Both teams see big changes since meeting in title game

Bill Rabinowitz
Ohio State receiver Terry McLaurin makes a touchdown catch against Northwestern in last season's Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes won that game handily 45-24, and the two teams meet Friday night in a game that, on paper, appears to be even more of a mismatch. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Only 10 months ago, Ohio State and Northwestern met for the Big Ten championship.

So much has changed for both programs that it feels like much more time has elapsed.

On that December night in Indianapolis, Urban Meyer coached the Buckeyes. Dwayne Haskins was the quarterback.

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Meyer announced his retirement two days after Ohio State’s 45-24 victory. Haskins’ five-touchdown performance in that game helped ensure that he would move on to the NFL after the season.

Meyer was a legendary coach. Haskins finished with a Big Ten-record 50 touchdown passes before becoming a first-round draft pick.

Departures the magnitude of those two could decimate a program. Yet the Buckeyes are flourishing this season. They are 6-0 and ranked fourth in the major polls.

It’s Northwestern that’s plummeted to mediocrity, or beyond. The Wildcats are 1-4, with the only victory coming over UNLV. That 30-14 victory is the only game in which Northwestern has scored more than 17 points.

The Wildcats’ struggles are both a surprise and not a surprise. Northwestern recently opened a state-of-the-art practice facility along Lake Michigan, but it is a private school with the lowest enrollment in the Big Ten. Until about 25 years ago, the Wildcats were the Rutgers of the conference.

They rely on non-blue-chip players who then develop, but it leaves them little margin for error.

Even on the eve of last year’s Big Ten title game, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald scoffed at the notion that his team and the Buckeyes were equals.

“As I look at where we’re at right now, we’re nowhere close to Ohio State,” Fitzgerald said then. “We’re never going to be close to Ohio State. We’re very different — the size of our school, the location. We just want to be the best us.

“We know who we are. We want to be the best Northwestern that we can be. If we do that consistently, we’ll consistently be in this game.”

The Wildcats had hoped that transfer quarterback Hunter Johnson could replace the graduated Clayton Thorson and keep their offense from slipping. But Johnson, who came from Clemson, has been a disappointment.

He has completed only 48 percent of his passes and has thrown four interceptions with just one touchdown pass — and he's dealing with a knee injury. He’s now competing with Aiden Smith to start. Smith’s stats are almost identical.

It hasn’t helped that Northwestern’s offense has been hit hard by other injuries. That has forced the Wildcats to rely on a defense that has mostly held up. Northwestern ranks 30th nationally, yielding 19.8 points per game.

“They do a tremendous job on defense,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “Really, that whole defense is back from last year. Pat is as good a coach as there is in the country. It's hard to find a yard against them.”

Ohio State is a 28-point favorite. With a huge game next week against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes must fight off any temptation to look ahead.

The team’s motto this week has been to have a “white-belt mentality,” referring to the beginning level of martial arts. The message is that Ohio State’s regular-season journey is only half over and that the Buckeyes have to prove themselves each day.

Better to have a white-belt mentality than face a white-knuckle game, as unlikely as Northwestern appears to be to pose.


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