No. 4 Ohio State made a final statement to the College Football Playoff selection committee Saturday with a 22-10 victory over No. 14 Northwestern in the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The Buckeyes, who've been a hot topic of conversation since they entered championship week with just five games played compared to at least eight for all the other serious CFP contenders, will likely be hard to leave out of the playoff field given their 6-0 record and conference title win over a ranked opponent.
Northwestern reached the Big Ten Championship for the second time in three years to highlight the program's continued growth under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats' quest for their first conference title since 2000, and first outright title since 1995, continues, though.
QB Justin Fields (OSU): 12-of-27 for 114 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT; 35 rushing yards
QB Peyton Ramsey (NU): 24-of-37 for 224 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT; 44 rushing yards
RB Trey Sermon (OSU): 331 rushing yards, 2 TD
RB Cam Porter (NU): 61 rushing yards, 1 TD
WR Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (NU): 103 receiving yards
K Blake Haubeil (OSU): 3-of-4 FGs, 10 points
Sermon Saves Day As Fields Struggles Amid Key Absences
Ohio State announced shortly before kickoff it would be without 22 players, including star wide receiver Chris Olave, in the title game. The school didn't provide details about absences, but ESPN's Adam Rittenberg reported the program registered multiple positive COVID-19 test results this week.
The result of the lineup shuffling was the Buckeyes' least explosive performance of the season. They entered the contest averaging 46.6 points with at least 38 in each of their five games.
Fields looked out of sync with his receivers for most of the day without Olave available. His second interception of the game was a direct result of a miscommunication with Jameson Williams about the route that was being run early in the third quarter.
The only time Ohio State was able to find consistent success is when it kept the ball on the ground, and the coaching staff finally started pounding the ball on the ground late in the third quarter down 10-6.
OSU embarked on a seven-play, 71-yard touchdown drive to take the lead. All seven calls were runs, highlighted by a 33-yard scamper by Sermon, who also scored the TD on a nine-yard run.
Although the Buckeyes are never going to abandon the pass completely with Fields directing the aerial attack, Saturday was an example of almost waiting too long to alter the game plan. The running game was far more successful in the title game and should have become the focal point earlier in the contest.
Sermon came to the rescue, but the fact Ohio State survived the upset shouldn't be lost on the staff as it begins planning for a likely spot in the national semifinals. It's OK to lean heavily on the rushing attack and offensive line to carry the unit.
That said, Fields is going to need more efficient performances in the playoffs if the Buckeyes are going to capture a championship. A more healthy roster would certainly help his cause.
Defense Provided NU With Serious Upset Opportunity
The anatomy of any major upset usually involves a couple of turning-point plays defensively, and the Wildcats were able to get those with a pair of interceptions off Fields.
Northwestern also didn't allow the dynamic Ohio State offense to find the end zone until late in the third quarter, coming up with several crucial stops in the red zone to force field-goal attempts.
It always felt like the Wildcats were one big offensive scoring drive away from truly turning the game in their favor, though.
Most notably, they were up by four when they picked off Fields five minutes into the third quarter. A time-consuming touchdown drive there could have changed the game's entire dynamic. Instead, it was a three-and-out that saw them lose nine yards.
That wasn't the only chance for NU to take a firm grip on the game, but it was the most notable as the underdogs failed to score any points in the second half.
Cameron Mitchell, Brandon Joseph and the rest of the Wildcats defense still deserve a lot of credit for keeping Ohio State on upset alert all afternoon, though.
The College Football Playoff selection show is set for Sunday at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN. After the CFP teams are finalized, the other bowl games will begin announcing their participants, as well.