It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t pretty, but the Ohio State Buckeyes secured their fourth-consecutive Big Ten Championship. With another undefeated season and B1G Title under their belt, it only makes sense that the Ohio State CFP reunion is in order.
Only twice before in its history did the Buckeyes win four-straight B1G titles (’72-’75, ’05-’09). When the program announced they would be without 24 players, many expected certain young players to step up. This was not the case, though the ones who did step up were veteran leaders persevering through adversity.
Ohio State CFP Ticket Punched? Buckeyes Run Past Wildcats, 22-10
Sermon Preachin’ to ‘Em
Leading up to this game, grad transfer from Oklahoma, Trey Sermon, had only amassed 344 rushing yards and one touchdown. Today, he went off for 331 rushing yards and two touchdowns off of 29 attempts. He broke the 25-year-old single-game record held by the great Eddie George (329 yards, two touchdowns, 36 rushes).
To start the game, Master Teague was the back. Something changed in that first series because head coach Ryan Day made the switch to Sermon and never looked back. He played nearly every offensive, only to be spelled by true freshman Miyan Williams.
It seemed like Sermon could do no wrong in this game and he played inspired. The potential Ohio State CFP matchup will likely feature plenty of Sermon. With the way the offensive line got leverage and man-handled the Northwestern front on run plays, it’s easy to see why.
Buckeyes are your Big Ten champs ️🏆
Ohio State takes down Northwestern, 22-10
Trey Sermon: 29 carries for 331 yards, 2 TDs pic.twitter.com/eECiYTnamI
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 19, 2020
A little over an hour before kickoff, Ohio State announced they would be without 24 players. Those included starters like leading receiver Chris Olave, linebacker Baron Browning, safety Marcus Hooker (non-COVID related), and punter Drue Chrisman.
It may not seem like much, but their absence was felt. Freshman Jaxon Smith-Njigba would likely have been the one to step up in Olave’s spot, but he was also inactive. That left a spot for freshman Julian Fleming.
Fleming got off to a good start, catching four passes for 53 yards, but it was obvious that those plays were designed for Olave. Usually, the first 10-15 plays in the game are scripted and they each featured a way to get this receiver open. Fleming and Garrett Wilson looked good when the ball found them. Justin Fields just had a bad day.
Stepping up in Browning’s spot was grayshirt-senior Justin Hilliard. You read that right, he’s a sixth year. He played out of his mind and was all over the field. Nine tackles, two for loss, and a crucial interception in the end zone capped off a career day. When adversity strikes, it’s usually a good bet to go with a guy that has been in the program for six years.
It Was Not Fields’ Day
The Heisman Trophy candidate and potential top two NFL draft pick did not have a good day. He finished with a line of 12 for 27, 114 passing yards, two interceptions, and no touchdowns. Northwestern had his number all day and hats off to their defense.
The Wildcats were able to disguise their pressures to confuse Fields. He was brought down for three sacks, courtesy of Fields’ tendency to hold onto the ball. The defensive line was getting push early and the Buckeye offensive line looked mighty rusty.
It also didn’t help that Fields was not accurate at all. He sailed his passes numerous times even before he seemed to sprain his thumb. If not for a couple of Herculean catches by Wilson, Fields wouldn’t have crossed 100 yards. Bad games happen, every quarterback has them. If you’re an NFL scout, you likely feel better about Fields because now you know his issues. Between the Indiana game and this one, all of Fields’ issues with holding the ball too long were put on tape.
If the Ohio State CFP experience is to be prolonged, Fields will have to get better and heal from that injured thumb. He’s usually great against good competition. Even his interceptions against Clemson in last year’s CFP matchup were either great plays by the defensive back or miscommunication in the end zone.
Great Halftime Adjustments
Heading into the locker room, fresh off of a monster one-handed interception by Brandon Joseph in the enzone, Ohio State was down 10-6. They were having a rough time on offense and Northwestern was feeling themselves.
Sermon was averaging 8.6 yards per carry, so the natural decision would be to feed him in the second half. At the break, Sermon had 60 yards off of seven carries. He went off for 271 yards and two touchdowns off of 22 carries in the second half. That was good to bring his total average to 11.4. Unreal.
The defense bent and bent and bent, but only broke once. It seemed that Peyton Ramsey had plenty of time to throw and could not miss. He went into the locker room 12 for 14 for 90 yards, but also added 27 yards on the ground. The Buckeyes got pressure on him in the second half and the front seven stepped up.
The secondary was an issue and will likely get carved up by whatever team the Buckeyes draw. Josh Proctor stepped up to replace Hooker and finished with a crucial interception and nearly had another, which would have resulted in a pick-six. Ramsey picked on Shaun Wade all day when they played softer, so defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs will need to figure out how to prevent giving up third-down conversions.
Ultimately, the team vastly improved. Ohio State outscored Northwestern 16-0 and outgained them 318 to 162 in the second half. Honestly, only at Ohio State does a team hold their Conference Championship opponent to ten points and outgain them overall 513-329 and people nit-pick. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t ideal. But it was a good win.
Who’s Got Next?
Considering the CFP committee has ranked Ohio State in the top four all season, they would be hard-pressed to drop them after an undefeated, conference championship season. Sure, they only played six games. But can you blame the team for the conference’s ineptitude? The B1G left no room or flexibility. Two of the three COVID-related cancellations were due to concerns at the opposing school.
As it stands, Ohio State is in. Their most likely CFP opponent will be the ACC Champion between Notre Dame and Clemson. If Alabama takes care of business, the rankings will probably be 1) Alabama, 2) ACC Champ, 3) Ohio State, 4) ACC loser. Whether it’s the Fighting Irish or Tigers, the Buckeyes will have their work cut out for them.