Football: No. 4 Ohio State beats No. 14 Northwestern to win Big Ten Championship Game


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Riley Lees evades a defender. The senior wide receiver finished the game with one catch for seven yards.

Peter Warren, Gameday Editor


INDIANAPOLIS — For a brief moment, No. 14 Northwestern had an opportunity to take absolute control of Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game.

Leading No. 4 Ohio State 10-6 after 30 minutes and receiving the kickoff at the start of the third quarter, the Wildcats started the second half making all the key plays. Graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw arguably his best pass of the season, a high-arching lob to senior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman down the far sideline for 31 yards, and freshman running Cam Porter dashed 16 yards on another third down to go inside the red zone.

But a few plays later, Ramsey underthrew a goal line fade to graduate tight end John Raine, the ball hitting Buckeye defender Justin Hillard square in the numbers for an interception.

NU’s chance to stun a reeling Buckeyes team was lost. And while Ohio State didn’t immediately capitalize, the Buckeyes had momentum the rest of the way. Ohio State (6-0, 5-0 Big Ten) outgained the Cats (6-2, 6-1 Big Ten) by 188 yards after that interception as it came back to win its fourth-straight conference title 22-10 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“We are building a championship-level program,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s not just good enough to be here. Our expectation is to be Big Ten champions. Not to get it done today is really disappointing.”

Unlike two years ago, when Dwayne Haskins dominated the air like a flying ace, the Buckeyes did their damage on the ground. With two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Justin Fields limited to just 12 of 27 and 114 yards throwing the ball, Trey Sermon ran for a school-record and Big Ten Championship Game-record 331 rushing yards on 29 carries.

Sermon, who was awarded Player of the Game, had 21 of his 29 carries in the second half and six total rushes of over 20 yards.

The first quarter began with both offenses operating on two different wavelengths. Ohio State was a tortoise — slow, calculating and doing just enough to keep moving. The drive lasted 16 plays and over eight minutes. The Buckeyes reached the end zone on a Fields keeper, but a holding penalty negated the score. And a huge third-down sack from redshirt freshman defensive back Cameron Mitchell and senior linebacker Chris Bergin forced a field goal.

NU was an orchestra performing a staccato arrangement — quick, distinct and aggressive. The Cats moved 75 yards in seven plays, including a whirlwind 34-yard scramble by Peyton Ramsey to move into the red zone. Porter finished the drive on the following play with an 11-yard rush into the end zone.

“Against the Buckeyes, you have to avoid the first four rounds — they knock so many teams out in those first four rounds,” Fitzgerald said. “I really think Jake and the offensive staff presented a plan to our guys that our guys bought into.”

But after those first two drives, the defenses started to settle in and disrupt each offense’s tempo. The two teams traded field goals in the second quarter with senior Charlie Kuhbander nailing a career-high 47 yard field goal and Blake Haubeil squaring away from 43 yards.

Down 10-6, the Buckeyes had a chance to take a lead heading into the break. Fields led the Ohio State offense down the field before Brandon Joseph made the interception of the season.

With under a minute to play in the first half and at NU’s 9, Fields looked for his top target Garrett Wilson in the back of the end zone. But Joseph, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, leaped up and snagged the ball with his right hand while falling back towards the blue end zone turf.

“I was just in straight man,” Joseph said. “They ran some type of fade out and up — I don’t even know what it was. I just saw the ball and was able to go get it.”

It was Northwestern’s first halftime lead over Ohio State since Oct. 5, 2013. It was the first time Ohio State had been held without a touchdown in the first half since Oct. 20, 2018 — that also happened to be the last time the Buckeyes lost a game to a Big Ten opponent.

After the Ramsey interception, Ohio State didn’t immediately score. First, Mitchell intercepted Fields on the sideline three plays later to prematurely end the Buckeyes drive. Then, after Sermon broke off a 65-yard dash right through the meat of the Cats defense, Haubeil missed a 42-yard field goal.

Ohio State kept feeding Sermon on the next drive, and it finally paid off when the running back reached the end zone to go up 13-10. The Buckeyes tacked on a field goal early in the fourth to go up 16-10 after Ramsey bumped into right guard Ethan Weidekehr and fumbled for his third turnover.

“Obviously, I wish I could have done some things over,” said Ramsey, who finished with a season-high 224 passing yards. “Just got to be smarter and take care of the ball better than I did there in the second half. Like I said, we had some momentum and then there were times where we just killed that momentum.”

NU came back refocused on offense, but a third-down sack led to a punt. And Ohio State, now almost exclusively handing the ball off to Sermon, rumbled down the field. Sermon ran the ball seven times, with the final one a 3-yard scamper into the end zone to go up 22-10 with about four minutes to play.

The Cats had one final drive to try and keep the game alive, but NU was stopped on fourth down and the Buckeyes ran out the rest of the clock.

“We thought we put together a really good plan and we executed it really well for three quarters,” Fitzgerald said. “And then we just misfit gaps, we had guys that needed to be in a certain spot that weren’t…The Buckeyes are too good to allow that space and time.”

After the final whistle, the teams met at the middle of the Lucas Oil Stadium turf to shake hands. And as Big Ten workers pulled the makeshift stage onto the field and the Buckeyes gathered in a circle to celebrate, the Wildcats slowly trudged away from the stadium lights of hopes and dreams towards the tunnel of finality.

Joe Spivak, one of the best sources of “juice” throughout the season, was at the front of the line. Ramsey, with a television camera marking each one of his steps, walked with his head held up. Greg Newsome II, who left the game with a groin injury, was in the back of the pack.

Paddy Fisher, the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year and potential All-American, moved slowly with his helmet on his forehead as he neared the tunnel. But well before, he stopped and turned around for one final glance to take it all of the almost vacant stadium in.

Chiaokhiao-Bowman jogged to his fellow fifth-year senior and captain and the two shared a moment together. They told each other how much they loved each other, how proud they were of each other, how appreciative they are to be teammates, how grateful they are to be on this journey together.

The game may have been lost, but not the moments that got them there.

“I was just taking in those last couple steps,” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “It wasn’t the victory we wanted but to be able to be here was amazing and just take it with me.”

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