Sermon carries No. 4 Ohio State past No. 14 Northwestern for another Big Ten title

Bill Rabinowitz
Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch

INDIANAPOLIS – Ohio State's Sermon arrived just when it was needed most.

With its passing game out of sync in the Big Ten championship game against No. 14 Northwestern, running back Trey Sermon came to the rescue to lead the fourth-ranked Buckeyes to a 22-10 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Sermon, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, ran for an Ohio State-record 331 yards in 29 carries to spark Ohio State's offense. He broke Eddie George's record of 314 set in 1995 during his Heisman Trophy-winning season.

The win gives the Buckeyes won an unprecedented fourth straight conference title.

Now the question is whether it will be enough to earn the Buckeyes a spot in the College Football Playoff when that is announced Sunday. 

Ohio State running back Trey Sermon (8) carries the ball against Northwestern during the first half of the 2020 Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Ohio State (6-0) was ranked fourth by the committee last week, but critics have questioned its abbreviated schedule. Style points on Saturday would have cemented the Buckeyes' spot.

Ohio State is likely in, but there could be some tossing and turning in bed depending on the outcome of other conference championship games.

As they were against Michigan State, Ohio State was shorthanded because of COVID-19. The Buckeyes were without wide receiver Chris Olave, linebacker Baron Browning and punter Drue Chrisman, all of whom made the All-Big Ten team. Ohio State was also without injured safeties Marcus Hooker and Ronnie Hickman, who shared time two weeks ago.

 Without Olave, the Buckeyes' normally potent passing game struggled badly. Justin Fields completed only 12 of 27 passes for 114 yards with two interceptions.

Ohio State trailed until a 71-yard touchdown drive late in the third quarter in which Sermon carried for 55 yards, including the final 8, for 13-10 lead.

The defense closed the door from there. It shut out the Wildcats in the second half and got interceptions from linebacker Justin Hilliard and safety Josh Proctor.

Ohio State limited Northwestern to only 133 yards in the Wildcats' final six possessions of the second half.

Sermon clinched the victory with an 8-yard touchdown carry with 4 minutes left. He gained 61 of the Buckeyes' 80 yards on the drive.

Sermon repeatedly ran through gaping holes opened by Ohio State's offensive line. Tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere and center Josh Myers returned from missing the Michigan State game. Sermon also repeatedly cutback for additional yards.

For the second consecutive year, Ohio State was a prohibitive favorite that had to recover from a sluggish first half. Last year, the Buckeyes rallied from a 21-7 halftime deficit to beat Wisconsin.

This year, Ohio State managed only two field goals in the first 30 minutes against a Northwestern defense that had yielded the fewest points per game in the country (14.6). On Ohio State's first possession, Justin Fields ran 7 yards into the end zone, but left guard Harry Miller was called for holding. The Buckeyes then settled for a 41-yard field goal by Blake Haubeil.

Haubeil added a 46-yarder late in the half, but that was all the Buckeyes could produce. They ran the ball effectively, but the passing game was out of sync without Olave. Fields completed only 9 of 20 passes in the first half. His last throw was the most costly.

Ohio State had a chance to take the lead when it drove to the Northwestern 9 in the final minute. Fields threw a fade pass to Garrett Wilson in the end zone, but Northwestern's Brandon Joseph made a one-handed interception, his nation-leading sixth.

Northwestern's offense kept Ohio State off balance for most of the first half. Peyton Ramsey completed 12 of 14 passes and the Wildcats moved the ball surprisingly effectively on the ground against what has been a stout Ohio State run defense.

Northwestern went 75 yards for a touchdown on its second possession and then added a career-long 47-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander to extend its lead to 10-3 midway through the second quarter.

The teams' offenses spent of the third quarter matching each other's failures.

Northwestern had two long third-down conversions to get to the Ohio State 11 on its first possession. On third-and-11, Hilliard intercepted Peyton Ramsey's pass in the end zone.

But Ohio State couldn't capitalize. Fields had an apparent miscommunication with Jameson Williams, who turned upfield as Fields threw to the sideline and Cameron Mitchell intercepted the pass.

After the Buckeyes forced a three-and-out, Trey Sermon ran for 65 yards on the next play. But again the drive stalled, and Blake Haubeil missed a 42-yard field goal to keep it 10-6.

Aided by two Ohio State personal-foul penalties, Northwestern got to the Buckeyes' 25 before missing a 46-yard field goal.

Then came Ohio State's touchdown drives powered by Sermon. The Buckeyes' defense did the rest.