The Big Ten Championship Game matchup between Northwestern and Ohio State is one of the most intriguing of championship weekend. The 21st-ranked Wildcats (8-4, 8-1 Big Ten) will look to make history in Indianapolis when they take on the sixth-ranked Buckeyes (11-1, 8-1).
Northwestern is not only making its first appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game since its introduction in 2011, the school also is looking for its first outright conference title since 1995 (claimed a share in 1996 and 2000). Meanwhile Ohio State can make it back-to-back Big Ten titles and three in the last five years with a victory in Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Wildcats' season started the season in rare fashion with a conference road game at Purdue, which they won, then had back-to-back home losses to non-conference opponents Duke and Akron. Northwestern then dropped to 1-3 with a three-point loss in Evanston to Michigan after its bye week. But Pat Fitzgerald's team turned things around big time starting in October, as the Wildcats went on to win their seven remaining Big Ten games. The only loss over the final two months of the regular season was a 31-21 defeat at home to Notre Dame, who is headed to the College Football Playoff.
During Northwestern's two-month surge, the Wildcats upset then-No. 20 Michigan State on the road, took down then-No. 20 Wisconsin at home, and clinched the Big Ten West by beating then-No. 21 Iowa in Kinnick Stadium. Ohio State obviously will present a different kind of challenge for Northwestern, but these Wildcats have already pulled off a few upsets, what's one more?
The Buckeyes have won the past two meetings by a combined total of 14 points and Fitzgerald is 0-5 lifetime against Ohio State. But if there's any season for Northwestern to make a splash, it's this one, right?
5 Reasons Why Northwestern Will Win the Big Ten Championship Game
1. Concerns about Ohio State's defense
While the Buckeyes did win five of the final six games, the defense gave up 176 points and 2,199 yards along the way. Purdue put up 49 in its 29-point thrashing of Ohio State back on Oct. 20 and that was followed by a five-point escape at home against Nebraska. The Buckeyes held Michigan State to just six points but Maryland hung 51 on them a week later in a game OSU survived because the Terrapins failed on a two-point conversion that would have won the game. And while the Buckeyes were dominant against Michigan last Saturday, the Wolverines still scored 39 points, 20 of those coming in the fourth quarter.
Northwestern isn't an offensive powerhouse, but the Wildcats have scored 21 or more points in eight of their 12 games and are 6-2 in those contests. They've caught defenses napping at times and will do the same if the opportunity presents itself against Ohio State.
2. Northwestern’s defense has impressed in the last few weeks
Northwestern went 5-1 in its final six games thanks in large part to its defense. In that span, the Wildcats held teams to an average of 14.4 points per game in their five wins. Some highlights during this stretch include limiting Rutgers to just a field goal in the second half, keeping Wisconsin scoreless in the third quarter and forcing the Badgers into three turnovers for the game, keeping Iowa off the scoreboard in both the first and fourth quarters in the Big Ten West-clinching victory, forcing three turnovers in a win over Minnesota; and limiting Illinois, one of the most productive running offenses in the country, to just 154 yards (and no TDs) on the ground last Saturday. Even in the loss to Notre Dame, Northwestern limited the Fighting Irish to just a touchdown in the first half as the game was tied 7-7 at the half.
The Wildcats have held their own defensively even though they don't rank very high in the Big Ten when it comes to areas like sacks (17, 13th) or takeaways (18, 11th). Instead, Northwestern has done a good job limiting the damage opponents do on thes scoreboard, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (21.7 ppg).
Northwestern's defense is led by end Joe Gaziano, linebackers Nate Hall, Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, as well as defensive backs J.R. Pace and Montre Hartage. Each of these players was named All-Big Ten earlier this week by either the coaches and/or media.
3. Northwestern’s outstanding run against Big Ten opponents
Since 2015 the Wildcats have posted an impressive 26-9 record against conference foes. That’s better than Penn State (25-10), Michigan State (20-15), and Iowa (23-12) in that same span. That includes a 7-4 mark against the Big Ten East, and they’ve outscored Big Ten opposition 884-722 in that time frame. During this stretch NU has also had some solid winning streaks. The Wildcats won their final seven conference games both this year and last year, had a three-game streak during the middle of the 2016 campaign, and they wrapped up '15 with five straight Big Ten victories. When the Cats are hot they can compete with anybody.
4. Running back Isaiah Bowser
The Wildcats' freshman is surely looking forward to taking the field on Saturday night. That’s because he hopes to be the next player to hit the century mark against the Buckeyes this season. Six players have put up more than 100 rushing yards against Ohio State this year, one of them being Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who went for 175 on 25 carries (7.0 ypc). Other 100-yard rushers include Oregon State's Artavis Pierce (168 yards and two TDs on 11 carries), TCU's Darius Anderson (154 yards highlighted by a 93-yard TD run), Minnesota's Mohamed Ibrahim (157 and the Gophers' only two touchdowns), and Purdue's D.J. Knox (128 and three scores, including two that covered at least 40 yards.
But the most damage was done by Maryland freshman Anthony McFarland, who gashed the Buckeyes for 298 yards on 21 carries or a ridiculous average of 14.2 yards per carry. McFarland also had touchdowns run of 81 and 75 yards in the first quarter as the Terrapins twice built 14-point leads only to see Ohio State answer and eventually escape in overtime following a failed two-point conversion.
Not surprisingly, the Buckeyes are ranked 62nd in the country against the run (161.3 ypg) while Bowser has put together five 100-yard games since becoming the starting running back in October. Will Bowser be the next to have success against OSU's defense? Northwestern needs to him to gain plenty of ground if it wants to pull off the upset.
5. It’s Clayton Thorson’s time to shine
If there is one player that has defined the heart and soul of Wildcats football in the Pat Fitzgerald era, it’s Thorson. After splitting time with other quarterbacks during his freshman year in 2015, Thorson won the starting job coming out of camp in '16 and has turned himself into arguably the most successful signal-caller in program history.
Thorson is the school's all-time leader in pass attempts (1,623), completions (943) and touchdowns (58). He's second in passing yards (10,223) and second among NU quarterback with 26 rushing touchdowns. He tore his ACL in the final game of the 2017 season, and worked hard in the offseason to make it back for his senior year. Now NFL scouts are looking at him as a potential prospect for next year's draft.
Even with all of his statistical achievements, the one thing that would set him apart from the majority of the quarterbacks in the history of the program is a conference championship. He’d be just the third Wildcat starting quarterback to win one (Steve Schnur and Zac Kustok), and it would just add to what has already been an unforgettable season. These Wildcats have embraced the underdog label all season so there's no reason to expect anything different when they take on Ohio State on Saturday night.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.