Football: Talented secondary to face toughest test against Justin Fields, Ohio State


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Brandon Joseph sprints towards the ball. The redshirt freshman safety and Northwestern’s defensive backs face a talented Ohio State offense this weekend.

Drew Schott, Assistant Sports Editor


Before the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game, Northwestern’s secondary had fared well against conference opponents.

The Wildcats allowed an average of 226 yards per game from opposing quarterbacks, while the defensive backs snagged five interceptions during the regular season.

However, injuries plagued the unit throughout the campaign, including the days before the conference title game. Heading into a matchup with Ohio State, senior cornerback Montre Hartage had missed two straight games, while fellow cornerback Trae Williams sat out three straight.

Dec. 1, 2018 was not a good night for NU’s secondary. Starters Hartage and Cameron Ruiz departed with injuries in the second half, while Buckeyes quarterback Dwayne Haskins played the best game of his career.

In Ohio State’s 45-24 win, Haskins earned Most Valuable Player honors after throwing for 499 yards and five touchdowns on 34 completions.

“We had a really good plan to make (Haskins) have to move. We just weren’t able to make that next play to get us over the hump to make it a tie game,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “He’s a guy that I would vote for the Heisman, and obviously he played outstanding today.”

Two years later, the Cats are once again meeting the Buckeyes at Lucas Oil Stadium with a Big Ten title on the line. And once again, No. 4 Ohio State has a phenomenal, albeit different, quarterback. Justin Fields is one of the nation’s top dual-threat signal-callers, with 1,407 passing yards, 239 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns.

But unlike 2018, No. 14 NU brings a fully healthy and confident secondary to the shores of the White River.

The Cats’ defensive backs — headlined by First Team All-Big Ten selections redshirt freshman safety Brandon Joseph and junior cornerback Greg Newsome — lead the conference’s second-best passing defense. Across seven games, the defense has allowed an average of only 192 yards through the air and nabbed 12 interceptions, nine of which were grabbed by defensive backs.

“We’re a close-knit group,” Newsome II said. “Although it’s only four or five of us on the field, we’re always playing for each other. We are a brotherhood.”

Before the season, doubts persisted about the secondary after the unit gave up 200 or more receiving yards eight times in 2019 and senior starter Travis Whillock opted out.

But in the Cats’ season-opening win against Maryland, the secondary silenced all concerns by picking off three passes and combining for 23 tackles. The game wasn’t an anomaly, instead the start of a great campaign for the secondary.

Joseph, who finished the regular season with five interceptions — tied for the most in college football — and 44 tackles, earned the Big Ten’s Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year award. Meanwhile, Newsome led the conference with ten passes defended and recorded his first career interception.

Additionally, senior JR Pace notched his second All-Big Ten Honorable Mention by racking up 28 tackles and snagging one pick.

Joseph credited Newsome and Pace for creating a defensive back room in which players can feed off each other’s success.

“I’m not doing it on my own,” Joseph said. “I’ve got older dudes that I look up to and that I play for every single time I’m out there.”

NU’s secondary has a chance to stake its claim as one of the best in the country Saturday against one of the nation’s top passing offenses.

Fields leads the Buckeyes into the Big Ten Championship Game as the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year and Quarterback of the Year, with two of the conference’s premier receivers in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.

Each wideout has five touchdowns and more than 500 yards this season. They are a key part of an aerial attack that averages 281.4 yards per game, the second-highest mark in the Big Ten.

Tasked with slowing Olave and Wilson will likely be Newsome and sophomore cornerback A.J. Hampton, who started last week after Ruiz was benched for allowing two early touchdowns against Michigan State.

Joseph added that the secondary will have to focus on stopping opportunities for Fields to run the ball and turn broken plays into game changing moments.

Newsome II knows that the defensive backs need to play their best game of the season Saturday. It could make the difference between going home empty-handed and winning a Big Ten title for the first time in 20 years.

“We just got to play our base techniques and do what we can do to stop them,” Newsome said. “We just got to do what we do. Play sound football and we’ll be alright.”

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Twitter: @dschott328

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