Breaking down the Big Ten championship game: Where does Northwestern have an edge? What are Ohio State’s advantages?

Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune

The 2020 Big Ten season has been complicated — from cancellations to debates about which teams should be playing in the championship game.

It culminates Saturday in Indianapolis, where No. 14 Northwestern (6-1) will be trying to win its first Big Ten title game. No. 4 Ohio State (5-0) will be going for a fourth straight.

The Wildcats haven’t beaten the Buckeyes since 2004, and Ohio State is a heavy favorite. But in 2020 anything can happen.

Here will be key factors in the Big Ten championship game.


Justin Fields vs. Northwestern’s defense

Northwestern has not faced a quarterback as dynamic as Justin Fields. Ohio State’s leader has not faced a defense as stout as Northwestern’s.

This could be the crux of the game.

The Wildcats are solid from their front seven to their linebackers and secondary. They own the No. 2 scoring defense in college football, allowing just 14.6 points per game, and give up only 122 rushing yards per game. Opponents have converted only 30.9% of third downs.

With a dominant linebacker corps of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin, only one player — Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez — has rushed for 100 years against them. And a stick-like-glue secondary has helped prevent every quarterback but one — Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell — from passing for more than 250 yards.

The Wildcats will need to play nearly flawlessly and continue their magnetism for turnovers (12 interceptions and four fumble recoveries).

Of course, Ohio State makes few mistakes. Fields has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.

Fields has completed 78.1% of passes for 1,407 yards, connecting with the Big Ten’s top-two receivers in Garrett Wilson (572 yards, five touchdowns) and Chris Olave (528 yards, five touchdowns). He rushed for 104 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries against Michigan State.

Indiana was able to hassle Fields with blitzing, but that’s not the Wildcats’ style. Northwestern will try to limit Ohio State’s big-play capacity.


Peyton Ramsey vs. Ohio State’s secondary

Last season, Northwestern ranked near the bottom of FBS in offense. With new quarterback Peyton Ramsey, an Indiana transfer, and new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, hired from Boston College, the Wildcats offense took major strides.

Northwestern’s offense isn’t going to display fireworks against the Buckeyes but the task will be to play mistake-free and do enough to manage the game.

Ramsey has completed 59% of passes for 1,218 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions this season.

His best game came in a three-touchdown, 212-passing yard performance against Purdue. His worst came in the loss to Michigan State with two interceptions, no touchdown passes, four sacks and a 48% completion rate.

Ohio State’s one slight weakness might be the secondary’s inconsistency. The Buckeyes give up 268.8 yards through the air and they’ve nabbed just four picks this season.


Northwestern’s run game vs. Ohio State’s defense

The Wildcats run game was too quiet at times this season. Then they played Illinois in the regular-season finale and churned out 411 yards. Will that provide a spark?

They won’t put up those numbers against Ohio State. The Buckeyes give up only 95 rushing yards per game and have allowed just five rushing touchdowns this season.

But if Northwestern’s offense is a two-dimensional threat, it can keep the Buckeyes on their toes.

After limited touches in previous games, freshmen Cam Porter and Evan Hull each produced more than 140 yards and totaled three touchdowns.

Drake Anderson leads Northwestern with 256 yards on 62 carries, while Isaiah Bowser provided 229 yards on 77 carries.

But Ohio State hasn’t let anyone run on them.

Indiana, who gave Ohio State the most fits this season, finished the game with minus-one yard. No running back has gained more than Rutgers’ Isaih Pacheco’s 68 yards.


Ohio State’s motivation vs. Northwestern’s motivation

The Wildcats want to prove they belong among the Big Ten elite. They haven’t beaten Ohio State since 2004 and lost to the Buckeyes in the 2018 conference championship game.

A victory would be their most significant in program history.

This is a sendoff for defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who is retiring after 51 years in college football and has been with the Wildcats since 2008. If the Wildcats win, it will be his 400th career victory.

Northwestern will also want to leave athletic director Jim Phillips a parting gift. Phillips, who has also served at NU since 2008, recently accepted a position as the ACC commissioner.

Ohio State has more on the line: a spot in the College Football Playoff.

With only five games because of COVID-19 cancellations, the Buckeyes need a victory to ensure their spot.