Three keys for Ohio State football's Big Ten championship game matchup with Northwestern

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

Rust issues

The past month has been filled with gaps in Ohio State’s schedule. Three of its previous five games were canceled — twice following outbreaks of coronavirus cases among opposing teams and once due to its own rising case numbers. The unexpected interruptions have left players with diminished game experience and repetitions, whereas Northwestern has seen only one game impacted because of the virus. If there’s any rust or sluggishness on OSU’s part, it will be paramount to shake it off against a well-coached team.

Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph (16) heads upfield after intercepting a pass against Wisconsin on Nov. 21.

Pass defense trend

After allowing the fourth-most passing yards in a game in school history last month against Indiana, the Buckeyes bounced back in their most recent game. But Michigan State was not much of a barometer for improvement from their secondary, and Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey could reopen some of those old wounds. A graduate transfer from Indiana, he is an effective game manager and no stranger to facing the Buckeyes. Ramsey started against them in the previous two seasons while quarterbacking for the Hoosiers.

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Ground game

The Buckeyes’ rushing attack appears to have sorted out its kinks in recent games. Master Teague III ran for a career-high 169 yards against Indiana. Trey Sermon had 112 rushing yards at Michigan State, the most since he transferred to Ohio State. If they can maintain their recent levels of performance, it would keep their offense on schedule and ease the burden on a passing attack that is matched up against a secondary that leads the nation in pass efficiency defense.

Key matchup

Ohio State pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense

The bread and butter for the Wildcats is their pass defense, which had two playmaking defensive backs, Brandon Joseph and Greg Newsome II, selected to the all-Big Ten first team this week. Joseph is a rangy safety with five interceptions in seven games, and Newsome is a cornerback who doesn’t give up much in coverage, breaking up nine passes. Both lead the conference in those categories. Their ball skills could test Buckeyes star quarterback Justin Fields, who has been as efficient as he was last season when he was a Heisman Trophy finalist, but is only one game removed from his first-ever three-interception performance.

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Key stat

Ohio State's 20½-point spread over Northwestern is the largest betting line for the Big Ten championship game since it was formed in 2011.

By Joey Kaufman

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman