The odds makers favor Ohio State by almost three touchdowns over Northwestern in the Big Ten football championship game today.
So do a lot of other numbers.
One of those numbers is two. As in Northwestern has two wins over Ohio State in the last 50 years – one of them in 2004 and the other in 1971.
Another number pointing to an Ohio State win is 19. The Buckeyes have had 19 players selected in the NFL draft the last two years. Northwestern has had one.
The recruiting numbers lean toward Ohio State in a big way, too.
In the last 10 years, Ohio State’s recruits have been ranked in the top five nationally eight times. During that same time span the highest Northwestern was ranked is 47th.
That last number makes you stop and think, though. Northwestern must be doing a great job of coaching and developing players.
With recruiting classes that have ranked No. 47 to No. 58 in the last 10 years, Northwestern has played in the Big Ten football championship game more times than Michigan and Penn State put together.
Wisconsin has been almost everybody’s favorite to win the Big Ten’s West Division every year recently. But Northwestern has represented the West in two of the last three Big Ten championship games.
Ohio State is playing in the Big Ten championship game for the fourth year in a row and the sixth time in the last eight seasons.
OSU’s 45-24 win over Northwestern in the 2018 championship game was the Wildcats’ first appearance in that game.
The 2018 game was a little closer than it looked. For a while, at least. OSU led only 24-21 halfway through the third quarter before Dwayne Haskins threw three touchdown passes in a span of 12 ½ minutes to put the game out of reach.
So, what are the keys to No. 4 Ohio State (5-0) beating No. 14 Northwestern (6-1) and making one final statement for the College Football Playoff selection committee?
Here are five things that Ohio State needs to do:
1. Protect Justin Fields. Starting tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere and starting center Josh Myers stayed home when Ohio State beat Michigan State 52-12 the last time it played, presumably because of COVID-19 issues.
Protecting Fields is always part of the game plan, but it would be emphasized even more if several starting linemen don’t play again today. Northwestern’s back seven is the strength of its defense and could make hurried throws by Fields costly.
2. Run the ball effectively. Ohio State averages 251 yards rushing a game, down only slightly from the 267 yards a game it averaged last season, so it’s not like it has struggled to run the ball. But the running game might become even more important if rumors of a starting receiver missing the game are true.
3. Defend Northwestern on third and fourth downs. Obviously, you want to defend them on first and second down, too. But Northwestern is not a big-play team. The Wildcats have only two offensive plays of 40 yards or more in their seven games.
What they like to do is control the ball with time-consuming drives and part of that is converting on third and fourth down. Only two Big Ten teams have converted more third downs than Northwestern and it has converted 14 of 19 chances on fourth downs.
4. Make Northwestern throw the ball. In the Wildcats’ only loss, 29-20 to Michigan State, they were held to 63 yards rushing. If Wisconsin, which lost 17-7 to Northwestern, hadn’t had five turnovers it could have made the same formula work when it limited the Wildcats to 24 yards rushing.
5. Make a statement about belonging in the College Football Playoff but don’t start pressing if the game is close for a while.
The prediction: Ohio State 35, Northwestern 17.