Before each week's Ohio State game, Eleven Warriors catches up with a media member who covers the opposing team to get his or her perspective on the Buckeyes' upcoming opponent.
Ahead of this weekend's Big Ten Championship Game, we're joined by Davis Rich, the co-editor-in-chief of Inside NU, to get his insights on Northwestern before the Wildcats battle Ohio State for a conference title on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Northwestern enters this week's conference championship game with a 8-4 record, having won seven of its last eight regular-season games to win the Big Ten West title and earns its first-ever berth in the Big Ten Championship Game, which was first played in 2011.
How did the Wildcats turn around their season after a slow start, what does this game means to the Northwestern football program, what are the Wildcats' strengths and weaknesses and do they believe they can upset the Buckeyes?
Rich answers those questions and more in our Big Ten Championship Game edition of Across The Field.
Q: Northwestern started the season just 1-3, but finished the season 7-1 to win the Big Ten West and make the Big Ten Championship Game. What do you think were the keys to the Wildcats' turnaround?
Rich: The main theme has been defense. Northwestern has had a couple blips against Nebraska and Notre Dame, but since starting 1-3, those are the only two games it allowed more than 19 points. The Wildcat defense has kept the team in games, and the NU offense has made the big plays at the right times to pull out several close victories. Northwestern re-established its running game with the emergence of Isaiah Bowser, who has piled up over 700 yards on the ground since he became NU’s No. 1 back in mid-October.
Q: This is Northwestern's first Big Ten Championship Game appearance. What do you think that means to the Northwestern football program and to the Northwestern community as a whole?
Rich: Since its conception, the Big Ten Championship Game has been Pat Fitzgerald’s goal. So it means a lot that the Wildcats finally got there after falling short several times. Northwestern just invested a lot of money in its football program with the new indoor field house as a part of a $270 million lakeside athletic facility, and I’m sure donors and members of the athletic department are happy to see NU making national waves right away.
As for the fans, people are pretty psyched. A lot of people, including most of us at InsideNU, wrote this team off after a 1-3 start, but it’s a testament to Fitz and the culture he’s built that the team was able to rebound. He earned a well-deserved Coach of the Year award.
Q: There aren't a lot of nationally renowned names on Northwestern's roster. Who are the players that Ohio State and its fans need to know entering this game?
Rich: We’ll start with quarterback Clayton Thorson, a four-year starter. He’s not a world-beater like Dwayne Haskins, but Thorson is very accurate in the short-to-intermediate game, makes good decisions, and is a credible run threat, too. NU will rely heavily on Bowser, the running back, too. He’s a big, physical, downhill running back who doesn’t go down easily and has shown some shiftiness in the past few weeks.
On the other side of the ball, Northwestern’s best pass rusher is Joe Gaziano, who has tallied 11 TFLs and six sacks this year. The strength of the team is at linebacker, where Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, and Nate Hall all earned some type of All-Big Ten honors. And cornerback Montre Hartage is coming off an injury, but he’s NU’s best defensive back, and arguably one of the top cover corners in the Big Ten.
Q: What would you consider to be Northwestern's strengths and weaknesses?
Rich: The strength of this team is its front seven. Joe Gaziano, Paddy Fisher, and defensive tackle Jordan Thompson are three of the best players on the team, and Hall and Gallagher aren’t far behind. Northwestern doesn’t rack up a ton of pressure, but the run game is stout, and the defense has a knack for tightening up inside their own territory.
The offensive line has struggled at times, giving up six sacks to Michigan and being completely lost in terms of run blocking for several weeks in October. With that said, the men up front have improved of late, although Ohio State will definitely have an advantage in the trenches.
Q: Northwestern is a 14-point underdog for this game, and even Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged there weren't be many people picking his team to win. What do you think the Wildcats' level of confidence is that they can win this game?
Rich: I think this team prides itself on being the underdogs. A couple weeks ago, NU went up to Minneapolis as underdogs after winning the Big Ten title, which Fitz said really pissed the team off. Northwestern knows that Ohio State has better talent, but the Wildcat strengths (bend-don’t-break defense, controlling time of possession, timely offensive execution) mean that NU can keep the game close regardless of talent. After all, NU only lost to Michigan and Notre Dame by a combined score of 13 points. If Northwestern can get this game to the second half within a possession, they know it’ll be there for the taking.
Q: How do you see the game playing out?
Rich: Northwestern is going to have to neutralize Dwayne Haskins, and I don’t think they can do that for 60 minutes. Ohio State is going to score some points, but this is not going to be a 2014 Big Ten Championship Game repeat. The Wildcats keep it close for a while, before OSU pulls away. Buckeyes 31, Wildcats 17