INDIANAPOLIS — No. 5 Ohio State had the momentum heading into the Big Ten Championship.
Coming off a 62-39 win against then-No. 4 Michigan, the Buckeyes were clicking on all cylinders, with redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins leading the No. 2 pass offense in the country, with redshirt junior defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones and the defensive line providing consistent pressure, limiting success for opposing quarterbacks.
But in the way of Ohio State’s 37th Big Ten championship was No. 21 Northwestern, a team that survived by playing opponents close, never winning or losing a game by more than 14 points, that limited opponents’ success in the passing game by playing a zone base defense, keeping pass plays in front of them.
Ohio State became one of the victims of Northwestern football on Saturday, but came out with the largest win differential of any opponent the Wildcats have faced this season, recording the 45-24 victory and winning their 37th Big Ten title.
Even without knowing what the College Football Playoff committee will decide for the Buckeyes moving forward, head coach Urban Meyer said the first focus was to get to the Big Ten Championship in the first place.
“The ultimate prize is a National Championship. But you certainly can’t be in that discussion unless you win your conference,” Meyer said. “So our objective is to get to Indy, win in Indy, win the conference championship.”
The Buckeyes never lost its lead in the entirety of the game, securing the victory on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Haskins to sophomore running back J.K. Dobbins in the fourth quarter.
Haskins finished the game with 499 passing yards, breaking his own school record for single-game passing yards, while completing 82.9 percent of his passes. The redshirt sophomore quarterback threw five touchdowns with one interception, his eighth of the season.
Haskins said that the players around him, whether it’s the offensive line or the wide receivers, provided him the opportunities to succeed.
“The biggest thing was execution,” Haskins said. “And the thing I had to do was give the ball to playmakers and let them make the plays. I’m just the distributor. And we did a great job tonight.”
After Ohio State had held a 24-7 halftime lead, Northwestern surged back, recording 14 unanswered points in the third quarter, bringing its deficit to three points after a 18-yard touchdown run for redshirt senior quarterback Clayton Thorson and a 2-yard pass from Thorson to junior super back Cameron Green.
But sophomore defensive end Chase Young batted a pass up at the line of scrimmage in the third quarter, landing in the arms of redshirt junior cornerback Damon Arnette for one of three turnovers by the Ohio State defense, seemingly giving the game back to the Buckeyes.
Even after a 29-yard touchdown pass from Haskins to freshman wide receiver Chris Olave bringing the Buckeyes’ lead to 10 heading into the fourth quarter, the Wildcats continued to stay in the game, with Thorson leading Northwestern on a 7-play, 76-yard drive ending with a 21-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
Ohio State extended its lead on a 9-yard pass from Haskins to redshirt senior Johnnie Dixon, who led the team with seven catches for 129 yards.
Even with the late game success defensively, Ohio State looked more like the defense that played against Maryland in the first quarter.
After recording a three-and-out in its first drive, Northwestern junior running back John Moten IV found running room on the right side of the Ohio State defense, taking the ball 77 yards for the Wildcats’ first score of the game, the seventh play of 70 yards or more the Buckeyes have allowed this season.
It seemed to click for the defensive line later in the game, with Ohio State recording eight tackles for loss, including five sacks. Young finished the game with three sacks and a forced fumble.
Facing a quarterback that he considered to be an NFL pro-style quarterback, Young said he and the rest of the line got its game plan from defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.
“Coach Schiano said we have to get after him. Ran certain blitzes to block the storm press,” Young said. “And today, we just won. And we followed what Coach Schiano said and we got the win.”
Pressure in the backfield led to turnovers in the first half. As he was hurried by junior linebacker Malik Harrison, Thorson heaved a ball down the sideline, testing Ohio State’s man coverage and one-on-one ability as many opponents have done prior. Redshirt freshman defensive back Shaun Wade brought in the ball for his third interception of the season.
Wade said pressure, whether it’s from the linebackers or from the defensive line, is vital to the success of the pass defense as a whole.
“When they do that, as DB’s, we should be getting picks or just going to get the ball to be honest,” Wade said. “Because they provide that for us, that pressure for us all the time.”
Young also recorded a strip sack, easily moving through Northwestern senior left tackle Blake Hance and bringing Thorson down on his blind side.
After breaking former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson’s Big Ten record for most total yards in a single season in the first quarter, Haskins found redshirt senior wide receiver Terry McLaurin twice in the first half, recording a 16-yard score and a 42-yard score, breaking former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett’s record for the most touchdowns in a single season.
After a 2017 Big Ten Championship in which McLaurin brought in two catches for 92 yards, recording a touchdown, Haskins knew, with where they were playing, that the redshirt senior wide receiver would be an impact on Saturday.
“This is where Terry grew up,” Haskins said. “Whenever he has an opportunity to come back and play in this stadium, he does it for his family, for each other, for our teammates. And he shows out and he did a great job today.”
Dobbins, recording his ninth rushing touchdown of the season in the first quarter, led the Buckeyes in rushing with 68 yards on 17 carries, averaging four yards per rush.
Haskins said the win against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship is a perfect example of what he wants to remember about Ohio State and the season he’s had.
“What’s so fantastic about this game is that I looked to my left, my right, and we’re all ready to go out there, make a play together and be trusting one another, trusting the coaches when they put us in that situation,” Haskins said. “And what better way to go out on a win today.”
Ohio State’s postseason fate will be decided when the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its final rankings on Sunday at noon.
Updated on Dec. 2 at 1:46 a.m. with quotes from players and coaches after Ohio State’s 45-24 win against Northwestern.