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Big Ten Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Northwestern vs. Ohio State

Big Ten Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Northwestern vs. Ohio State

Big Ten Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Northwestern vs. Ohio State

The Big Ten Championship Game this week in Indianapolis will have a bit of a David vs. Goliath feel as Northwestern makes its conference championship debut against Ohio State. The Buckeyes not only make their second straight appearance after winning the championship last season, but Ohio State is also making the trip to Indianapolis for the fourth time in the eight-year history of the Big Ten's title game.

The big-game atmosphere will be nothing new for Ohio State, a program that under Urban Meyer has become accustomed to playing on a big stage with high stakes. Ohio State is looking to make a loud statement to follow up its demolition of Michigan last weekend, as a spot in the College Football Playoff could potentially be up for grabs on championship weekend. Ohio State and Oklahoma, in the Big 12 Championship Game, will both be in need of impressive performances this weekend with the College Football Playoff selection committee watching closely. The Big Ten champion has missed out on the playoff each of the past two seasons, but those teams each had two losses. Ohio State could write a different script this weekend.

Northwestern may be a surprise entrant out of the Big Ten West Division, but Pat Fitzgerald and his Wildcats have always been a bit of a wild card in the division. Northwestern took care of its conference schedule with key wins over Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue to help pave a path to the first Big Ten Championship Game appearance for the Wildcats. But these Wildcats won’t just be content to be here. They bring a gritty style of defense that will look to make things difficult for Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes' offense. After witnessing what Ohio State was capable of doing against Michigan, the Wildcats will have plenty of work to do in planning for this game.

Big Ten Championship Game: Northwestern vs. Ohio State

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. ET

Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)

TV: FOX

Spread: Ohio State -14.0

Three Things to Watch

1. QB matchup: Dwayne Haskins vs. Clayton Thorson

Haskins has been having himself a record-setting season for the Buckeyes. Last weekend against Michigan, Haskins set a new Big Ten single-season record for the most touchdown passes, eclipsing the one and only Drew Brees in the process. Haskins enters the week with 42 TDs to just seven interceptions, and he is the only quarterback averaging more than 300 passing yards per game with 340.1.

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Haskins should be able to be productive this weekend as well, because Northwestern is 11th in the Big Ten in passing defense. If it feels like a clear advantage, that is because it probably is. Northwestern’s Thorson is much more hit-or-miss, with 14 touchdown passes to 12 interceptions thrown. In Northwestern’s toughest games, Thorson has been prone to giving the ball away through the air, but he is capable of airing it out when asked to do so.

If Thorson is going to be a factor, he has to lead Northwestern down the field in the first half, because the Buckeyes are much better against the pass after halftime this season. Opposing quarterbacks have a rating 30 points lower in the second half of games against Ohio State (108.24) compared to the first half (138.08). Thorson’s efficiency has taken a slide after halftime this season as well, with eight second-half interceptions to four thrown in the first half.

2. Can Northwestern make plays against the Buckeyes' defense?

Ohio State does have some issues on defense that have been well documented over the past month, from games against Purdue and Nebraska through a road game at Maryland. The defense firmed up against Michigan State and did a good job against Michigan in the regular-season finale despite the Wolverines racking up 401 yards and 39 points in a game that was lopsided in Ohio State’s favor.

Northwestern isn’t going to win this game on talent, so the Wildcats must find cracks in the Ohio State defense and capitalize on any opportunities to make some big plays happen. Ohio State has allowed plenty of plays for big yardage this season, but Northwestern is one of the least explosive offensive teams in the Big Ten with just 26 plays of at least 20 yards this season.

Northwestern will feed freshman running back Isaiah Bowser on the ground, but players like Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek will have to make some plays after the catch.

3. Ohio State freshman receiver Chris Olave a new big weapon?

As if Ohio State didn’t already have a strong assortment of chess pieces to work with this weekend with Haskins, J.K. Dobbins, Mike Weber, Dre’Mont Jones, Parris Campbell and so on. Last week, Olave, a freshman wide receiver, announced himself to the world in his fifth career game by scoring two touchdowns against Michigan and blocking a punt that was returned for another score. Ohio State’s talent is as deep as it gets in the Big Ten, and Olave gives Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern's coaching staff one more player to try to prepare for this week.

Final Analysis

Ohio State cannot get caught up in what the playoff situation looks like this week. None of that will matter if the Buckeyes slip up against Northwestern. But hours before Ohio State takes the field to warm up, it will know the outcome of the Big 12 Championship Game and will know what it has to do to one-up Oklahoma in one last display for the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. The talent is there for Ohio State to walk away with a win this weekend, but Northwestern will not go quietly. As pesky as Northwestern can be, Ohio State is ready to make one final statement at the expense of the Wildcats. Ohio State wins this one in a big way. Will it be big enough is the question left to answer.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State

Prediction: Ohio State 49, Northwestern 17

— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.