That didn’t go as planned. At least, not for Ohio State.
A multi-touchdown favorite even with Chris Olave among the 14 unavailable scholarship players unavailable on Saturday, the Buckeyes trailed Northwestern as they entered the locker room for halftime and didn’t pull ahead until late in the third quarter. Eventually coming out victorious, 22-10, they captured the Big Ten championship to improve to 6-0 on the season.
“I mean, every ounce of my energy has been focused on this game,” head coach Ryan Day said. “It was a really hard week for a lot of reasons. Losing Chris Olave and Baron Browning and Drue Chrisman and some major contributors in all three phases, it was tough. Then we lose Jaxon. It was stress. We knew this was not going to be easy. This is not a team that gives you anything. So all of our energy has been focused toward that.”
For a team that has typically struggled late in games after running opponents nearly off of the field early on, this was the first second-half deficit faced by Ohio State all season.
“Offense, of course, we were down a lot of guys on the offense, defense and even special teams,” Fields said. “But I think, more than anything, our team showed fight, and that's been our motto the whole year. No matter how we played in the first half, I think we came back and fought our butts off in the second half. We just did whatever we could to win the game. I think everybody kind of knew going into the locker room after the first half that we were going to win this game. I'm just proud of our brotherhood and the way all the guys came out there and fought in the second half.”
“I've got to tell you what: This is one of my favorite teams I've ever been around,” Day said. “And maybe not because of what's gone on all the time on the field, but more importantly that just this team is so tough. They've been through so much and they just don't flinch. I cannot give this team enough credit.”
Justin Hilliard, the team’s leading tackler with nine stops, had a career day as the starting strongside linebacker. He picked off a pass in the end zone and recovered a fumble as well.
Afterward, he opened with a wisecrack after previously having the unfortunate luck of speaking to the media on the day the Ohio State-Michigan game was called off.
“First of all, it's much nicer talking to you guys today,” Hilliard said. “Last time I talked to the media, it was finding out the Team Up North game was canceled.”
Trey Sermon had a similar glow about him afterward.
The senior tailback racked up a program record of 331 rushing yards on 29 carries. He scored both of Ohio State’s touchdowns and, to be frank, saved his team’s butt after it struggled to get anything going through the air and had to ride him for the second half.
“I was able to just really get in a groove and just keep it rolling,” Sermon said. “My teammates were there to support me, so it just kind of made it easy for me.”
“I think when you have a player that's in a rhythm like that, you just have to keep feeding him the ball, and that's what we did,” Fields said.
Amazingly, he nearly equalled his combined rushing yardage throughout the first five games of his Ohio State career (344 yards) in a single game. Afterward, Day admitted the coaches weren’t totally sure whether Sermon would be up for the challenge after a few games this fall.
Yet they told him they still believed in him, and he paid them back in spades.
“Really, they were just telling me to keep fighting,” Sermon said. “They brought me here for a reason. They know that I’m a great player, and I can make an impact, and I just had to really just believe that in myself, as well. Just trust my coaching, and just trust my teammates around me.”
Without his ascent, there perhaps could’ve been a different result on Saturday.
Fields, for all his greatness, played maybe his worst game as a Buckeye on Saturday. He went 12-for-27 for 114 yards and two interceptions with 12 rushes for 35 yards. Notably, he was without Olave, the team's leader in receptions.
“When you don't have one of your top receivers on the team, of course it's going to make my job harder,” Fields said. “I just think Northwestern did a great job on defense. They're a sound defense. They did a great job doing their jobs. It's really on me, to be honest with you. I wish I could say that they just had it locked down, but again, I just have to be flat-out better and that's that. I'm not trying to make any excuses. I just have to be better.”
His struggles were evident early on, but they were exacerbated by a second-half thumb injury.
“I think it was a third down in the red zone when I hit that dude and I tried to put my hand down to brace myself for the ground but I kind of landed on straight-up my thumb and it kind of went backward,” Fields said. “After that, I told coach that I really couldn't throw the ball. It was getting stiffer by the second. I think the last ball I completed was that out route to Garrett, and then after that it was killing me. Hopefully we have a good amount of time so I can get it recovered and healed up.”
“In the first half, it wasn't even the thumb,” Fields said. “I think it was just overall execution, you know? And again, that falls on me. I'm not blaming it on my thumb because I don't want people to look at my thumb as an excuse. It's just flat-out me. That's it. Me.”
Regardless of Fields’ issues, the Buckeyes took care of business and came out of the weekend as the Big Ten champions.
“We have a saying around here – Get to Indy – because we know if we get to Indy and win and dominate that game, then we have a great chance to get into the playoff,” Hilliard said. “That's been the whole focus right now. It's been the whole focus this whole season was just to get to Indy. Now we did that. We won this game. We're looking forward to the next mission. We'll wait tomorrow to find out what that is.”
With the conference title taken care of, Day took a minute or two to reflect on the past few months.
Yes, his response was long. But here it is in full anyway.
“What this team has been through, every conference is different because of the way things have gone this year, Day said. “Everyone's experienced different things. What this team has gone through, I say it over and over but I don't know if anybody really, truly listens. They started off and had two spring practices and then they go in quarantine and they go away for a long time. They come into preseason camp and then they find out that the season's been pushed back, and a few days later they find out the season's been canceled. Then for a month, they don't have a target. They have nothing to work for for a month, up until September 19. And they decided, no, we want to play, we want to play safely, and they fought. They went public. They spoke up. Then on October 23rd, we played in our first game. The virus, everyone in the north goes inside and the virus spiked.
“Because of that, we had to deal with being out of games, we had to deal with cancelations of games, we had a hard time getting into a rhythm in all three phases. And then we get into this game here and things maybe aren't clicking as good as they usually do and we find a way to fight back in the second half. In a world where it's all about wins and losses, this team has learned so much this season, which is like the reason why we even started playing college football in the first place. It's the reason why we play and we started coaching was to see the growth of young men like this.
“And all I'm going to say is this. People can say whatever they want. They have their opinions. I'm not going to talk about other teams because I think we have enough to talk about positively about our program, but I'll say this. If we have an opportunity to play anybody in the country in one game, I'm going to take the Ohio State Buckeyes. I feel strongly about this team. We're made of unbelievable character, and they've been through so much. I think there's a lot of people in the country that would agree with me.”