Football: NU’s run defense struggles in Big Ten Championship Game loss to Ohio State


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Earnest Brown IV makes a tackle on Trey Sermon. The Cats allowed Sermon to rush for 331 rushing yards on Saturday.

Andrew Golden, Gameday Editor


All eyes were on Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields coming into Saturday’s contest — and deservedly so. The junior quarterback was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Quarterback of the Year. He had won 18 of his 19 starts at Ohio State since transferring in last season.

But it wasn’t Fields who stole the show against Northwestern, the No. 2 scoring defense in the country. Instead, it was Ohio State running back Trey Sermon.

The Buckeyes have had some incredible running backs during their team’s history. Recently, Ohio State has trotted out NFL running backs Ezekiel Elliot and J.K. Dobbins. It’s had five running backs take home the Heisman Trophy — and Archie Griffin won it twice.

But none of them have rushed for as many yards in a Buckeye uniform as Sermon did on Saturday — 331 yards to be exact.

That’s 100 more than any running back has had in Big Ten Championship Game history. That’s two yards more than the Wildcats had all game offensively.

“He’s a heck of a player,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “We had guys there one-on-one, he ran through them. And that’s a credit to him.”

NU came into Saturday’s contest ranked third in the Big Ten and 21st in the entire country allowing 121.9 rushing yards per game. The Cats gave up only 3.8 yards per carry, and boasted an experienced defense that held three Big Ten opponents to under 100 yards.

In the first half, NU stuck to its game plan, and it worked. Ohio State only rushed for 94 yards, Sermon accounted for 54 of those yards and the defense was a major factor in the Cats clinging to a 10-6 halftime lead.

But in the second half, Sermon galloped down across the Lucas Oil turf like a deer running in the open field.

“What happened in the second half was the front seven, we didn’t play as hard and as well as we needed to to win,” senior linebacker Paddy Fisher said. “(We) gave up several big runs that led to scoring points and that just can’t happen in games like this.”

Sermon was just testing the waters on his team’s first drive of the second half. He had back-to-back carries for 13 and 12 yards before a Fields interception. But on the next drive, his first run was an omen for what was to come.

He took the handoff from Fields, evaded a would-be tackler in Eku Leota in the backfield and scampered right up the middle through the NU defense for 65 yards. The Buckeyes didn’t score on that drive, but the recipe for success for them — and the ultimate demise for the Cats — was clear: run the football.

After those first two drives, Fields only threw the ball four more times, while Ryan Day dialed up 23 more running plays — 20 of which were for Sermon. Of those 20 plays, only two of those were for negative yardage.

The graduate running back from Oklahoma rumbled for 279 second-half yards while averaging 12 yards per carry. Ohio State as a team had 12 rushes of 10-plus yards for a grand total of 293 yards.

Sermon put together a rushing performance reminiscent of Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and James White in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game — a trio that combined for 524 yards and 11.2 yards per carry.

NU searched for answers, but even the defensive magician Mike Hankwitz couldn’t seem to pull anything out of his hat. Fitzgerald couldn’t run on the field and attempt to relive his glory days. There was no more juice for the Cats to bring.

After battling for the first three quarters, NU seemed to run out of gas in the fourth quarter and was pushed around by Ohio State’s offensive line.

Fitzgerald pointed to the fundamentals — as he frequently does — as the reason for the front seven’s struggles defending the run. He said sometimes players were out of position and, other times players misfit gaps, putting the pressure on the linebackers to fit into the remaining gaps.

The defense preached all week about wanting to get win number 400 for Hankwitz before he retires at season’s end. But it wasn’t meant to be on Saturday.

Fitzgerald credited Ohio State for their success running the ball, but knows his defense had to do more to leave Lucas Oil Stadium with a Big Ten Title. And he’s even more adamant that when the opportunity comes again, his defense will do what needs to be done.

“We really pride ourselves fundamentally and technically,” Fitzgerald said. “We gotta get that fixed when we want to put that beautiful Big Ten championship trophy in our case… We just got to continue to put the work in to get over this next hurdle and I know our guys will.”

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