For a moment, it looked possible.
The Wildcats looked like they had the makings of a comeback. Down just seven points in the third quarter after a rough first half performance, the 'Cats had the support of fans, who made it the second-highest-attended Big Ten Championship game in history.
But it just wasn’t to be. Dwayne Haskins and the Ohio State offense were too much to overcome, and despite brief moments of bliss for the Wildcat faithful, Northwestern (8-5, 8-2 B1G) fell 45-24 to the Buckeyes (12-1, 9-1 B1G). Haskins (34/41, 499 yards, 5 TDs, 1 INT) set Big Ten Championship records in yards, completions, and touchdowns as OSU achieved back-to-back conference titles, with Meyer winning his third at the helm.
Northwestern’s first-ever Big Ten Championship Game was injury-heavy, turnover-filled and filled with both exciting highs and disappointing lows. Clayton Thorson (27/44, 267 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) and the offense were pressured for much of the game by the Buckeyes, especially in the first half (despite finishing with a season-high 6.1 yards per play), while the defense struggled to contain the explosive passing game.
On the first drive of the game, the Wildcats’ defense failed to capitalize on two Ohio State third-and-longs. Dwayne Haskins found two different receivers for 16-yard gains, the latter being a touchdown to Terry McLaurin. Haskins, who broke single-season passing and touchdown records in Big Ten history this year, played a crucial role throughout the match.
The ’Cats found the endzone a little while later with a shocking 77-yard rushing touchdown from John Moten IV. Moten, who was replaced as the main rusher by Isaiah Bowser (13 rushes, 60 yards) midway through the season, turned on the jets down the far side of the field to tie up the game. The run, which was both Moten’s career-long and tied for Northwestern’s longest play all season, also tied the 2nd-longest rush in B1G Championship history (the other being OSU’s J.K. Dobbins in 2017.)
But the Buckeyes responded on the next drive with an air assault. All it took were seven plays with three long receptions for first downs to set up a 2-yard touchdown rush by Dobbins (17 rushes, 68 yards, 1 rush TD) to put Ohio State back in the lead.
After the Buckeyes had a surprising three-and-out, the next three drives in the second quarter would end with crucial turnovers. It started when Northwestern picked up significant yardage, aided by an Ohio State personal foul, to reach the OSU 36-yard line. Thorson heaved an ill-advised pass to Flynn Nagel (who would later leave the game with injury) into the endzone, and Ohio State’s Shaun Wade easily picked him off. The mostly-red crowd roared with excitement at the 'Cats wasted opportunity.
The Buckeyes’ celebration was short-lived, however: a routine drive down the field abruptly ended on a way-overthrown Haskins pass that found the hands of Montre Hartage. It was Hartage’s tenth career interception, but the turnover trouble wasn’t over yet. Less than two minutes later, Thorson fumbled after being sacked by Chase Young, and the loose ball was recovered by Jordan Fuller. Ohio State would settle with a field goal after the Wildcats’ defense stopped Haskins from reaching the red zone.
Northwestern struggled to find any rhythm after that drive. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes nabbed their third touchdown of the half as Haskins connected with McLaurin again for a 42-yard reception to make the score 24-7. The contrast between the offenses was striking: Northwestern had only 160 total yards during the first half (including a measly 58 passing yards by Thorson), while Haskins had the 5th-most passing yards in B1G Championship history in just the first 30 minutes (249 yards).
“At halftime, we felt like we had some self-inflicted wounds,” said Coach Pat Fitzgerald. “We made some mistakes and gave them some things, and we talked at length offensively about things we felt like we could execute, things we felt like we could get.”
Once halftime was over, however, the Wildcats started on the right foot. After the opening kickoff to start the third quarter, Thorson rattled off three first-down passes in a row before evading defenders on his feet to find the end zone on an 18-yard score. It was his ninth rushing touchdown of the season, and the momentum began to shift.
Ohio State’s next two possessions lasted just four and three plays, respectively, as the Wildcat defense came out strong. Two sacks on Haskins, one shared by Joe Gaziano and Earnest Brown IV, and another by Jordan Thompson, sent a strong message to Urban Meyer and his team.
“That momentum shift was awesome,” Brown said. “Like, it was the best feeling. Everybody was just giddy, and everybody was just focused. And then [Ohio State] got back the momentum, but that’s what shifts the game, that’s what creates great games: momentum shifts.”
Brown had a career-high 4 tackles (3 solo) in the contest, with 2.5 being tackles for loss.
In-between the Buckeye drives was a 85-yard charge by Northwestern down the field, capped off by a wide-open touchdown by Thorson to Cameron Green to make it 24-21. A 17-yard Thorson pass to Charlie Fessler two plays earlier was initially called a fumble right near the goal-line, but upon further review his knee had touched the field and the ’Cats had new life.
The next offensive possession for the ’Cats started another mess of turnovers on both sides. Two plays in, Thorson was quickly intercepted by Damon Arnette off of a deflected pass, bringing Ohio State to the Northwestern 34-yard line. Yet just a few plays later, the Buckeyes’ Mike Weber fumbled the ball on a carry. Travis Whillock (7 tackles, 5 solo) recovered it to help the Wildcats survive a scare, but the Buckeye defense stepped up to prevent Northwestern from driving down the field.
Then, with good field position, Haskins and the Buckeye offense needed just six plays to put up more points. Haskins hit Chris Olave on a 29-yard completion to end the 14-0 NU run. On their next drive, another score seemed imminent thanks to an impressive march downfield. But as Ohio State attempted a field goal, Fred Wyatt shocked the crowd and blocked the kick.
Once again the Wildcats got a second chance, and they followed through with the opportunity. Thorson connected on long passes to Jelani Roberts (in typical next-man-up fashion for NU) and Ben Skowronek (4 receptions, 42 yards) to get to Ohio State’s side of the field. A pass interference call - one of many penalties against Ohio State - put Northwestern in the red zone. They were unable to get a touchdown out of it, however, and settled for a Charlie Kuhbander field goal.
But as was to be expected against an Ohio State team, positive momentum did not last. Haskins connected downfield to an open Johnnie Dixon (7 receptions, team-high 129 yards, 1 TD) for a 63-yard pass, and two plays later found him in the endzone to make it 38-24, a two-touchdown lead.
Northwestern needed a strong answer, but couldn’t get one. Despite a couple of receptions by Kyric McGowan (4 receptions, team-high 50 yards) for first downs, the Wildcats were stopped at the Ohio State 46-yard-line after failing to convert a 4th & 7. And the offensive firepower for the Buckeyes continued: it took eight plays and zero third-downs to reach the end zone for the sixth time. Haskins’ 17-yard touchdown toss to J.K. Dobbins all but sealed the win for Ohio State.
The Wildcats’ final drive was a sour ending for a frenetic game: two straight sacks on Clayton Thorson, and a turnover on downs. The Buckeyes took over possession, ran out the clock, and let their celebrations begin.
“Looking at the game I tip my hat off to Coach Meyer, his staff, and his players,” Fitz said. “They are Big Ten Champions for a reason. When they execute the way they did we have to be flawless and obviously we weren’t.”
Though Northwestern ultimately came up short in the title game, it was an ending no one could’ve expected after the team’s crushing loss to Akron earlier in the season. Picking themselves out from under the rubble and against adversity, the ’Cats proved they had plenty of fight in them during the season with an impressive conference record featuring several memorable victories. The team will learn which bowl game they will play in and which opponent they will face on Sunday to close out the season and the college careers of an accomplished senior class.
“We’re just so proud to be on the team, I promise you,” Thorson said. “And I feel like this is really just the start for Northwestern. Proud to be a part of it, and really grateful for the opportunity these coaches gave me five years ago to come in here and play.”
“They created the new standard in our program,” said Fitz, “and to see them emotional in the locker room after the game, you’re a mentor first, and you see that, and it just breaks my heart for them because they gave everything they have, and I’m incredibly thankful for them. But like I said, I’m fired up that I get to lead them out of a tunnel one more time. And I’m very thankful for that, very grateful, and I want to send them out on a podium. I want to send them out with a trophy.”