Football: Northwestern fades late after comeback attempt, falls to Ohio State 45-24 in Big Ten Championship


Allie Goulding/Daily Senior Staffer

Clayton Thorson surveys the field after Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game. Thorson and the Wildcats fell to Ohio State.

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


INDIANAPOLIS — The purple beach was pushing back, repelling the red tide that had overrun its protections and shellacked its defenses, reclaiming its sand inch by inch on the night destined to determine the Big Ten title.

But then the tsunami came — a perfect storm of rampant injuries in the defensive backfield and a strong, mobile, locked-in Dwayne Haskins — and Northwestern’s hopes of creating a final plot twist in this most unpredictable of seasons quickly washed away.

Behind 499 passing yards from Haskins, three turnovers by the Wildcats’ offense and a strong closing stretch that overwhelmed NU’s stirring third-quarter push, No. 6 Ohio State (12-1, 8-1 Big Ten) prevailed 45-24 over the upset-seeking No. 21 Cats (8-5, 8-1) in the Big Ten Championship game Saturday night.

“They earned it,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They obviously made a bunch of explosive plays, and we knew we had to limit that. I thought we did a pretty good job of that for the most part, and then a couple plays got away from us. With that type of talent and then when they execute the way they did, we’ve got to be flawless and obviously we weren’t.”

Other than an out-of-nowhere 77-yard rushing touchdown by junior running back John Moten, the Buckeyes dominated the first half in as-expected fashion on both sides of the ball and took a commanding 24-7 lead into halftime.

During the break, however, Fitzgerald said he and the offensive coaches and players had a discussion about scheme changes and play-calling for the second half’s opening drive that lasted quite a while, and the result was a rejuvenated Cats squad. Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson scrambled for an 18-yard touchdown on that opening drive, then found a wide-open Cam Green in a goal-line pass on the next possession to cut the deficit to 24-21 and awaken a fired-up contingent of fans who had travelled from Evanston earlier in the day.

But Haskins nearly singlehandedly restored Ohio State’s mojo by throwing a 29-yard dart to Chris Olave for a touchdown late in the third quarter. Later, he found Johnnie Dixon (seven catches for 129 yards) for another score with nine minutes remaining, answering an NU field goal and extending the lead to double digits for good.

Fitzgerald singled out the Haskins-to-Olave score as the game’s turning point, and sophomore safety Travis Whillock — playing big minutes in a health-starved secondary that got little out of senior safety Jared McGee, plus saw cornerbacks Montre Hartage and Cameron Ruiz depart with injuries — took the blame for the missed coverage.

“Especially coming out of halftime, I thought the guys were ready to go and we were really focused fighting those momentum swings,” Whillock said. “(But) we had a couple miscommunication breakdowns. On that long post, I didn’t get in the post and that’s on me.”

The purple defensive line thrice sacked Haskins and often penetrated an Ohio State front that completely stonewalled No. 7 Michigan last week, but to little avail.

“We did make him have to move his feet, but credit to him, he did make throws when he had to,” end Joe Gaziano said, summing up the conundrum well. The gunslinger completed an absurd 34 of his 41 attempts, helping his team rack up a just-as-plentiful 607 total yards and 31 first downs (versus 418 yards and 21 first downs for the Cats).

Thorson spread his love around, completing passes to 12 different targets, but his performance — 27-for-44 for 267 yards and two interceptions — hardly compared to Haskins’ rampage. He was the last NU player off the field, trotting backwards towards the tunnel while watching confetti fall and Ohio State celebrate.

“That’s something we’ve worked for a long time, so just wanted to take it all in,” the quarterback said. “There’s only so many times where you can be in trophy games like that.”

A literal beach still awaits the Cats in a few weeks; a bowl destination in either Florida or California is expected to be announced Sunday. And while the red sea ultimately prevailed by a decisive-looking score Saturday, NU’s pride suffered little erosion from the valiant title-game effort.

“We got asked a little bit this week, ‘How are you guys going to avoid just being happy to be here?’ I think we proved that weren’t just happy to be here,” Fitzgerald said. “We were right there, put ourselves in position to win, and then our self-inflicted wounds with them making plays (proved to be) a lethal combination.”

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