold pants.” He now has three pairs for wins over Michigan. If you’re not aware, Chrisman is a character who is the best bottle flipper in college football.
Ryan Day was left off the list of finalists for the Broyles Award, which us given to the nation's outstanding assistant coach. After the job he did leading the Buckeyes during their first three games, and having guided the country's number two offense, what more do they want?
Theirs And Mine
The top three of Alabama, Clemson, and Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff rankings remained the same. But, thanks to Michigan’s day in the woodshed with the Buckeyes, there has been some shuffling behind the top three. Georgia has moved up to fourth, Oklahoma is fifth, and the Buckeyes move from tenth to sixth. Beyond that I think it is almost irrelevant because unless something catastrophic happens (Georgia beats Alabama, and Oklahoma and Ohio State lose), I don’t think any team beyond them has a chance to make the playoff.
I know there was a lot of debate as to would the Buckeyes be placed ahead of Oklahoma, but I never expected it to happen. I’m not a fan of this committee at all, and truth be told I really don’t like committee chair Rob Mullens. In previous weeks when asked about the Buckeyes compared
other teams, he has talked out of both sides of his mouth. I don’t feel like he did that this time, and while some feel he is being vague about why the committee likes Oklahoma better at this point, I don’t. He repeatedly said the committee likes the Sooners’ body of work more so than the Buckeyes’. Regardless if you agree or disagree, and you can debate this for hours, at least I feel like this is something more concrete than one team just looks better than another. The committee seems to want to see more consistency from Ohio State. I guess they’re comfortable with Oklahoma’s defense being consistently awful. A double standard is most certainly being used when viewing the offense and defense of both teams. The Sooners offense is getting an awful lot of credit for being able to overcome its ridiculously bad defense. But, the committee is taking a blase’ attitude towards Ohio State’s offense.
Let’s cut right to it, and deal with an inconvenient truth for Buckeye fans: based on the statements by Mullens the only way Ohio State makes the playoff is if Oklahoma loses to Texas in the Big XII title game tomorrow. There are still some out there saying the committee could easily move Ohio State ahead of Oklahoma. But, If they feel the body of work of the Sooners is better right now, why would that change if they beat the team ranked fourteenth? I think the best hope for the Buckeyes is Texas beating the Sooners. I don’t think it matters if they win by 1 or 100 against Northwestern, I don’t see the committee moving Ohio State ahead of Oklahoma if the Sooners win Saturday.
My rankings were affected by Michigan’s loss as well. If you’re a first-time reader, my rankings are based solely on who has a team beaten, and who have those teams beaten. Scores don’t matter, outcomes do. Weak schedules get you penalized. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. Here’s this week’s:
1. Notre Dame
5. Ohio State
The Irish stretched their lead slightly over Clemson. Georgia and Oklahoma are very close. Alabama remains sixth because of their non-conference schedule. Two wins over Sun Belt teams, a win over an FCS school, and a win over a bad Louisville team has done nothing for them. Sorry, but in my system you don’t get rewarded for a schedule like this simply because you’re a name school.
While most associated with Michigan football acknowledge Ohio State thoroughly dominated the Wolverines and are disgusted with the state of the program, there are still a few who you just want to ask, “What color is the sky in your world?”
Jack Harbaugh, the father of head coach Jim, said he thinks the Wolverines should hang a Big Ten East Champions banner. Um…..ok. He said he has five championship rings from coaching under legendary Michigan Man Bo Schembechler, and although some of those championships were shared, it didn’t matter to Bo. The elder Harbaugh reasoned since the Wolverines and Buckeyes are both 8-1, the maize and blue should hang that banner because, well, they’re champions. It obviously doesn’t register on him how hollow that would be after his son’s team got bludgeoned by Ohio State. Proof there are those who still think that program is something special.
Oh hey! Remember Michigan Man Charles Woodson’s guarantee of a win during his speech at his alma mater’s commencement? Yeah, so do I…lol. Chucky is one of those Michigan Men who think it is still the 90’s.
Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines
I haven’t written about anything but football for a few months because there is so much going on with our favorite college football team. But, I think this deserves a mention.
I’ve written in other blogs I’m a fan of Formula 1 racing (blame my son). I watch each race, and pay attention to what goes on in the sport. During the first lap of Sunday’s final race in Abu Dhabi, Nico Hulkenburg clipped the front wheel of Romain Grosjean. That sent Hulkenburg’s Renault flying through the air, and into the fence where it came to rest upside down. The German driver was unhurt, and provided one of the more comical sports quotes of the year. When asked via radio by the team manager if he was ok, Hulkenburg said, “I’m hanging here like a cow,” as he waited to be extracted from the cockpit. I’m sure that one will be brought up a lot when the 2019 gets underway in mid-March in Australia.
Texas-Oklahoma is at noon Saturday, the Buckeyes are at 8. The Division VII high school state championship game is at 10 AM. Going to be a very long, fun day of football.