What some may argue was one of the most intriguing and surprising seasons in recent Big Ten football history comes to a close on Saturday as the expected meets the unexpected.
It’ll be the Ohio State Buckeyes against the Northwestern Wildcats for all the Big Ten marbles. For Ohio State it also means a potential berth in the College Football Playoffs are on the line.
All week long we will take an in-depth look at this unexpected matchup. It starts today with a look at the 5 things to know about these two teams.
5: Northwestern’s 5th in scoring defense in the Big Ten
That may not be a mind-blowing stat, but believe it or not the Wildcats have the better defense going in to this game and that can matter a lot when the nerves and dust settles on this game.
Northwestern is allowing an average of just 21.7 points per game this season. Only three teams scored 30 points or more on the Wildcats — Akron, Nebraska and Notre Dame.
Conversely, six of the last eight opponents have failed to score 20 or more points and only Michigan (20) and Nebraska (31) scored more than 20 points on Northwestern in Big Ten play.
On the flip side, Ohio State’s defense comes in 7th in the Big Ten — giving up 25.8 points per game and allowing 40 touchdowns to opponents.
4: This is Ohio State’s 4th Big Ten championship game appearance
It seems like old hat at this point, but the Buckeyes aren’t the record holders for most appearances in the title game just yet. That honor belongs to the Wisconsin Badgers with five appearances.
Still, no other team knows the ins and outs of Lucas Oil Stadium as well as the Buckeyes or Badgers do. That experience inside the stadium and with all the things happening around the game will matter a bit, especially early on in this game.
OSU holds a 2-1 record in the three previous games, beating Wisconsin twice and losing a 34-24 decision to Michigan State in 2013.
A win in this game would break a three-way tie for most title game wins with MSU and Wisconsin — all of which have won twice in Indy.
3: OSU QB Dwayne Haskins is averaging just over 3 TD passes per game
The record books have loved putting Dwayne Haskins’ name in them in 2018. I mean, he broke a record I thought never would be broken — Drew Brees’ single-season touchdown record — by throwing 42 touchdowns and counting.
Doing the mental math there, that means he is averaging 3.5 passing touchdowns per game. It also means he leads the country in passing touchdowns this season. Will Greir is next on the list, but he’s five touchdown passes behind Haskins. That’s how good of a season he’s having.
It’s led to a record-breaking six Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards this year. Oh, and his 4,081 yards already this year make him one of only two quarterbacks to do that in the 2018 regular season.
As for Northwestern? This could all be dangerous news, especially considering the fact that the Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten in passing defense (238.0 yards per game). The good news is NU’s pass defense has bent, but not broken a lot — giving up just nine passing touchdowns to opponents this year.
Which will win out? The Buckeyes pass attack that gets yards and scores or the NU defense that allows yards, but not touchdowns through the air…
2: Northwestern has fumbled the ball just twice all season
One way to win close games is by not making big mistakes. Northwestern has been pretty good about that, fumbling the ball just twice this season. It’s the lowest total in the Big Ten and tied for fewest in the country with Mississippi State.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats also had 13 interceptions on the year. Only Rutgers (22), Minnesota (14) and Illinois (14) had more interceptions thrown on the year.
Ohio State’s defense has been one of the best in forcing fumbles this season. It’s 11 fumbles gained are second in the Big Ten to Indiana’s 13.
Which one will give on Saturday in Indianapolis?
1: It’s Northwestern’s first appearance in the Big Ten championship game
A lot of the talk this week will not only center on Ohio State’s CFB Playoff hopes, but also on the fact that Northwestern is making the trip to Indianapolis for the first time.
There have been seven Big Ten championship games and excluding the first ever edition of it, only one team making its first appearance in the title game has won. That was Penn State beating Wisconsin in the title game back in 2016.
In total teams are 1-3 in their first appearance in the game. It’ll be a major talking point and rightfully so, as the hoopla and extra stuff around the game make this very different than any bowl game other than the Rose Bowl for a Big Ten team.
How Fitzgerald and the Wildcats coaches handle figuring out how to handle all the extra stuff will be vital. Some will try to embrace everything that happens, others will insulate their kids. It really depends on the personality of the team and getting it right can mean as much as getting the game plan right on game day.
Ohio State vs. Oklahoma: Will this decision cause real reform for College Football Playoff?
We just got done witnessing one of the greatest offensive performances in Big Ten championship game history. No. 6 Ohio State just put up a 45-24 beat down on No. 21 Northwestern to gain its record third Big Ten championship game title.
Quarterback Dwayne Haskins threw for a record-setting 499 yards and five touchdowns in the win. He also threw for six touchdowns in the regular season finale beatdown of then No. 4 Michigan.
Yet, the Buckeyes could be left without an opportunity to compete for a national championship.
Meanwhile, No. 5 ranked Oklahoma avenged an earlier loss to rival Texas in the Big 12 championship game just prior to what took place in Indianapolis.
Yet, Oklahoma is in danger of not being involved in the College Football Playoff either.
That’s because at the same time, No. 1 Alabama just got its backup quarterback to lead a comeback from two touchdowns down (twice) against then No. 4 Georgia.
Yet, here we are the day of the fifth College Football Playoff announcement in history and some are honestly suggesting that the Bulldogs are the team the College Football Playoff committee should be selecting.
The problem is, how do you define the “best” teams in college football? Does record matter? Does who you lost to matter? What about the schedule you faced? How about the wins you have on your resume?
When the College Football Playoff was first implemented, it was sold as a cure-all for what was ailing the old BCS system — subjectivity.
Well, to be fair, at first it was an over-reliance on computers and their complete lack of subjectivity. Then the BCS swung completely the other way, relying on human polls that were completely flawed as well.
The answer was supposed to be to take the four best teams and let them duke it out on the field for a championship. After all, with over 120 teams in the FBS, there could only be four teams capable of winning a national title every year, right?
The CFB Playoff committee lucked out in the first few years of the new format. Everyone played nice and the four teams they chose were really obvious ones — names that earned the right by winning conference titles and putting beatdowns on opponents in conference title games (Florida State in 2014 excluded).
But, what happened when things weren’t so crystal clear at the top of the polls anymore? Well, there was no clear-cut system in place to help guid the committee and over the past three years we’ve found out that subjectivity has really sucked.
We’ve managed to see a Big Ten champion get leap-frogged by a team who didn’t even win the division that the Big Ten champion came from. We’ve seen the SEC get two teams in to a four-team playoff and on and on.
It would be one thing if there was some clear-cut understanding of what it takes to make it to the College Football Playoff — and yes, I fully am aware that no two seasons are alike.
So, the question now becomes how to make things easy to understand and to take the subjectivity out of a flawed committee. Let’s not forget that once Oklahoma and Ohio State are in the picture this weekend, the committee is only left with 10 of its 13 voices – four of which are SEC linked.
Nothing says objective like conference allegiances to make conspiracy theories run wild.
But, if by some miracle the Big Ten champion Ohio State Buckeyes make it in to the College Football Playoff this year, the conference would avoid three straight seasons without its champion in the College Football Playoff.
The more likely scenario however is that Oklahoma jumps to No. 4 and replaces Georgia. There’s also a real push by some in the media like Kirk Herbstreit and Stewart Mandel ($) to put Georgia right back in to the mix.
You know, because losing by 20-something points to a 3-loss LSU team and then getting another shot to prove yourself and blowing a two-touchdown lead not once, but twice should get you in.
Nevermind all of that talk and all of those questions. We’re here to hopefully provide solutions and not just bitch and piss and moan.
The point here is that five years in the College Football Playoff and we are here having the exact same arguments we were having throughout the entire BCS era.
Tell me again what the College Football Playoff has solved for college football?
Until the powers that be decide that getting a real champion matters more than how it makes money off of bowl games, nothing is going to change.
So, here is my solution that should make things almost bulletproof and make the vast majority of people happy.
Step 1: All five of the Power 5 champions get in to the College Football Playoff regardless of record.
Winning the five biggest and baddest conferences in the land should matter, regardless of your record. You’ve likely gotten this far by having to beat some of the best teams in the country, even if it was only in the conference title game.
Step 2: Add in three more teams to the mix for a total of 8 teams in the College Football Playoff.
Step 3: If a Group of 5 champion is undefeated, they get an automatic berth as one of the remaining 3 teams.
What happens if more than one Group of 5 team ends the season undefeated? See Step 4.
Step 4: How do you determine the remaining at-large berths?
It has to be a combination of numbers and human critical thinking. What we’ve seen over the past two decades is college football swinging too far towards numbers and then over-correcting the other way towards humans.
Here’s my proposal — get the committee in a room with some of the best analytical minds in the game. There are some really great things happening with numbers to back up what the eye is usually seeing on Saturday’s in the fall. The folks at Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders and others are putting data to use to help better inform what is really happening on the field.
Why not use those minds to help inform the debate that will happen over the final three teams in, or in the case of multiple undefeated Group of 5 champions (which hasn’t happened in the CFB Playoff era by the way)?
Take their data points, whether in a formalized system or each set of data points on their own, as a start to the debate and go from there. I mean, can you imagine being able to settle a debate about Oklahoma and Ohio State by simply saying, look the data suggests that XYZ team objectively played a better season or that we chose XYZ team because we believe this data point suggests their offense outweighed ABC’s defense and would win a game on the field?
Clearly the committee needs help and getting real data minds in to the mix would be the exact help this group needs.
To be clear, this doesn’t end all debate, because that 9th team is certainly going to be pissed, but the reality is that is going to be the case unless you’re playing a single-elimination tournament throughout the season.
Step 5: Make the Data transparent
One of the biggest problems with the old computer polls was that it was hard to understand the formulas and data being used to come up with their rankings.
This time around, let’s make the set of data being used transparent. Luckily, Football Outsiders and the S&P+ rankings are as transparent as they come. Pro Football Focus is behind a pay wall, but they could give the committee full access to what is behind the curtain so to speak.
The more data and the more transparent that data is, the more people can trust that it works. Right now, no one trusts that the committee is going to do the right thing, and that’s a major problem.
Step 6: Seed conference champions 1-5 and at-large teams 6-8
Do we really need to explain this one? Seed No. 1 plays Seed No. 8 in the quarterfinals…so forth and so on until a champion is crowned.
It really isn’t that hard. But, the logistics and money will always make it hard. So how do we please everyone? See Step 7.
Step 7: Quarterfinals after a bye week following conference championship weekend
I love a good bowl game like the rest of America, so let’s play the four big ones (sorry Cotton and Peach bowls) as host sites for the quarterfinals. Hell, you could even convince me to go back to the days of the Big Ten vs. Pac-12 always in the Rose Bowl and Big 12 vs. SEC in the Sugar Bowl and leave the ACC champion to play the Group of 5 representative or remaining highest seed.
Personally, I’d be even more apt to play these games at the house of the 1st through 4th seeds and blow up the antiquated bowl system all together.
Take your pick of any of the above, but don’t tell me the money won’t be there either way.
Step 8: National Championship game is played on New Year’s Day
Tradition is what makes the college football game so great. So, we’ll play the national championship game on New Year’s Day to help appease those who don’t want to totally let go of the olden days. Also, we avoid the issue of the NFL playoffs.
Yes, I realize that the day of the game would change every year but in terms of getting eyeballs on the game this is the best chance for the most eyes.
Step 9: Stop with 6-6 teams making bowl games period
I’m sorry, but if you can’t have a winning season at a minimum, you don’t deserve to go bowling. It reduces the clutter and more importantly makes the season continue to mean more.
But what about the bowl game practices and such? Ok, let’s allow all teams 10 practices of 2 hours each between the 1st week of the playoffs and New Years Day. Sound good to everyone?
If you have better ideas, let us hear them below…what we do know is the system currently in place is not workable.
Haskins record-setting night powers Buckeyes to Big Ten title
Dwayne Haskins set all sorts of records this season for the Ohio State Buckeyes and in the Big Ten. He did it again on Saturday night, powering the No. 6 Buckeyes to a 45-24 victory over No. 21 Northwestern.
Haskins set a Big Ten championship game with 499 yards passing and five touchdown passes.
Ohio State’s victory is their third in the Big Ten title game, setting a record for the most wins for any team in the conference.
Three different Buckeyes receivers caught touchdowns, with Johnnie Dixon getting seven receptions for 129 yards and one touchdown to lead the way. Fellow senior Terry McLaurin had just three receptions, but two were for scores and he finished with 78 yards of his own.
Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson just couldn’t keep pace with Haskins on the night, despite throwing for a respectable 267 yards of his own. It only resulted in one touchdown.
Ohio State got the ball first and marched right down the field on Northwestern. The Buckeyes took just seven plays to go up 7-0 as star quarterback Dwayne Haskins made a spectacular final play of the drive.
After looking dead to rights for a sack, he escaped and scrambled away from further pressure to find wide receiver Terry McLaurin in the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown strike.
Northwestern had a big answer to that play only a few minutes later, as running back John Moten IV scampered 77 yards off the left side of the line to even the score at 7-7 with 6:27 to play in the 1st quarter.
Just as Ohio State’s big moment wasn’t a harbinger of things to come, neither was Northwestern’s.
Instead, the game settled down for a bit and it stayed close for the majority of the first half.
Ohio State answered the Wildcats touchdown with an 8-play, 65-yard drive to go back on top 14-7 with just over three minutes to go in the first quarter.
What looked like a shootout never materialized in large part because the Buckeyes defense stood strong. Northwestern could pick up only 160 yards of total offense in the first half and turned the ball over twice.
Ohio State only managed three points off those turnovers, but also kept the Wildcats offense off balance almost all half.
The Buckeyes also capitalized on its defensive stops, putting a huge 42-yard touchdown pass from Haskins to McLaurin — his second of the half — to go up 24-7 with just 1:21 to play in the first half.
Haskins finished the half by going 18-22 passing for 249 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Conversely, Thorson was just 8-18 for 58 yards and an interception for the Wildcats.
The play of the two quarterbacks was the biggest difference in the scoreline in the half.
That all changed quickly out of the half, as Northwestern came out fired up. It led to a pair of quick touchdowns to start the second half. Thorson was red hot and the Wildcats made it 24-21 on an 18-yard touchdown run by the senior quarterback and a 2-yard pass to Cameron Green with 8:03 to go in the third quarter.
By that point, the Wildcats had equaled their offensive production for the entire first half and Thorson managed to throw for more yardage than he did in the first half as well.
But, the Buckeyes weren’t going to let things slip away easily. Haskins continued his master class with his third touchdown pass in two games to Chris Olave to make it 31-21.
After a field goal cut the lead back to a single score, Haskins continued to rip up the Wildcats defense. He ripped off his fourth touchdown of the game, connecting with Johnnie Dixon on a 9-yard strike with just 9:11 to play.
Haskins capped off his record-setting night and put the game completely out of reach with 17-yard beauty of a pass to running back J.K. Dobbins to make it 45-24 with 4:09 to play.
With the win, Ohio State moves to 12-1 on the season and will have to wait to see what the College Football Playoff committee does tomorrow night.
Either the Buckeyes will be in the playoff thanks to Georgia’s loss in the SEC title game or they will be Rose Bowl bound and take on Pac-12 champion Washington.
Pair of Big Ten players named to PFF mid-season All-American team
It hasn’t been a banner year for the Big Ten, with it seeming more and more like the days of the big two and little 10 (12 today). So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that All-American honors are few and far between.
But, it was near barren for the Big Ten when Pro Football Focus gave out its mid-season All-American honors. Just two players — both on offense — made the cut from the conference.
Ohio State wide receiver K.J. Hill and Wisconsin right guard Beau Benzschawel were both named to the offensive All-American team.
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor was named honorable mention. So was OSU defensive tackle Dre’mont Jones on the other side of the ball.
What makes Pro Football Focus’ lists so different are the fact that they are based on analyzing actual play from every player in college football throughout the season.
It means, actual play on the field dictates getting on this list and not reputation or PR.
Benzschawel is the second-highest rated guard in the country according to PFF, as they say this about his performance at the midway mark:
Benzschawel is close behind [Terrone] Prescod, grading at 81.1 as a run-blocker, good for sixth among guards while allowing only three pressures on 151 snaps in pass protection.
Much like Benzschawel, Hill is also the second highest rated player at his position. Hill trails only Colorado’s superstar receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. and has a grade of 90.9 on the season.
According to PFF, “Hill has been incredibly efficient as well, catching 85.1% of his targets while averaging 8.2 yards after the catch per reception.”
It will be interesting to see how thing shake out in the second half of the season and if players like Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary or many other of the Badgers offensive lineman grade out better.
Good, Bad, Ugly: The tale of Buckeyes, Badgers and Illini in Week 3
There is no two ways about it — Week 3 was the Big Ten’s collective worst nightmare.
Just take a look at the final scores from the weekend:
So, on a Saturday in which contenders were dropping like flies, how do we make sense of what took place?
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Week 3 around the Big Ten.
On a weekend that saw so much carnage from Big Ten teams, there is no doubt that Ohio State’s big win over TCU is the good of the weekend. It wasn’t just that the pickings were slim either, the Buckeyes put on a show in the win over the Horned Frogs at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
With the eyes of most of the college football world on them, OSU came up big. They punched hard first, going up 10-0 and then took a big punch from TCU for a pair of touchdowns, the last of which was a school-record 93-yard run by Darius Anderson for the 14-10 lead early in the second quarter.
Let’s not forget there were two defensive touchdowns (albeit one shouldn’t have counted after further review that never happened on the field), including a “fat guy” TD by Dre’mont Jones.
Lost in some of the craziness was the fact that Dwayne Haskins showed out in a big way. He was 24 of 38 for a crazy 344 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Haskins also had a rushing touchdown to cap off all the offensive scoring for his team.
Sure, the defense gave up 511 yards, but it seemed more a byproduct of TCU’s offensive style than anything worrisome about the Buckeyes defense. After all, they forced three total turnovers, had three sacks and seven tackles for loss on the day.
It was a shot across the bow of the rest of the elite in college football and arguable the most dangerous the Buckeyes have looked on both sides of the ball in awhile.
There’s no where to go here other than to head to Madison, Wis. where the Badgers came in to their contest against BYU with a 41-game home non-conference win streak.
By the time the mid-afternoon matchup was over, the Badgers streak was also over and it wasn’t a fluke. The visiting Cougars took a page out of the Wisconsin playbook and simply out-muscled the Badgers on both sides of the ball.
UW’s normally potent run game averaged just 4.7 yards per carry. Its defense allowed 191 yards to BYU on the ground. That pretty much sums up the shock that happened inside Camp Randall.
For the first time in over 15 years, a non-conference opponent came in to Camp Randall, outplayed and finally beat the Badgers. We’ll see if this is a wake up call or the start of a snowball effect that can’t be stopped.
Having rival Iowa on the road and at night should certainly get the Badgers attention this coming week.
Sure, we could’ve gone with Northwestern getting blown out by a MAC opponent at home. There was also Rutgers’ piss-poor day at Kansas and Temple working over Maryland. But, those were all blowouts and there was just one loss that hurt more than any other…Illinois.
For just over 57 minutes, this week felt different for Illini fans…until South Florida’s Darnell Salomon hauled in a 50-yard touchdown from Blake Barnett with 2:24 to play.
That was just a downright brutal blow to a program that could’ve used the win in the worst way. Illinois got an early touchdown from running back Mike Epstein and then four field goals (three of which were over 40 yards) for a 19-7 lead late in the third quarter.
Then the fourth quarter happened and you could just feel the game slipping away. Just over three minutes after the last of Illinois last field goal, it was Salomon who broke through with a 14-yard touchdown catch to make it a 5-point game. Add in a field goal midway through the quarter and a 19-7 lead was whittled down to 19-17.
But, the Illini really only have themselves to blame. After all, they squandered four drives that were in USF territory and couldn’t get in the end zone. The Illini also couldn’t score a single point in the final quarter, and that’s usually not a good thing.
The play in the final stanza was particularly brutal, as USF’s defense held the Illini to just 94 total yards and forced them to go 2-of-7 on third downs. That’s how you lose a game you should’ve taken care of.
If there was a silver lining in the ugly way this loss happened, it was that MJ Rivers’ debut at quarterback was a success. He was 20 of 29 passing for 168 yards. While he didn’t get in to the end zone through the air, Rivers also didn’t turn the ball over while passing either. That’s a positive step lost in the brutal way this loss took place.
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