Steeled by adversity, Ohio State ready for Northwestern in Big Ten football title game
Ohio State will play for its fourth straight Big Ten football championship on Saturday. If the Buckeyes defeat Northwestern, they will extend their league record for consecutive outright titles to four.
But Saturday’s game will have a different feel from other recent ones. For one, the Buckeyes won’t be coming off the emotional high – and physical bruises – from beating Michigan. The cancellation of that game leaves lingering disappointment, instead.
For another, No. 4 Ohio State (5-0) enters the championship game having played fewer than half its normal 12 games. But coach Ryan Day hopes that what his team has lacked in actual competition is countered by the resilience it has needed to navigate the challenges COVID-19 has presented.
“It’s different for sure to have only had half a season,” Day said in a Zoom call Sunday. “But I feel strong about our team. I think we've been through a lot. Even though we haven't played as many games, we've been through more as a team and learned more about our team during this whole fall.
“There's nothing more rewarding as a coach than to see your team overcome adversity and get stronger and get harder and get tougher as the season’s gone on. I think we've done that, so that's really positive going into the game and we'll just keep growing.”
With no Michigan game, the Buckeyes watched No. 14 Northwestern beat Illinois 28-10 to improve to 6-1. The Wildcats will be playing Ohio State in Indianapolis for the second time in three years. In 2018, the Buckeyes pulled away in the second half for a 45-24 victory.
Ohio State routed Northwestern 52-3 last year in Evanston. The Wildcats went 3-9, prompting coach Pat Fitzgerald to shuffle his offensive staff and bring in Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey to improve their dreadful quarterback play.
“Northwestern's a very, very good team,” Day said. “Fitz has done a great job with his team this season. Peyton Ramsey really gave them a shot in the arm on offense, and they’ve got some really talented guys on defense.”
Still, there’s a wide talent gap.
“I'm sure we're going to be underdogs by like 70,” Fitzgerald said Saturday.
The point spread is actually about 20.
“We'll try to put together a good week and get ourselves prepared to represent the Big Ten West, which we're very proud of,” Fitzgerald said.
Northwestern excels at forcing turnovers and making teams drive methodically down the field.
“They don’t give you anything,” Day said. “You have to earn it all.”
Ohio State has played only twice since Nov. 7. In its last game, it overcame the absence of Day, three assistant coaches and five starters because of COVID to roll over Michigan State 52-12. Northwestern’s only loss came to the Spartans.
Three of those starters were on the offensive line – tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere and center Josh Myers. Quarterback Justin Fields said in his Zoom call Sunday that three were back in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Asked about getting all his players back for Saturday, Day said, “The last time I said anything, I think jinxed myself, so I think I'm going to plead the fifth on this one.”
A victory would go a long way toward landing a spot in the College Football Playoff for Ohio State, especially after Florida’s loss to LSU on Saturday.
“I think we're one of the four best teams in the country, for sure,” Fields said. “I think we control our destiny. If we go out there on Saturday and handle business like we're supposed to, we should be where we want to be.”
Ohio State vs. Northwestern
When: noon Saturday
TV: Ch. 28
Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)