Football: Even in loss, Northwestern defense manages to slow Justin Fields and OSU passing game

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Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern

Earnest Brown pulls down Justin Fields. The Northwestern defense held Ohio State’s quarterback to a career-low 114 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Ella Brockway, Gameday Editor


Football


The last time Northwestern faced an Ohio State quarterback in the Big Ten Championship Game, that quarterback threw for a mind-boggling, record-setting 499 yards and five touchdowns in the air. The last time the Wildcats faced a Buckeyes quarterback in a regular season setting, he completed 78.3 percent of his passes and found the end zone four times.

The end results of those games in 2018 and 2019 weren’t different than the matchup between NU and Ohio State in this year’s Big Ten Championship Game — the Cats have dropped each of those three, and still remain in search of their first win over the Buckeyes since 2005.

But there was one main difference this time around: Even as NU struggled to stop the Trey Sermon-powered run game, it managed to slow that same Buckeyes’ signal-caller that shredded them just last season.

The Cats held junior quarterback and likely Heisman candidate Justin Fields to just 114 passing yards and zero touchdowns in the air on Saturday afternoon, the lowest of his Ohio State career and his first game without a throwing touchdown since his days as a backup at Georgia.

“Justin’s not a good player, he’s a great player. He’s a Top 10 pick for a reason,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I just think that we were able to get some pressure early, we tipped some balls, we had good coverage concepts, our guys competed.”

NU managed to sack Fields three times for a total loss of 29 yards, and its secondary — that operated without star cornerback Greg Newsome, who exited with an injury in the second quarter — picked him off twice. Redshirt freshman safety Brandon Joseph’s stellar, one-handed interception to end the first half was just the seventh pick of Fields’ career, and his first in the end zone since the 2019 national semifinal against Clemson.

“I just saw the ball and was able to go get it,” Joseph said. “Making plays (is) something that we expect in our secondary, so this is the standard that is set for this secondary at Northwestern.”

The Cats entered Saturday’s matchup well aware that Fields was the strongest quarterback they’d face all season, and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz schemed a master plan to shut him down. Ohio State was down its top receiver Chris Olave, one of three key starters out for the Buckeyes, but stopping sophomore wideout Garrett Wilson would still be a tall task.

The defense made clear how much pressure it’d be sending Fields’ way on the first drive of the game. Ohio State completed five passes on its opening series and successfully moved the ball down the field with a trio of runs, but found obstacles in its way upon entering the red zone.

On a third-and-goal from the NU 9-yard line, the Cats ran a straight blitz, and redshirt freshman cornerback Cam Mitchell flew in for a blistering sack, forcing the Buckeyes to lose 15 yards and settle for a field goal.

Fields’ 33 yards on that drive would account for nearly a third of what he would throw for in the entire game. He looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable in the pocket for the rest of the first quarter, feeling the pressure from NU’s defensive line — he threw two incompletions, was sacked again and fumbled the ball right before the break.

The defense continued to bring the heat through the second quarter, before Ohio State switched its offensive strategy to its ground rather than its air attack. Fields threw more incompletions (7) than completions (4) in the second frame, and battling an injured thumb in the second half, would only make seven pass attempts — one of which was picked off by Mitchell in the third.

“I just think Northwestern did a really good job on defense,” Fields said. “They’re a really sound defense. They did a great job doing their jobs … I don’t want people to look at my thumb (injury) as making an excuse. It’s just flat-out me.”

As much as NU’s pass defense, ranked second-best in the conference before Saturday, succeeded, its run defense struggled, and by the end of the afternoon Sermon’s record-shattering 331-yard performance was more than enough to carry the Buckeyes to their fourth-straight Big Ten title.

The defensive effort to prevent another all-out aerial attack was a positive in an otherwise disappointing afternoon for the Cats. Fueled by a young, highlight-making secondary, NU’s defense held one of the country’s best arms to a career-low, and proved on a national stage that despite the eventual scoreline, the unit is worthy of its reputation as one of the country’s best.

“It was an expectation we had coming into the game,” Joseph said. “We knew how strong this defense was, and we knew if we went out and executed, we would do our thing. Unfortunately we weren’t able to stop the run game, but we did our part in the pass game, so we were happy about that.”

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