Ohio State’s season is on the line Saturday night.
That was also the case a week ago when the Buckeyes played host to Michigan, and it worked out well for Urban Meyer’s team.
The Buckeyes thrashed the favored Wolverines 62-39 to win the Big Ten East and earn the sixth-ranked Buckeyes a trip to Indianapolis to face No. 21 Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game.
»RELATED: Ohio State-Northwestern preview
Can the Buckeyes bring similar emotion seven days after unleashing a season’s worth of frustration on their oldest rival?
“(Meyer) talked about us being elite warriors,” defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones said, “and what elite warriors do is celebrate the victory, and then immediately turn around to focus on our next mission.”
That mission is to again play sound on defense to avoid giving up the big plays that had plagued the unit in the first 11 games and to take what a stingy Northwestern defense gives the Buckeyes.
Here are five things to know about the game Saturday night:
1. Northwestern is more than just happy to be there.
But coach Pat Fitzgerald confirmed he is thrilled to check a milestone off the list for a program that had never won a division title or played in a conference championship game before.
“We’re honored to lead the Purple to Indianapolis,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a big deal for us to win the West. This was a step and a hurdle we had to get over.”
Unlike Ohio State, the Wildcats have known they would be in the title game since Nov. 11.
“I think with us clinching the West a couple of weeks ago, that euphoria has kind of come and gone,” Fitzgerald said. “This group has been really focused since then. I was really pleased with the way they’ve focused the last two weeks of preparation. I thought they handled their business the right way.”
2. Seeing Ohio State beat Michigan did not give Fitzgerald a sense of relief.
The coach admitted he watched Michigan film two weeks ago while preparing for Minnesota and Ohio State last week even though Illinois was up next for the Wildcats.
What did he see?
“After I got done watching Michigan, I was like, ‘Man, I hope we don’t play these guys,’” Fitzgerald said with a laugh. “And then after I got done watching Ohio State I was like, ‘Man, I hope we don’t play these guys.’ It was a lose-lose from a schematic standpoint, coaching standpoint and talent standpoint, but it’s gonna be a great challenge. Our guys are going to prepare well and hopefully we’ll go down there and play our cleanest game of the year and go compete.”
3. The Wildcat offense’s statistics are not impressive, but they have had flashes of brilliance both running and throwing.
While Clayton Thorson has two 300-yard passing games this season and another when he went over 400 yards, running back Isaiah Bowser (a freshman from Sidney) averaged 122.3 yards per game in the second half of the regular season.
Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said stopping Thorson will be key.
“I think everything starts and ends with their quarterback,” Schiano said. “That guy’s got 51 straight starts. He’s an NFL quarterback. We need to make sure we understand how that all fits into their entire offense. He’s a very accurate passer. He understands scheme very well. You’re not going to trick him with coverages.”
4. The Northwestern defense looks much better on paper than the offense.
The Wildcats are 29th in the country in scoring defense and present an entirely different challenge than Michigan’s No. 1-ranked defense did a week ago. While the Wolverines pride themselves on winning one-on-one matchups (or losing them in the case of the Ohio State game), the Wildcats will play a lot more zone coverage.
“Every game has its own feel,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Ryan Day said. “When you’re dealing with man coverage, sometimes the percentages of the completions aren’t as high, but the gains are bigger. When sometimes you’re playing against a zone team its more for a rhythm game with maybe more completions but not as many yards. Every game takes on its own personality and this game probably will take on more of that personality.”
5. The Randy Walker connection.
One man who won’t be on the field Saturday still figures to have a presence over the game: Randy Walker.
A legendary player at Troy, he played at Miami University before embarking on a coaching career that eventually led him to Northwestern.
In Evanston, he was one of the pioneers of the spread offense and influenced a young assistant coach at Notre Dame named Urban Meyer, who developed his own version of the attack when he became the head coach at Bowling Green.
“I’ll say this: Randy Walker is one of my favorite guys,” Meyer said. “I love his family, his wife. I’ve been to the golf tournament. And, yeah, he was an inspiration for me.”
Walker’s sudden death from a heart attack in the summer of 2006 thrust Fitzgerald into the job of head coach at the age of 31, and the former Wildcats linebacker has built upon Walker’s early success.
“I’ve seen this thing change from when I was a player here in the early ‘90s when we were everybody’s homecoming date and chalked up as a win to now we get everybody’s best game,” Fitzgerald said, noting he first noticed that during Walker’s tenure. “It’s been really interesting and fun to watch this thing flip.”
Ohio State vs. Northwestern, 8 p.m., FOX, 1410