Grumpy Old Buckeye: Ohio State vs. Northwestern
Ohio State went to Indianapolis looking for another Big Ten title against the Northwestern Wildcats and stepped on a whole lot of rakes before finally coming from behind to win, 22-10. Some of those rakes were scattered across the lawn by the Buckeyes themselves, but they still stepped on them despite knowing where they were. Here are the things that gave me acid reflux on Saturday:
Not Jumpy Enough
It’s not the first time this season, but Ohio State blew a free first down when the offensive line stayed put on a third-and-3 on the game’s opening drive and then had to spend a timeout to avoid a delay of game. Northwestern defenders jumped into the neutral zone and all the left side of the offensive line had to do was move, get the whistle, and accept the free five yards.
The Buckeyes lost four points early because Harry Miller felt like hugging rather than blocking or simply ignoring a Northwestern player. Justin Fields ran seven yards around the right side for an apparent touchdown, but it came back. Miller’s hold likely wasn’t necessary, as it seemed Fields would have beaten the defender on speed to get to the edge. After a short pass to Trey Sermon and a Sermon run, Justin Fields took a sack on an all-out Northwestern blitz and the Buckeyes settled for three points to cap the first drive. You can see in this photo that Fields had the held man well beaten.
Ohio State’s defense didn’t cover itself in glory on Northwestern’s first drive, failing to get off the Naval Academy-like cut blocks and get runners on the ground. The Wildcats stayed ahead of schedule and even made a few big plays in the run game, eventually punching it in for a 7-3 lead. In addition to failing to maintain sound discipline in covering cutback lanes, the tackling was poor and everyone on Northwestern looked like fourth-quarter Master Teague from last year, shedding Buckeyes on their way down the field.
Trick, Not Treat
Ohio State got cute on its third drive and decided the way to go against Northwestern was to throw a backward pass to Garrett Wilson, who presumably would either run it or throw it downfield. Fields made a terrible back pass that Wilson couldn’t handle, and the sophomore receiver nearly didn’t get it covered while two Wildcats tried to scoop it and score. That play could have been a disaster — and an unnecessary one — instead of merely a bad play. The Buckeyes might have liked the idea of that play during the week but once they started to think they needed to trick Northwestern with gadget plays, they should have re-evaluated their game plan.
I’m not going to beat Josh Proctor up about not intercepting a sure pick-six in the second quarter. It wasn’t an easy catch. The ball was wobbling and down at or below the level of his knees and he was running full speed. That’s not an easy play to make. Still, it would have been a lot cooler if he’d made it.
If Ohio State’s line wasn’t holding, Fields was — to the ball too long, that is. With seemingly two tight ends and Sermon open on a first-half play, Fields held the ball for far too long on a second-quarter play and took a sack, losing nine yards. The sack derailed a promising drive and the Buckeyes ended up having to settle for a field goal for the second time.
Fields had been throwing the ball high all through the first half. He overthrew Sermon a couple of times and had just thrown a high pass on the previous play that Garrett Wilson had to go up and get, which cost him yards after catch and perhaps a touchdown. So, of course Fields threw the next pass lower and it was picked off in the end zone. Wilson, who had a step on Northwestern defensive back Brandon Joseph, never had a chance to go up and high point the ball because it was thrown low enough to where Joseph could reach it and intercept it. Instead of taking the lead just before halftime, it was yet another disappointing end to an Ohio State drive. The Buckeyes trailed at the half in the most frustrating 30 minutes of football all season.
The Pick II
Jameson Williams isn’t Chris Olave — at least not yet. Fields expected Williams to do what Olave would do and curl back to him on the sideline on the second interception. The Buckeyes had just turned Northwestern over on a Justin Hilliard interception in the end zone. A couple of good Sermon runs had Ohio State’s ensuing drive off to a good start. Then the Buckeyes went to a pass play with only five Wildcats in the box and a mix-up between the quarterback and a receiver resulted in a turnover.
Comedy of Errors
Ohio State was in decent shape after the second interception due to the best defensive series of the game to that point. And the Buckeyes seemed willing to run the football to get back in the game. Sermon ripped off a long run and put Ohio State in scoring position. A Fields run set up a second-and-short situation. But the Buckeyes went back to the pass (unsuccessfully), then took a delay of game penalty. Fields had a pass for Sermon batted down with Jeremy Ruckert seemingly wide open on third down. And then Blake Haubeil missed a field goal.
All the Dumb Penalties
Back-to-back personal fouls on Tyreke Smith and Jonathan Cooper helped Northwestern flip field position. Smith’s was a dumb foul for roughing the passer. He committed the gentlest roughing the passer penalty of all time, but he still shouldn’t have touched Peyton Ramsey, who had clearly thrown the football already. Cooper’s was a questionable call, as it appeared the defensive end had grabbed the outside of Ramsey’s shoulder and not any openings in the jersey or shoulder pads in drawing a horse collar flag. Either way, it was aggravating to watch the officials mark off 30 yards of unearned yardage on two plays in quick succession.
Stop. Freaking. Passing.
Hilliard’s fumble recovery set the Buckeyes up with great field position early in the fourth quarter and Ohio State had a chance to make a statement with a successful drive. It started well with — what else? — a long Sermon run. But the Buckeyes again went to the pass on third-and-4 and a check down to Sermon went nowhere. That was an opportunity to run it on third down with the idea of going for it on fourth if it came up a bit short. Instead, the Buckeyes settled for a short field goal, adding more red zone woes to a day filled with them.
Ohio State went on to play the way most people expected after that short field goal and finished the game strong, but it was a slog for a long time. Playing Northwestern in years the Wildcats are good often turns into a rock fight and this game was one for a long time. However, some of that was self-inflicted because of the play calling and ignoring the success of the ground game. It would be interesting to know how much of the passing game’s struggles were due to Olave being out, creating a chain reaction Ohio State couldn’t overcome.
The above items were the things that had me yelling at my cats. I shouldn’t do that. They didn’t do anything wrong. Of course, there were plenty of positives. Sermon and the offensive line in the running game turned in an incredible, record-breaking performance. Justin Hilliard and Haskell Garrett were stellar on defense. Backup punter Zach Hoover looked like an All-American. And, in the end, Ohio State won its fourth straight conference championship. It’s difficult to be grumpy after that.