Bottom Line for OSU-Northwestern: It's how you finish that counts

Ray Stein
Buckeye Xtra

Ohio State was decidedly naughty, not nice, throughout much of the Big Ten championship game. So the idea of a fleet of brand-new Lexus sedans with giant red bows on top definitely is off the table. (Who does that, anyway?) But what the Buckeyes really wanted for Christmas was to see their name on Santa’s playoff board. Done! Leaves are awarded on a zero-to-five basis. — Ray Stein 

Offense (4 leaves) 

The Buckeye faithful among the congregation were getting noticeably antsy as Justin Fields sang one tune while his ragtag band of receivers played another. It took a powerful Sermon to get everyone on the same page, and soon OSU and its fans were shouting Hallelujah. Game ball to Trey Sermon, of course, but his stable of blockers, including tight ends, were jaw-droppingly effective.

Defense (4 leaves) 

Things looked uglier than a two-sizes-too-small homemade Christmas sweater for OSU when the defense allowed Northwestern to breeze to a touchdown on its first possession. But the Buckeyes threw down the road spikes, and the Wildcats came up flat on their final eight drives. Emergency starter Justin Hilliard took bows for a pick and a fumble recovery, but the whole unit got the message.

Ohio State reserve offensive lineman Dawand Jones takes off with the Big Ten championship trophy.

Special teams (4 leaves) 

Blake Haubeil’s hooked field-goal try in the third quarter was the only lump of coal, and there were plenty of other treats in the stocking to make the miss forgettable. Haubeil made two field goals and sent kickoffs deep, but Zach Hoover earned extra gumdrops for his sterling work in place of COVID-canceled Drue Chrisman. Hoover averaged 39.3 yards and had two beauties downed inside the 10.

Coaching (3 leaves) 

Kudos to whoever it was – players, assistants, the Ghost of Playoff Future – who persuaded Ryan Day to shelve the rickety passing game at halftime in favor of a sturdier, clearly more dependable ground attack. Persuading took a while, though, and was beginning to smell like the very definition of insanity. The Buckeyes were way too cute for their own good in the first half.

Fun (3 leaves) 

While fires raged on Twitter among Buckeye Nation whether Day should be fired, or Fields benched, or why the playoff committee should pick anyone but Ohio State, the undermanned Buckeyes played a patient game against a crafty opponent. It won’t make any best-of-2020 lists, but that’s already a crazy low bar. And how about that field? Go Indianapolis Colts! 

Opponent (3 leaves) 

It always looks like a mismatch when a team with four- and five-star players meets one with two- and three-star talent. But no one gets more out of his team than Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern, and that helps explain how the Wildcats held the lead for more than 30 minutes. But when the Buckeyes cranked up the physical running game, those ‘Cats were suddenly pretty tame.

Officiating (3 leaves) 

Referee Mark Kluczynski’s crew largely kept their laundry to themselves, which can be expected from Northwestern. The only real complaint here is the personal-foul call on Jonathon Cooper for a horse-collar tackle, the problem being that Coop pulled down Northwestern QB Peyton Ramsey by the shoulder, and no one wears a collar around their shoulder. 

rstein@dispatch.com