Football: A tale of two halves for Northwestern offense, which dropped the ball late


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

John Raine makes a move after catching a pass. The graduate transfer tight end caught four passes for 35 yards.

Greg Svirnovskiy, Senior Staffer


In the run up to No. 14 Northwestern’s date against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, Pat Fitzgerald knew one of the keys for the Wildcats was surviving the early onslaught. The No. 4 Buckeyes start quickly. They hit pay dirt on the first drive in each of their five games this season.

But on Saturday, the fast start belonged to NU.

With four minutes remaining in the first quarter and down by three points against the Buckeyes, graduate quarterback Peyton Ramsey and his offense were staring at their first third down situation of the game. Converting it would be key to holding back Ohio State.

After taking the snap, Ramsey tucked the ball and ran through a hole in the interior of the Buckeyes defensive line. He sprinted past the line of scrimmage, from the top of the Indianapolis Colts helmet in center field to deep red zone territory. A 34-yard burst that turned a potentially stagnating offensive drive into something different.

“I thought the O-line did a really good job,” Ramsey said. “A critical third and short there on the first drive that we were able to convert and then just kind of got loose got back and got loose there.”

Against Ohio State, the importance of a big play cannot be understated. The Buckeyes haven’t allowed a touchdown on drives without a play of twenty yards or more all season. Ramsey’s run preceded freshman running back Cam Porter’s nine-yard score a play later, giving the Cats a 7-3 advantage to take into the second quarter and overall lead into the third.

Ramsey’s run was a symbol of NU’s opportunistic and fast-paced first-half offense. Between the two drives that resulted in the Cats touchdown and a second quarter field goal, NU’s offense was on the field for just under eight minutes of play combined. That’s how long it took the Buckeyes to come up with their field goal in the game’s first drive.

“When we were getting a couple first downs we just wanted to keep the ball moving,” Ramsey said. “We didn’t want to change personnel too much. It was a point of emphasis for us coming in that we wanted to try to wear them down a little bit, to tempo them a little bit. It starts with us, getting those first downs, getting that big first down so that we can have the ability to tempo them.

Ramsey looked great in the first half, outplaying Ohio State’s Justin Fields and finishing 12-for-14 with 90 passing yards and 27 rushing yards — good for a quarterback rating of 139.7. Northwestern walked into the locker room up by four points.

Early in the third quarter, it looked like the offense was carrying that momentum forward. Ramsey led the offense on a ten-play, 66 yard drive deep into the red zone in just under four minutes of play. The stage was set for the Cats to take an 11-point lead.

Instead, Ramsey threw an interception in the endzone.

“I got a matchup I wanted on that interception to John,” Ramsey said. “John matched up on the linebacker. I would throw it again if I had that opportunity but just gotta put it in a better location. Just gotta be better all around.”

NU’s offense was a tale of two halves: one in which it took advantage of its opportunities and another where Ohio State’s defense was making the Cats pay for their mistakes. Ramsey would throw another interception in the third quarter and lose the ball on a fumble in the fourth. NU’s three other drives in the second half ended in two punts and a turnover on downs. After a season spent shutting down opposing offenses in the second half, the Cats got a taste of their own medicine.

“We didn’t see anything tonight that we didn’t prepare for,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think it was a schematic issue. I think it was a fundamental technique, gap fit, tackling, strain to finish blocks, being a block away, turnovers, opportunities to score when we’re across the fifty, third-down conversions that we didn’t get off the field early defensively. So there’s plenty of opportunity to improve.”

Ramsey completed 12 of 23 passes in the second half for 124 yards, but the two interceptions lowered his overall quarterback rating to a lowly 62.6. Freshman wide receiver Bryce Kirtz didn’t catch a pass in the second half, while senior wideout Kyrick McGowan caught two for just 12-yards.

Much of that came as a result of the Ohio State defense, which was finally able to build consistent pressure in the second half. After barely breaking a sweat in the first half, Ramsey was sacked twice in the second. The Buckeyes finished the game with nine tackles for loss.

“They did a good job,” Fitzgerald said of the Ohio State defense. “They were able to get some rush when we got down. We were able to move the ball pretty well. I thought [Ramsey] played outstanding. There’s probably a few plays that he’d like to have back but there’s a couple calls I’d love to have back too.”

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Twitter: @gsvirnovskiy