Ohio State will play Northwestern Saturday with the 2020 Big Ten football championship and a likely College Football Playoff berth on the line. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that they will have to do it without significant players in all three phases of the game.
Wide receivers Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, linebacker Baron Browning, and punter Drue Chrisman will all miss the Big Ten title game, according to the availability report the school just released.
That will leave the Buckeyes a little short-handed on offense, defense, and special teams, but also in far less dire straits than they faced two weeks ago at Michigan State.
Here’s a look at how Ohio State might try to manage things against the Wildcats.
When word began to leak out early in the week that Olave might not be available, one of the most obvious potential solutions was to replace him with Smith-Njigba. Then, when the freshman joined the junior on the list of players who were unable to play, things got a little more complicated.
The Buckeyes still have two of their normal starters, Jameson Williams at X and Garrett Wilson at H. Freshman Julian Fleming is likely to see a bigger workload than expected against Northwestern. He has just three catches for 21 yards on the year, but should get an opportunity to exceed those numbers in just this game.
However, the absence of a couple top-flight receivers also means Ohio State is likely to run more plays in “12” personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends). Both Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert have proven themselves more than capable blockers and receivers this fall, and will almost certainly be asked to do more in the passing game this weekend than in most games.
Ruckert, of course, is returning to the site of his most famous catch: a one-handed touchdown grab against Wisconsin in the 2019 Big Ten Championship. He should get several opportunities to make a similar impact this season.
Browning has done a great job after sliding out to the SAM spot from MIKE this season. But this is a spot where the Buckeyes are fortunate to have some proven veteran depth they can turn to.
Justin Hilliard will end up taking the start, and should be fine this week. Depending on when he’s able to return, the loss of Browning could become more of an issue in a College Football Playoff semifinal against a team like Clemson. But against Northwestern, the Buckeye defense should be okay.
This may be an opportunity for Indiana native and freakish athlete Craig Young to make more of an impact as well.
It may also lead to the Buckeyes playing more nickel as well, putting Shaun Wade, Sevyn Banks, Marcus Williamson, Marcus Hooker, and Josh Proctor on the field together.
The Buckeyes will also be without defensive ends Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste. Friday also missed the previous game, so the Buckeyes have been without him before.
Not having two of their top five defensive ends will require less rotating, but may also provide an opportunity or two for redshirt freshman defensive end Noah Potter.
Three words: Go. For. It.
With Drue Christman out, the Buckeyes are missing not only a big weapon in the punting game, but also their first-string holder.
Walk-ons Michael O’Shaughnessy or Zach Hoover are next in line to handle the punting duties. However, without Chrisman’s track record of dropping mortar shots inside the opponent’s 5, Ryan Day may be more likely to lean on his offense on 4th-and-short and maybe even 4th-and-medium on the plus-side of the 50.
That could also be true with field goals. Without Chrisman, things may be just *slightly* off. The last time Ohio State released an official depth chart was for last year’s Fiesta Bowl. At that point, Hoover was the backup holder.
Still, it’s just more reason for Day to keep his offense on the field in most 4th-and-reasonable situations, whether they’re in what would normally be field goal range or not.