Victory nets Big Ten title; playoff unlikely
INDIANAPOLIS — Ohio State won another Big Ten championship Saturday night, and that is no small achievement.
As big as winning their third conference title in five years is, the Buckeyes’ biggest goal will almost certainly go unrealized.
Ohio State did its part by beating Northwestern 45-24 at Lucas Oil Stadium, relying on its passing game to survive a second-half surge by the Wildcats.
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Quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. continued his remarkable season by throwing for five touchdowns and 499 yards on 34-of-41 passing.
But the No. 6 Buckeyes (12-1) didn’t get the help they needed in other conference championship games and didn’t get the blowout they needed to make a serious case for themselves. Barring a major surprise when the College Football Playoff selection committee picks its top four teams on Sunday, the No. 6 Buckeyes are headed to the Rose Bowl to play Pac-12 champion Washington.
“Sure, it matters,” Meyer said of making the playoff. “The ultimate prize is a national championship, but you certainly can't even be in that discussion unless you win your conference.”
The easiest path to a playoff spot would have been for No. 5 Oklahoma to lose to Texas in the Big 12 championship game. But Tom Herman couldn’t do his former team that favor when his Longhorns fell short.
Four years ago, the Buckeyes crushed Wisconsin 59-0 to persuade the playoff committee to give them the fourth spot in the CFP. Even that kind of rout wouldn’t have been enough for Ohio State this time, and the Buckeyes didn’t come close it.
After taking a 24-7 halftime lead, the Buckeyes faltered at the start of the second half. They gave up touchdowns on No. 21 Northwestern’s first two possessions of the third quarter while the Buckeyes’ offense slumbered.
But then Haskins and the passing game reignited. Ohio State drove 65 yards for a touchdown with Haskins throwing to freshman Chris Olave to push the lead back to 10.
But after the Buckeyes forced Northwestern (8-5) to settle for a field goal from inside the OSU 5-yard line, Haskins completed a 63-yard pass to Johnnie Dixon before hitting the senior in the end zone for a touchdown that finally gave the Buckeyes a 14-point lead and Northwestern didn’t come closer.
“Gutsy,” offensive coordinator Ryan Day said of Haskins’ performance. “He made some big-time passes. This is a very different game than last week. Last week was all man (coverage against Michigan). We saw a lot of zone, drop-eight (in coverage) so the timing was different early on.
“You could see he wasn’t real comfortable with it. Then he found his rhythm and played really well.”
In reality, The Buckeyes’ offense ended the game the way it started it. Ohio State scored on its opening drive, going 77 yards in 10 plays. Haskins capped the drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass in which he danced around pass rushers before rolling to his right and firing a strike to Terry McLaurin for a 16-yard touchdown.
Northwestern tied it on a defensive breakdown all too common for the Buckeyes this season. Backup Northwestern running back John Moten IV took a handoff going off right tackle, found a seam, broke a tackle attempt by safety Brendon White and outran pursuers for a 77-yard touchdown. It was the sixth touchdown run of at least 70 yards surrendered by the Buckeyes in 2018.
Otherwise, Ohio State’s defense was smothering in the first half. It forced four three-and-outs in Northwestern’s other six possessions.
The Buckeyes regained the lead late in the first quarter on a 2-yard touchdown run by Dobbins, who became the first Buckeyes player to go over 1,000 rushing yards in both his freshman and sophomore seasons.
After a Blake Haubeil field goal made it 17-7, Haskins again hooked up with McLaurin. The Indianapolis native ran a stop-and-go pattern to beat Greg Newsome II, and Haskins hit him in stride for a 42-yard touchdown.
Ohio State’s passing game compensated for a running game that sputtered. Ohio State ran for only 108 yards in 46 carries, a 2.3-yard average. Dixon had more than that — 129 — on his seven receptions.
Northwestern's Clayton Thorson completed 27 of 44 passes for 267 yards.